Bending the Arc Toward Housing Equity: Senator Lovely

Senator Joan Lovely

The Massachusetts Human Rights Coalition (MAHRC) comprises members and representatives of local human rights-oriented nonprofits and the many municipal human rights/relations commissions or committees around the Commonwealth. They gather each month and in an annual statewide convening to learn and share on topics and strategies for advancing human rights at the local level. This year, the convening “Bending the Arc Toward Housing Equity” took place on Friday, May 7, 2021. The speakers addressed the topic of housing in the Commonwealth, examining policy, legislation, discrimination, and other factors and issues relevant to the work of municipal human rights organizations.

Senator Joan B. Lovely spoke about her role as a legislator and her advocacy on housing and bullying, and noted a number of bills and committees dealing with these issues.

Senator Lovely’s Presentation on Housing

Good morning! I’m Senator Joan Lovely and I represent the Second Essex District, which is comprised of the North Shore communities of Beverly, Danvers, Peabody, Salem and Topsfield. It’s great to be here with all of you this morning to discuss the importance of ending discrimination in housing and creating more meaningful access to affordable access.

The importance of housing

As someone with a background in housing, this is an issue that is near and dear to my heart. Prior to the pandemic, housing was the number one call coming into my office. I am very pleased to have been appointed to the Joint Committee on Housing this session. I look forward to working with Senate Chair John Keenan and my other House and Senate colleagues to find creative solutions to the housing crisis in the Commonwealth.

There simply is not enough housing for people. Despite the strong tenant protections in Massachusetts, with such limited housing stock, the landlords hold a lot of the cards. The housing crisis that existed prior to the COVID-19 pandemic has only been exacerbated. As people have lost their jobs, seen their incomes reduced, their expenses at home increase, they have found it harder to make ends meet.

I know we’re all concerned about the wave of evictions that may be coming when support runs out. I’m honored to have been appointed to the brand new Senate Committee on Reimagining Massachusetts: Post-Pandemic Resiliency this session. Chaired by Senator Hinds, the Committee is examining many of the inequities in our society that were created or exacerbated by COVID-19 and developing recommendations for rebuilding toward a better, more equitable Commonwealth. We’ve held three hearings so far. The first of those had a panel focused on housing issues. Many are concerned that there will be a significant rise in homelessness as we move out of the pandemic as people struggle with back rent.

At the same time there are really incredible things that are happening to address housing and homelessness. In particular, in my district, Harborlight Community Partners is doing some incredible work to provide not just housing but supportive housing for families, seniors, those with disabilities. Because it’s not just about providing people with a place to live, it’s also about ensuring they have the resources to stay in those homes and thrive.

So I think there’s a lot that can be done to promote more affordable housing and prevent, and even end, homelessness. And there are positive examples of this around the Commonwealth. We just need to put a lot of these pieces together and provide incentives and opportunity for development.

Housing choice and zoning

I want to shift a bit and talk about some specific policies. Housing Choice language was included in last session’s Economic Development bill. [This bill] implements zoning reform to help cities and towns approve smart growth zoning and affordable housing by lowering the required vote threshold for a range of housing-related zoning changes and special permits at the local level from a two-thirds supermajority to a simple majority.

The change in voting threshold is not a local option. Voting requirement previously in statute was 2/3 majority. This automatically changes it to a simple majority for CERTAIN changes but not all, including: multi-family housing or mixed use developments “as of right” in an eligible location; open space residential development as of right; ADUs [accessory dwelling unit] as of right.

Salem recently took advantage of this change to pass ADU ordinance. Ordinance requires that units be rented at no more than 70% fair market rent. The hope is to create more affordable units. This is especially important for aging population who are on a restricted income. It may be that their family could add an ADU to help them age at home. This will also simply create more housing that is affordable for people. In addition, the City plans to ask the legislature for approval for a tax credit for ADU landlords to further encourage development.

Massachusetts Rental Voucher Program (MRVP)

I am also proud to sponsor legislation this session to codify the Massachusetts Rental Voucher Program. As you all know, this vital program provides both tenant and project-based rental subsidies to those in need. MRVP is the state’s largest state-funded rental assistance program. Because MRVP is not enshrined in statute, it must be reauthorized every year in the budget. The legislation I filed this session would enshrine the program in statute, and while funding may fluctuate, it could not be discontinued.

I appreciate the Legislature’s commitment to funding MRVP this year and in years past. MRVP is an under-used resource in the Commonwealth. I hope by making this a permanent program, we can continue to raise awareness of the availability of rental assistance for low-income families.

Legislation on bullying

I also wanted to take a few minutes to talk a bit about two pieces of legislation I filed this session on bullying in public housing and provide a bit of background on the need for this legislation. Jerry Halberstadt, a constituent of mine, originally brought this issue to my attention. He came to me back a few years ago and shared his experiences working with victims of bullying in public housing, and Jerry has been a terrific partner on this issue.

As many of you know, bullying in public housing, especially of elderly and disabled residents, is way too common. This includes verbal abuse, gossip, exclusion from events, and sometimes even physical abuse and violence. Residents are often bullied by other residents, management, landlords, or staff. Makes them afraid to come forward and report the bullying, and people who come forward are often retaliated against or find no help from management. Much of the issues stem from inconsistent or lack of management policies, staffing practices, and limited oversight and access to services for residents.

