In Massachusetts, we urgently need an effective system of oversight that will protect the rights of tenants, including accommodations to enable disabled tenants to have safe and peaceful enjoyment of their homes.
An effective solution will assure the rights of all tenants, protect them from bullying, mobbing, and discrimination, and provide sufficient housing to meet demand.
We propose that the Commonwealth shall create an independent Office of Tenants’ Rights to hold landlords accountable and assure the rights of tenants including:
an ombuds office or section to receive and evaluate complaints from individuals and tenants’ groups and try to resolve each situation;
an office of enforcement that can apply administrative regulations;
an office with the authority, resources, and obligation to pursue civil remedies.
“Peaceful Enjoyment” —every tenant has the right to enjoy the use of their home and common spaces without interference. The landlord (housing authority) is legally responsible for assuring the peaceful enjoyment of all tenants.
“Bullying”—Bullying uses any mode of communication to hurt and demean the target or victim. It is aggression and an effort to control that is used to make the target do, or not do, the bidding of the perpetrator. Bullying harms and controls the victim and takes away their rights—dignity—their self-respect—their health—and their well-being. Bullying takes away the right to peaceful enjoyment.
“Mobbing”—consists of a group or community harassing and bullying a victim, in order to get rid of them. In housing, mobbing consists of the landlord and their agents who initiate, condone, or support bullying. The concept of "mobbing" developed in the study of birds and other animals, and describes cooperative and aggressive behavior against a real or perceived threat. Thus, a flock of crows will attack and harass a hawk, forcing it away.
“Hostile environment harassment”—is unwelcome conduct creating a situation that makes it difficult or impossible for victims to have the peaceful enjoyment of their residency.
“Commission on Bullying”—The Commission to Study Ways to Prevent Bullying of Tenants in Public and Subsidized Multi-Family Housing; Chapter 2 of the Resolves of 2016
“Multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS)”— is a multisystem, recurrent, environmental disorder that flares in response to different exposures (i.e., pesticides, solvents, toxic metals, and molds) under the threshold limit value (TLV) calculated for age and gender in the general population. MCS is a syndrome characterized by cutaneous, allergic, gastrointestinal, rheumatological, endocrinological, cardiological, and neurological signs and symptoms.—Damiani, Giovanni et al., Italian Expert Consensus on Clinical and Therapeutic Management of Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS),
The challenge: tenants’ rights are denied
Our present housing system is required by law to provide housing that includes the abled and disabled and does not segregate or relegate disabled people to institutions. But it fails to protect the rights of all, including targets of bullying, mobbing, and hostile environment harassment
Bullying, mobbing, and hostile environment harassment are acutely harmful in the case of people with disabilities including multiple chemical sensitivity/chemical intolerance, the immunocompromised, and people who need assistance and/or accommodations to enjoy peaceful enjoyment of their homes.
The problem of bullying and mobbing in housing has been studied and documented by the Commission on Bullying and two complementary solutions were identified. One approach would provide guidance, support, and resources to enable landlords to improve social aspects of life in housing and minimize bullying among tenants. The other approach recognizes that some landlords engage in mobbing by the use, encouragement, and enabling of bullying. Research indicates that about 30% of 1,400 subsidized and public developments are infected by mobbing. Absent oversight, some landlords are unlikely to reform their management methods.
Among the tenants who are likely to be targeted, harassed, bullied, and made homeless are those with certain disabling conditions These may include allergies, chemical sensitivity, or who are immunocompromised and are impacted by their environment are often unable to receive effective accommodations in public and subsidized housing. Among these are the elderly and other persons whose age and/or health makes them highly vulnerable to severe outcomes and death from COVID.
Disabled tenants are targeted by other tenants for their “special treatment” which is their rightful reasonable accommodation. They can become the targets of bullying and mobbing. The mobbing can spread to local officials, who are influenced by allegations that the tenant is a problem, or mentally unstable, and seeking unfair advantage. The target is sometimes evicted or forced to leave their home and they become homeless.
