Preventing Harassment & Bullying is a Leadership Challenge
Preventing and remedying harassment, a form of bullying, may not seem like the legal responsibility of the housing provider—but it is, according to state and federal authorities. On October 21, 2015, HUD proposed a rule that would formalise and define harassment under the Fair Housing Act. This rule would recognize and protect important rights of persons covered by the Fair Housing Act in their home. And the rule would impose clear responsibility on the housing provider for any acts of harassment. In reaction to the proposed rule, many providers of housing—public, private, subsidized, affordable, or market rate—rushed to decry government intervention, reject any responsibility for tenant relations, and set their legal teams to work. (1) But while there may be risk of legal exposure sufficient to motivate action by landlords, there are other excellent business reasons to prevent bullying and harassment.
It is good business practice to stop harassment & bullying. A residential complex that is in turmoil due to harassment and bullying will soon gain a bad reputation that reflects on the management company and landlord. By acting to prevent harassment, wise landlords can enhance their reputations. Creating a healthy, inviting environment that is bully-free will help to attract and retain tenants and staff—and also minimize exposure to legal liability. An enhanced reputation from a bully-free facility can open the door to new business opportunities, especially when government support and oversight is a factor.
Managing a business requires maintaining good, trusting relationships with many stakeholders: customers, employees, investors, and government. Landlords must also consider their reputations in the community. Since many landlords benefit from various forms of assistance from government—loans, tax considerations, subsidies, zoning variances—reputation is an important factor.
Bullying in multifamily housing creates a toxic environment for staff as well as residents. Apartment complexes with a bullying problem are notorious in their communities and are not seen as attractive workplaces. The result can be increased difficulty in recruiting and retaining staff, and a tendency for the complex to become the residence of last resort.
Harassment creates risks, increases exposure, and potential legal costs for the housing provider and their agents.
Legal liabilities pose a significant hazard of civil suits by aggrieved individuals or by state or federal agencies. The office of Gustavo Velasquez, HUD Assistant Secretary, Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity, presumes that the housing provider is liable for harassment, either harassment by their agents or that takes place among tenants.
Tenants, manager act to get rid of disabled persons
In a Wisconsin case brought by HUD, the victims were two persons living with disability. They were targeted—characterised by other residents as not suitable for independent living in the facility, and they were bullied and harassed. The government alleges that neighbors of the victims said, “You don’t belong here...You belong in an institution.” This was bullying. The manager stated that his policy is not to get involved with neighbor disputes. Thus the manager pretends to have no obligation or responsibility to intervene. But it got worse, as neighbors continually harassed the victims and as the manager joined the chorus of those seeking to get rid of the victims. The manager decided that the victims were not capable of independent living, refused to act against the ongoing bullying and harassment, and finally refused to renew the lease of the victims. The complainant and other victims were awarded damages and the manager had to pay civil penalties. (2)
The Fair Housing Act makes it unlawful for a housing manager or owner to fail to fulfill a duty to correct and end the harassment of one tenant by another, when that harassment is based on race, color, religion, sex, familial status, national origin or, as was the case here, disability. The Fair Housing Act also makes it unlawful to interfere with a person’s right to enjoy their home.
“A person’s home should be where they feel the greatest level of comfort—not anguish and fear because of being subjected to humiliating and degrading comments,” said Gustavo Velasquez, HUD Assistant Secretary for Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity. “Harassing a person because of their disability is not only disturbing, it is illegal.” (3)
Andrea Kramer, Chief of the Civil Rights division of the Massachusetts Attorney General's Office confirms that landlords have legal obligations to protect their tenants from harassment. In light of some of the objections to the rule set forth by persons representing providers of housing, in which they assert that the rule would impose a considerable and unreasonable burden, Kramer states that the rule imposes no new obligations.
"In our view, given that landlords have an obligation to ensure tenants’ rights to quiet enjoyment and that they generally have the right to take actions against renters and occupants who disturb the quiet enjoyment of others, recognizing that this obligation likewise exists under the FHA [Fair Housing Act] does not expand landlord liability. It does, however, put landlords on notice that they must take action to remedy the situation in its early stages." (4)
Facilities that stop bullying
Housing providers don't have to wait, but can take a leadership role. They can enjoy the benefits of promoting a bully-free environment without waiting for new guidance and rules from federal or state actions. The following examples demonstrate that it can be done.
Jewish Community Housing (JCHE)
Jewish Community Housing (JCHE) for the elderly promotes activities and social interaction, but they also set limits on the slightest indication of bullying. Their facility managers assert that any instance of targeting or bullying prompts immediate intervention.
