Renters and crime: Is it worth the move?

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Crime victims can face numerous mental health obstacles that are exacerbated when the victims are also renters, according to numerous experts interviewed by WREG.

Britteny Spencer knew this firsthand. She remembered coming home one day to find her porch door wide open. It clued her in to what she was about to discover.

"It was devastating," she said.

The single mom found her two-bedroom apartment ransacked. Cash, TVs, and even her son’s new baseball bat were all gone.

She thought the crooks got in through a broken window, which she had asked her apartment management to fix.

“I reported it several times,” she said.

Spencer works two jobs to provide for her son, 9. She said the incident left them both traumatized.

“I’ll catch myself saying I’m scared and he’ll say, ‘Mom me too.’ He was as scared as I was but then I’m like, ‘Son it’s going to be okay,'" she said.

“When you feel powerless, it’s very hard to cope," said Eraina Shauss, an assistant professor in mental health counseling at the University of Memphis.

She talks about what such incidents can do to parents and their kids.

“They’re constantly flooded with a lot of stress. Their bodies are basically in survival mode," Schauss said.

That’s part of what happened to Spencer and her son.

“I still had to have someone for a whole month come in the house for me because I was still traumatized about what happened," she said.

She’s not alone.

According to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation’s most recent data, the vast majority of burglaries in Memphis happen at people’s homes.

WREG also analyzed data for victims of violent crimes in Memphis, including murders, sex crimes and aggravated assault. The math revealed a startling and concerning statistic: about one-fourth of Memphis's violent crime victims are under 18.

We met an affected family at a Parkway Village apartment complex where a shooting rampage was captured on video.

“My little son be scared when he hear gunshots," said Dwayne Sampson of his 6-year-old son.

Sampson moved his family to Memphis to be closer to his son's doctors at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. But the constant violence has created a new health risk.

“He shouldn’t have to be afraid to go to bed and hear gunshots and then jump out of his sleep crying ‘Mama what’s going on?’ or ‘Dad what’s going on?’" the boy's mother said.

“We moving out. We gonna move soon. We moving," Sampson said.

It’s no surprise families like the Sampsons and Spencer want to move. But legal experts say that can be tricky.

“It really is case-dependent," said Fadi Assaf, a legal fellow and attorney with the Healthy Homes Partnership.

All tenant rules are guided by the Tennessee Uniform Residential Landlord and Tenant Act, also known as “URALTA.”

“A tenant may have a better case for breaking a lease depending on the circumstances they find themselves in," Assaf said.

For example, consider the broken window Spencer mentioned, which she believed the burglars used to forced their way in to her unit. Experts said that could make the landlord liable for being negligent.

“The landlord’s duty under URALTA is to keep house in habitable condition, which includes secure condition," Assaf said.

“I should have a chance to leave because it took so long to fix the problem. It was something I had already been on," Spencer said.

Keep in mind, if you do want to leave, your landlord could make you pay for all your remaining time, Assaf said.

But here’s something else you should know as a renter: landlords have to try to fill your spot.

Even so, according to Schauss, moving may not provide any cure.

“Some people are going to be more resilient but some people even if they are resilient will have a lot of exposure to adversity and may not bounce back as others may," Schauss said.

That's worth the risk for Spencer.

“I’m ready to go. Ready to get out. If I could find something today I would move today," she said.

Since we met with Spencer, she said she talked with her property management and they agreed to allow her to move into a different unit at no extra cost.

It's a good compromise for this single mom, but still means the long-term impact on her son is unclear.

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