For people whose income qualifies them for public or subsidized housing, there do not exist safe and affordable alternatives.
To become eligible for emergency housing relief, such as a voucher, the homeless victim has to live in a shelter. Shelters have waiting lists. Of course, in that type of setting, there is no protection from exposure to severe harm. Even with a voucher, it is challenging to rent an apartment.
Enough is Enough
Until we can achieve a new system that treats housing as a basic right, and we provide decent, affordable housing for everyone in a context that respects the rights of all tenants, we must continue to patch the existing system.
At present, landlords remain the primary enforcer of the rules of the community in their buildings.
There is significant variation in the ways that tenants, managers, and landlords interact. Some landlords do a good job, others, not so much.
Even in mixed income housing, where apartment owners market rate renters and those with lower incomes live, some people in affordable-rate homes feel they are not treated with respect.
Forty percent of people have experienced bias from living in inclusionary housing – the few affordable-rate homes scattered among market-rate homes in a building or complex – that they feel has to do with their income, race or gender, or having kids, according to a survey presented Tuesday to Cambridge officials.—Marc Levy, Cambridge Day
Based on the survey done by the Commission on Bullying, bullying and mobbing affect ~30% of the 1,400 elderly/disabled housing developments in the Commonwealth. There, the landlord fails to assure the safety of all tenants, and targets of bullying have no recourse from an untenable situation.
Essential legal and administrative remedies are needed to assure accountability and protection of tenants’ rights.
Only if the landlord makes a determined effort on the part of every level of their organization, can outside interventions change the culture of the organization. We need to provide both support for positive change such as S900 from the last legislative session and a comprehensive system of oversight with administrative and civil penalties for those landlords who resist change.
Time for Action
For a person faced with an untenable housing situation, immediate remedies are needed but are not available.
We need legislation and funding for a new Office of Tenants’ Rights and/or the attorney general to assure oversight and accountability over landlords.
The Attorney General asserts that Massachusetts law protects the rights of all persons, including tenants. In addition, state and federal laws prohibit discrimination in housing.
“State law further prohibits any person from using threats, intimidation, or coercion to interfere with the secured rights of any other person. See M.G.L. c. 12, §§ 11H-J (Massachusetts Civil Rights Act). Secured rights include the right to quiet enjoyment of housing and the right to legal process. In addition, it is unlawful for landlords or other housing providers to allow harassment or intimidation by one tenant against another tenant...A failure by housing providers—including property owners [and] managers—to comply with these laws may result in significant legal liability.”---Office of the Attorney General Advisory: All Tenants Have a Right to Be Free from Harassment and Intimidation, April 11, 2018.
Under existing law (M.G.L. c. 12, §§ 11H-J), such legal liability depends on a civil suit brought by the aggrieved party or by the attorney general. Tenants in public or subsidized housing cannot afford such legal costs and are thus without remedy.
Lynn United For Change
Local advocacy groups are sometimes the only help available. In Lynn, a working-class community of minorities and undocumented immigrants (Latino, Hispanic, Cambodian, Black) housing is scarce and tenants are often insecure in their homes. Lynn United For Change is an advocacy group providing support and resources to tenants. In a recent zoom session attended by 50 people including many Spanish speakers, each person was able to report their crisis. Most were landlord-tenant disputes with looming evictions, some of them likely unlawful, or illegal charges for utilities. Their stories echoed the book, Evicted, by Matthew Desmond. Lynn United informs tenants of their rights, helps them find financial help, and advises how they can represent themselves in court.
“Courts shouldn't be debt collectors for slumlords or eviction assembly lines!”
“We strive to address the root causes of housing insecurity and injustice through community organizing, protest, advocacy, movement building, and civic engagement.”
“We also make change person by person and building by building through leadership development-oriented casework. We provide free resources and support for Lynn residents facing eviction or housing instability, and we proactively reach out to vulnerable community members who may not know how to access assistance programs, request repairs, protect their legal rights, or navigate the court process. The connection between this small-scale assistance and our work for systemic change is one of the things that defines Lynn United for Change.”