Most of the information we had on these incidents was purely anecdotal. No one had done the work to do a formal survey or study of the prevalence of bullying in public housing or the factors that play into it. There is also no one agency charged with monitoring bullying in the Commonwealth, which made the collection of data challenging. This is also made more challenging because of the different federal and state actors involved. Portions of a law passed in 1995 attempted to address and prevent bullying through the creation of a new alternative housing voucher program for young disabled individuals; increased funding for service coordinators in elderly and disabled housing; additional funds for housing authorities to access criminal records to identify appropriate individuals for housing.

It was clear, 10 years later, that more needed to be done. In 2015, I filed legislation when Jerry came to me to create a commission to study ways to prevent bullying of tenants in public and subsidized multi-family housing. I had great partners on that bill, including Rep. Hill and Senator Tarr. We were able to get the bill passed and signed by the Governor that same session. That is rare. It often takes a several sessions to get a bill through and get everyone on board, but this was an issue people agreed needed to be addressed.

The Commission was charged with: investigating and studying the prevalence and impact of the bullying of tenants, with a focus on elderly and disabled tenants; identifying the conditions that give rise to and cause bullying; researching successful methods for preventing bullying in other contexts; identifying and publishing “best practices”; raising public awareness on the issue of bullying of tenants; and proposing public policy recommendations and legislation necessary to protect tenants from harm and preserve their rights.

The Commission met four times between May and December 2017, and sent staff to attend almost all of those meetings. The Commission formed three working groups: Community Outreach, Prevalence and Conditions; and Best Practices.

In order to identify the prevalence of bullying, the Commission developed and deployed a survey to residents of public housing. Respondents were asked about the presence or absence of bullying, who did the bullying, the success or failure of any efforts to curb bullying, and what methods were available to residents to seek relief. Approximately 43% of recipients responded to the survey, and it was found that bullying was a challenge that many residents and management deal with. Nearly half of all respondents experiences bullying, and more than half of all respondents reported having witnessed someone in their community. The survey also showed that the presence of a resident service coordinator or on-site management reduced the prevalence of bullying fairly significantly. People also did not know where to get help for bullying. However, people who experienced bullying – even with management or services coordinator on-site – and sought help were no more likely to have their issues addressed, which seems to signify a lack of training of staff to handle these issues.

The Commission made several policy recommendations, including: developing & implementing training for management and staff on recognizing and addressing bullying; public awareness campaign; and ensuring existing laws and protections apply to all targets and victims, regardless of protected classification.

In response to these recommendations, I filed two pieces of legislation last session and have refiled them this session. S900, An Act to prevent and respond to bullying of elderly and disabled residents, was filed with Rep. Honan who has previously served as the House Chair of the Joint Committee on Housing. This bill prohibits bullying on all residential properties, grounds, sponsored activities. Also prohibits retaliation against a person who reports bullying, provides information in an investigation into a report of bullying. Owners and managers would be required to provide training on bullying prevention to all staff and residents.

Owners and managers would also be required to develop, adhere to, and update a plan to address bullying prevention and intervention in consultation with residents—including a notice and public comment period. Plans would have to include: descriptions and statements prohibiting various kinds of bullying, procedures for residents, employees and others to report instances of bullying, procedures for investigating allegations of bullying, the range of remedial actions that can be taken against a perpetrator for bullying or retaliation, procedures for restoring a sense of safety for a victims, strategies for protecting those who report from retaliation, and a strategy for providing counseling or support services for perpetrators and victims of bullying.

In addition, it requires the Attorney General’s Office (AGO) to work with a variety of other agencies, including DPH, DMH, Elder Affairs, Office of Disability, and the DAs, to public a model bullying prevention plan and training curricula for owners and managers to use when creating their own plans. They are also required to create a list of bullying prevention and intervention resources, curricula, best practices, and research that will be made available to residential communities.

It would also charge the AGO with conducting a survey every two years of residents and management staff to assess the prevalence and extent of bullying. Rep. Honan and I felt that this bill covered many of the recommendations offered by the Commission. This bill has been referred to the Joint Committee on Housing, and it has not yet been scheduled for a hearing.

I also filed S.985, An Act relative to bullying in public housing. This bill requires the Department of Housing and Community Development to create a statewide tenant protective services ombudsman program to provide resources to targets of bullying in public housing. Many agencies have an ombudsman to help address concerns of constituents. This would be more specialized within DHCD to specifically address concerns of safety. Especially useful in instances where tenants don’t feel comfortable reporting to owners or management. Owners and managers would be required to report all instances of bullying they know of to the ombudsman. Would allow for follow-up to ensure issues are addressed. Also allow for tracking of number of complaints for each residence to show where there are systemic issues. This session this bill has been referred to the Joint Committee on the Judiciary.

We have worked for several years to promote the issue of bullying, and bills currently being considered on Beacon Hill can finally begin to provide remedy and relief when passed. Senator Joan Lovely has been our partner from early days, with her support we have made great advances.

Thank you, Senator Lovely.

A couple of days ago, the tenants in the subsidized housing apartment building where I live received a notice from management. It included details of the new anti-bullying policy.

Not so long ago, the landlord denied any responsibility for protecting tenants from bullying, saying, "This is independent living, we are not responsible for how tenants treat each other."

I wonder if the fact that the bills on bullying that we have all worked for  have a good chance of passage into law, might that be the reason that management is now proposing to step up to their responsibility. I hope their actions will follow their promises. We need the pending legislation to make sure that landlords will be accountable as well as to develop effective programs to prevent bullying.

And I hope this development serves to encourage us.

All the best,