Legislature considers tenant protective services ombuds
At Beacon Hill, on January 18, 2019, Senator Joan B. Lovely introduced and sponsored An act relative to bullying in housing SD2195, legislation creating a statewide tenant protective services ombuds program to prevent bullying of tenants in subsidized and public housing for the elderly and people with disability. Representative Bradford Hill joins as house sponsor.
A companion bill is sponsored by Senator Lovely and Representative Kevin Honan.
“I am proud to work with the Stop Bullying Coalition and my constituent Jerry Halberstadt on two bills this session dealing with bullying in public housing,” said Senator Joan Lovely. “Many of my colleagues and I recognize the import of stopping the abuses that too many people, especially the elderly and the disabled, face that prevent them from enjoying their homes. I look forward to working with the Coalition to spotlight this issue and to come up with solutions to stopping these abuses.”
Representative Hill said,
“No one should ever be bullied in housing and these bills will go a long way to preventing bullying.”
Representative Tom Walsh said,
“Bullying at any age is completely unacceptable and I look forward to working in conjunction with my colleagues and all stakeholders involved to curb this epidemic.”
Jerry Halberstadt, the Coordinator of the Stop Bullying Coalition, stated that
“We are grateful to Senator Lovely and Representatives Hill and Honan for their leadership and initiative. Bullying, including harassment, mobbing, and hostile environment harassment, is a plague that adversely affects the life of everyone who lives or works in infected multifamily subsidized and public housing communities. Bullying is a social and community issue, and not simply an individual psychological or personality problem. An act relative to bullying in housing (Senate Docket No. 2195) recognizes that bullying can affect a residential community and provides a remedy to protect the rights of tenants.”
The tenant protective services ombuds program in the Department of Housing and Community Development will provide information and resources to targets of bullying; monitor and ensure compliance with all prohibitions on bullying; receive and refer complaints of bullying and in severe situations, seek legal action from an enforcement authority. Landlords and managers are mandated as reporters, and any person may make a good faith report of bullying to the ombuds program. If a pattern or practice of bullying is discovered, the ombuds will refer the matter to the attorney general.
The Office of the Attorney General has advised that “All tenants have a right to be free of intimidation and harassment.” Landlords are legally obligated to assure the “peaceful enjoyment” of all tenants, and when they fail in that duty and the rights of tenants are infringed, existing civil laws can offer a remedy. At present, despite the pain and harm caused by bullying, no remedies, relief, or accountability are available, and the legislation is designed to fill the need for protection of the rights of tenants. Because tenants in public and subsidized housing cannot afford legal counsel, the new law would provide them with information about available resources and seek the intervention of the attorney general to protect their rights.
The Stop Bullying Coalition asserts that until the landlord takes care to prevent bullying, it is simply too dangerous and futile for targets of bullying to stand up for their rights. The ombuds program will identify communities where bullying, mobbing, and hostile environment exists and if necessary seek the the intervention of the attorney general. The result will be a community without mobbing where a variety of interventions can open the door to a vibrant, healthy community life.
The Stop Bullying Coalition worked to assist Senator Lovely to develop An act relative to bullying in housing (SD2195). Halberstadt said,
“This proposed law is the fruit of collaboration and partnership among Senator Joan B. Lovely, Representative Hill, many supportive legislators including Representative Tom Walsh, numerous tenants, and advocacy groups, and experts in law, social services, mental health, public health, management, and more. It is based on the experiences of tenants who are unable to get relief or justice, and on the extensive research done by the Commission to Study Ways to Prevent Bullying of Tenants in Public and Subsidized Multifamily Housing (Commission on Bullying). The ombuds office will provide essential monitoring and oversight, helping to assure the rights of tenants to be safe and secure from bullying in their homes.”
Susan Bonner, Legislative Chair of the Mass Union of Public Housing Tenants, has worked closely with the Stop Bullying Coalition including during the work of the Commission on Bullying and in developing An act relative to bullying in housing (Senate Docket No. 2195). She said,
“The tenant leadership of the Mass Union of Public Housing Tenants gave unanimous support for our legislative advocacy in their recent convention.”
Paul J. Lanzikos, Executive Director, North Shore Elder Services speaks from experience when he says,
"Unfortunately, bullying knows no age limits. Bullying is as much a daily reality among older age groups as it is with younger ones. It can be observed in elder housing, nursing facilities, senior centers, and other places where older adults congregate. This legislation will be very useful in preventing as well as addressing these anti-social occurrences."