Northeast Legal Aid assists Lynn United. An umbrella organization, Homes for All Massachusetts, supports Lynn United for Change and is a statewide formation of grassroots housing justice groups working to halt displacement, increase community control of land, and win housing justice.
We lack any way to hold a landlord to account. The Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD) is short of staff and incapable of rapid response. The Attorney General is unwilling to even consider getting involved until MCAD finds cause. The existing remedy to protect a person’s rights is a civil action, which no tenant can afford.
- Would any attorney be willing and able to afford to go to Federal or state court to assert the rights of one or more tenants against a landlord? Would a victory provide sufficient income to compensate the attorney?
- The report, A RIGHT TO RENTAL ASSISTANCE IN MASSACHUSETTS: How Policy Change Can Advance Equitable Housing estimates that making the Massachusetts Rental Voucher Program (MRVP) available to all eligible households would cost $3.2 billion annually.
- Can we build and manage a network of subsidized or public housing for people with a variety of immune disabilities, so that everyone can be free from exposure to harmful chemicals and enjoy their right to peaceful enjoyment of their home?
- Can we at long last fix the current system?
- Can we house the homeless? Can we provide sufficient truly safe housing for all?
- Can we create several tenant cooperatives, where tenants carry out management functions under oversight? There are good models of such programs.
- Would it be possible to establish state-sponsored housing that is managed by a tenant cooperative and that is dedicated to providing a safe haven for persons with environmental sensitivity and intolerance to chemicals?
What would it cost to create a non-profit organization with the ability to intervene on behalf of tenants?
[Northeast Legal Aid] (NLA) offers free civil legal services to low-income and elderly individuals and families in northeast Massachusetts. NLA has full-service offices in Lynn, Lowell and Lawrence, Massachusetts. NLA has an outreach office in Haverhill, Massachusetts with limited hours. NLA's legal services include everything from community legal education and counsel and advice to full representation in complex litigation.
Northeast Legal Aid has a $10 million budget and its major focus is on housing. They served 3,462 cases and helped 8,273 people, according to their 2021 Annual Report covering the work of Northeast Legal Aid and their affiliate, Northeast Justice Center. Additional funds could enable them to expand, and similar organizations across the Commonwealth should also be supported.
The attorney general can act on behalf of a tenant, but rarely if ever does so. We should reach out to AG-elect Andrea Campbell to explore options.
We need legislation and funding to enable the attorney general to create and fund an agency that has the resources and mission to rapidly investigate claims and to have the power and resources to use the courts to assure the rights of tenants— elderly, disabled, immunocompromised, or with chemical intolerance.
We, therefore, propose the creation of an
Office of Tenants’ Rights
an ombuds office or section to receive and evaluate complaints from individuals and tenants’ groups and seek to resolve each situation;
an enforcement section that can apply administrative regulations;
an office with the authority, resources, and obligation to pursue civil remedies.
Center for Policy Analysis, A RIGHT TO RENTAL ASSISTANCE IN MASSACHUSETTS: How Policy Change Can Advance Equitable Housing ~ From a Coalition of housing advocacy organizations: The Boston Foundation, MetroHousing|Boston, Citizens’ Housing and Planning Association (CHAPA), Regional Housing Network of Massachusetts (RHN), and the Massachusetts Chapter of the National Association of Housing & Redevelopment Officials (MassNAHRO), with technical support from The Center for State Policy Analysis at Tufts University.
Commission on Bullying, Report of the Commission to Study Ways to Prevent Bullying of Tenants in Public and Subsidized Multi-Family Housing; Chapter 2 of the Resolves of 2016
Desmond, Matthew, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, Crown: New York, 2016
FR–5248–F–02 Quid Pro Quo and Hostile Environment Harassment and Liability for Discriminatory Housing Practices Under the Fair Housing Act, Final Rule published in the Federal Register on September 14, 2016, CFR Citation: 24 CFR 100 [The effective date for this rule is October 14, 2016.]