"At JCHE, we understand that older people can live independently as they age if they are in housing that provides much more than just shelter. Understanding the key ingredients for successful aging, our housing is rich with activity and social interaction..." (5)
At Heavenly Towers, a privately owned, HUD subsidized multifamily building, there is a wide range of activities for residents. The manager meets regularly with the elected tenants' association to discuss issues and plan events. The manager and staff are all alert to targeting or bullying and the manager talks with the offender.
Rising Creek is managed by the local Bethlehem Housing Authority under the state Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD). Members of the housing authority are elected by residents of Bethlehem. Many of the residents of Rising Creek are long-term citizens of Bethlehem, and a number have advanced degrees and had worked in skilled and professional capacities (publisher, teacher, clergyman, and tradesperson). When a group of tenants attempted to start a tenants' association, they were bullied by the manager. A series of poorly qualified managers used bullying and collaborated with a group of favored tenants to attack and suppress the activists.
Following intervention by state-level elected officials, and a change in the composition of the housing authority board, a new manager was appointed. Practically overnight the bullying stopped. The selection of an experienced manager, Gloria Peacemaker, communicated a change at the Bethlehem Housing Authority. She soon created a positive atmosphere at Rising Creek. The new manager reduced complaints among residents by requiring complaints to be put in writing. The bullying, harassing, and mobbing quickly ended. She also encouraged the formation of a tenants' association, and she intervened at any indication of bullying.
How to prevent harassment
It would be easy to blame the housing provider (landlord) and their agents—management or staff—for not stopping the bullying in a facility. It would be easy to blame an indvidual perpetrator of bullying, or a group of people who use bullying; it would be easy to blame the victims for somehow inviting the attacks.
We can attempt to stop bullying by setting limits on perpetrators and sanctioning their behavior; or we can go beyond and look at the nature of the social system that enables bullying.
Everyone suffers from the impact of bullying, and no remedy can work that does not address and engage the whole community of the facility, and indeed, the surrounding society.
A bullying-free community can flourish as a well-regulated, open environment in which bullying is not allowed to gain a foothold under a positive, caring, collaborative, and comprehensive approach to management. Everyone shares responsibility and no person—housing provider/landlord, manager, staff, resident, visitor—either bullies or is bullied.
An effective solution would provide landlords with the needed guidelines, appropriate tools to aid intervention, and support from social service agencies and experts, all with the goal of preventing bullying and harassment and creating a healthy community.
There are four key elements needed to stop bullying and create a healthy community:
- The housing provider and all agents take responsibility.
- All residents can participate in a democratic, representative tenants’ association through which they negotiate with and collaborate with the housing provider.
- There is trained, professional support to help resolve conflict, support the growth of a positive community, and to provide necessary social, psychological, and medical support for all residents.
- Additional social, educational, and cultural activities organized by residents or by residents and staff would help to create a healthy community.
Nearly all of the stakeholders in subsidized housing are aware of bullying, many are troubled by it, and nearly all feel helpless to prevent it. And many of the stakeholders are eager to find remedies. In Massachusetts, legislators are aware of the problem and have enacted legislation that will bring together all the parties to develop a comprehensive, fair solution. The Commission on Bullying (6) seeks to bring together all stakeholders in order to better understand the issues and to seek effective remedies. In this commission process there will be ample opportunity for landlords, managers, agencies, and service providers as well as residents and experts to be heard. This open and fair process has the potential to find solutions that meet the reasonable concerns of housing providers.
Every housing provider has the opportunity for leadership in eliminating harassment and bullying, and helping to create healthy residential communities. There is no recipe that will work for every situation, but with support from the top, each organization and each residential complex can work towards an effective solution. It is good business.
(1) 80 FR 63720 HUD, Proposed Standards Governing Harassment Under the Fair Housing Act (FR-5248), Quid Pro Quo and Hostile Environment Harassment and Liability for Discriminatory Housing Practices Under the Fair Housing Act, A Proposed Rule by the Housing and Urban Development Department on 10/21/2015. Federal Register Oct 21, 2015 https://www.federalregister.gov/articles/2015/10/21/2015-26587/quid-pro…
(2) UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, DEPARTMENT OF HOUSING AND URBAN DEVELOPMENT, OFFICE OF HEARINGS AND APPEALS, “CHARGE OF DISCRIMINATION,” FHEO No. 05-15-0557-8, September 30, 2015
(4) Andrea C. Kramer
(6) Session laws, 2016, resolves, Chapter 2: A Resolve creating a commission to study ways to prevent bullying of tenants in public and subsidized multifamily housing.