Halberstadt, Jerry, Assure Tenant Rights, March 20, 2022
Halberstadt, Jerry, Community Norms, Social Distancing & Bullying
Halberstadt, Jerry, To Stop Bullying: Legislative Remedies to Protect Elderly and Persons With Disabilities in Subsidized and Public Housing. A Report of the Stop Bullying Coalition, (Peabody: Togethering Press, 2018, forthcoming). Based on the minority report of the Commission on Bullying.
Harper, Janice, Bullying and Mobbing in Group Settings
King, Shelby R, What if Vouchers Aren't the Answer? Shelterforce, February 18, 2022
Levy, Marc, Asked what it was like in inclusionary homes, 40% told of bias from neighbors or managers, Cambridge Day, December 17, 2022
Mass Legal Help, Legal Tactics: Tenants' Rights in Massachusetts Eighth Edition, May 2017; Chapter 7, Discrimination
Rockett, Molly, Private Property Managers, Unchecked: The Failures of Federal Compliance Oversight in Project-Based Section 8 Housing, 134 Harv. L. Rev. F. 286, Mar 20, 2021
Housing solutions for chemically sensitive
Damiani, Giovanni et al., Italian Expert Consensus on Clinical and Therapeutic Management of Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS), Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 2021, 18(21), 11294;
McCormick, Gail, Living With Multiple Chemical Sensitivity: Narratives of Coping, McFarland, 2009
Perales RB, Palmer RF, Rincon R, Viramontes JN, Walker T, Jaén CR, Miller CS. (2022) Does improving indoor air quality lessen symptoms associated with chemical intolerance? Primary Health Care Research & Development 23(e3): 1–1
Senate Subcommittee on the Rights of the Disabled, "Interim Hearing on Multiple Chemical Sensitivity and Environmental Illness" (1992). California Senate. Paper 74.
Seriously "Sensitive" to Pollution: Environmental Health: Living in a Polluted World
Steinemann, A. C. Fragranced consumer products, and undisclosed ingredients. Environmental Impact Assessment Review, 29(1), 32-3
Steinemann, A. C., Expert on Chemicals in Fragrances
Zucco, G.M.; Doty, R.L. Multiple Chemical Sensitivity. Brain Sci. 2022, 12, 46.
Pseudonyms are used and are identified by quotation marks at first use.
Subsidized housing: Charitable Landlords
“Charitable Landlords” (CL) has failed to maintain respectful relations with tenants. “Bleak House” Apartments, a Charitable Landlords property, consists of about 350 units in 4 apartment buildings located in Beverly, Salem, Peabody, and Danvers. Over 2-3 months, Bleak House management has taken a series of steps against individual tenants. These actions may consist of “Hostile Environment Harassment” under the Fair Housing Act.
“Hostile environment harassment. Hostile environment harassment refers to unwelcome conduct that is sufficiently severe or pervasive as to interfere with: The availability, sale, rental, or use or enjoyment of a dwelling; the terms, conditions, or privileges of the sale or rental, or the provision or enjoyment of services or facilities in connection therewith; or the availability, terms, or conditions of a residential real estate-related transaction.”—§100.600 Quid pro quo and hostile environment harassment.
So many tenants complained to their state senator and representatives about the abuse at Bleak House Apartments that Senator Lovely and Representatives Parisella, Tucker, Walsh, and Kerans engaged with Charitable Landlord's leadership and attended meetings of managers and tenants. While tenants are grateful for the concern and support of their elected representatives, we have a sense of deja vu all over again. In 2010, in one of the periodic waves of bullying and mobbing in Bleak House, Representative Joyce Spiliotis chastised Charitable Landlords and spoke to managers and tenants at Bleak House about their rights to be free of bullying. Alas, the impact was brief.
At one of the recent meetings in a Bleak House building attended by legislators, managers, and tenants, management lectured tenants about the rules against bullying. One of the tenants stood up and shouted,
“You, the managers, you are the worst bullies.”
Charitable Landlords used constables to serve a notice to quit (the first step in eviction) to several people because of alleged nonpayment of rent, claiming hundreds or thousands of dollars in unpaid rent. Even when it became clear that these notices were erroneous, management continued to harass additional tenants.
Charitable Landlords demanded that some 20-30 tenants move for six weeks so Charitable Landlords could adapt their apartments to meet ADA disability requirements. This upgrade of the apartments was a condition related to a loan from HUD to Charitable Landlords. Tenants were threatened with eviction, despite the existence of identical empty apartments that could have been renovated without imposing on elderly tenants. Tenants were unable to get any confirmation of where they would live after the renovations. The threats of eviction may have been unlawful.
Although Bleak House has two “Community Impact Coordinators” whose role includes assessing the needs of tenants and helping to solve those needs, tenants who were unable to properly prepare their apartments for inspection or bedbug treatment were harassed instead of being helped.
When management wants something, they bully and threaten tenants. When tenants need consideration, they don’t receive it. Management seems incapable or unwilling to relate concerning tenants. Their behavior is in stark contrast to the methods of managers who communicate effectively with tenants. Bad landlords focus on their bottom line and the physical plant, and have no interest or competence in consumer relations or meeting the needs of the tenants including protection from bullying. This seems to be the approach of Charitable Landlords and their managers.
Elderly and disabled people live in fear and terror, afraid to seek their rights.
Tenants hope that the current intervention by our legislators will succeed, others are skeptical. There are many similar situations, too many for our already-burdened legislators to resolve. The North Shore legislative contingent is known to be exceptionally engaged and supportive.
“Tiny” is an energetic and creative woman living with several disabling conditions. She is vulnerable to heat and mold, for example. The Charitable Landlords' apartment where she lives has a central ventilation system that is dirty and exceeds not only her personal limits but the legal requirements. Management not only is unresponsive, but they are also hostile.
Poor management has been reported in other Charitable Landlord's buildings, but tenants are afraid to pursue remedies.
“Hieronymus Bosch” This case is redacted.
“Amy Black” is highly sensitive to cigarette smoke and a variety of fragrances and chemicals. Charitable Landlords management failed to deal with the smokers, and Black was forced to leave her Bleak House apartment and go to live in a market-rate apartment. She found that even managers who try to evict tenants who break the rules on smoking don’t win when courts are unwilling to make an elderly person homeless. Her doctors advise that she must be able to control her environment as part of maintaining her health, and this is difficult or impossible in public/subsidized housing. The doctor who finally was able to diagnose and treat Amy, wrote a letter to support her need for a reasonable accommodation,
“Please understand her medical condition and help her by any means possible.”
“Those of us with chemical sensitivities have been written off anyway because these buildings, unless new, are fraught with crippling health effects,” Amy wrote.
Amy can no longer afford the cost of her apartment. She has been searching for housing with no success. She has made over 2,000 calls to every entity out there that even barely relates to housing and is reaching the end of her funds and being told there is nothing that will be available for 5 years. With no one leaving unless, through death, the wait time is rapidly increasing.
“Priscilla” lived in a small public housing development. Neighbors smoked cigarettes, used marijuana, and may have manufactured meth. Exposure to smoke, meth, and chemicals caused severe reactions. She was forced to abandon her contaminated possessions. Housing management refused to protect her by enforcing their rules or to mitigate her exposure, and she had to move out to save herself.
Pamela lived in a small housing development in a small town. She advocated for the safety and disability rights of tenants, sought election to the office of housing commissioner, and called out the egregious failings of management. She was bullied and mobbed to the point where she had to abandon her home to save herself. She lived in her car for months but her former manager campaigned to keep her out of housing, writing nasty and false allegations when Pamela applied for new housing. Pamela has pursued an essential structural change, to install a ramp, to accommodate frail and disabled elders at her former home through a complaint to the architectural access board (AAB), but the housing authority continues to defy the AAB orders. Reports about Pamela