Complementary program to stop bullying
In a related development, Senator Lovely and Representative Kevin Honan presented An act to prevent and respond to bullying of elderly and disabled residents (SD2192). This bill would establish the public safety division of the Commonwealth’s office of the attorney general as the administrative agency for the creation of model plans by an interagency consultation process to guide residential community practices, including to require ongoing training and education, and to specify procedures for reporting, sanctioning of perpetrators, accountability, and for protecting victims.
Halberstadt commented that,
“An act to prevent and respond to bullying of elderly and disabled residents can provide guidance and direction to assure that landlords and management will know how to prevent bullying and be able to work with tenants to improve community life without the disruption of ongoing bullying or mobbing. The oversight function of the ombuds office is essential to assure that the landlord and management are effectively preventing bullying and mobbing and thus enable the positive impact of the methods proposed by the Lovely-Honan bill.”
Each of these bills is based on the research, findings, and recommendations of the Commission to Study Ways to Prevent Bullying of Tenants in Public and Subsidized Multifamily Housing, as presented in the consensus report and in the minority report to the legislature in December, 2017. The Commission, which met during 2017, was the outcome of the advocacy efforts of the Stop Bullying Coalition, and endorsed by their legislative partners, including Representative Kevin Honan, Senator Jamie Eldridge, Senator Joan Lovely, Representative Brad Hill, and Representative Ted Speliotis.
According to Halberstadt,
“the filing of these complementary bills is a milestone on the road to victory for the rights of the elderly and people with disability who live in subsidized or public housing.”
Mary Margaret Moore, an early and constant supporter of the educational and advocacy efforts of the Stop Bullying Coalition and a strong advocate for the rights of all people, said,
“At every level of society and even in the highest levels of government, we see evidence of the lack of social control that leads to sexual abuse, bullying, and mobbing, and that extends to harm the elderly and people with disability even in their homes. We need initiatives to address these problems. We need to empower tenants and give protection and relief to victims of bullying.”
June Fleischmann is an outreach worker with 25 years’ experience in the field of community mental health. Her work includes advocacy, education, outreach, and other supports to connect people to community service providers. Fleischmann said,
“Deliberate and systematic intimidation, when allowed to continue unchecked, is an acknowledgement that the bully has the support of the social institutions that were created to keep people safe, and of lawmakers, since our laws define which behaviors merit censure, even punishment. Bullying has been noted, recorded, editorialized, defined, but remains difficult to eradicate, because it hides in plain sight, in our culture, in our social order. Perhaps we have become accustomed to working with a broken compass, constantly adjusting for ‘normal’ hostility, something to be expected, when people must live next to ‘strangers.’ Managers, administrators, advocates, safety personnel, and others may care, but are unclear about how to resolve and protect ‘targets.’ They get stuck on ‘who provoked whom,’ and meet with advisors and mediators, who also do not know how to address the problem and wish the victim would just avoid the bully, because the matter is complicated and, after all, they fear they ‘can only do so much.’”
“The bully, however, feels justified, has support from friends, and fears nothing.”
“The victim fears for his very existence, fears leaving his apartment, and waits, yearning for freedom.”
Carol Leary, a tenant in public housing, has been a pioneer in social activism and the rights of tenants. Leary said,
“Ongoing cases of moderate to severe bullying in our own personal experiences caused us to form the Stop Bullying Coalition for purposes of research, advocacy, and resolution. We discovered that bullying actually affects larger numbers than we had anticipated in homes designated for the elderly and persons with disabilities, all across the Commonwealth. We found that the very people who should be enjoying their lives without fear or anxiety are the very people who are targeted.”
The stress caused by bullying can make an existing mental health condition worse, or create a new mental health problem.
Lynn Costello, a tenant advocate who lives in Lowell public housing, is working to educate and involve people to prevent bullying, respect differences, and create a better community. Caught up in a situation of hostile environment harassment, she was forced to move for her own safety. She said,
“I am living in a housing complex as a woman with mental illness. A few years ago I nearly had a breakdown because two groups of tenants in our complex were fighting all summer long. I got caught up in the middle of the feud and eventually had to move out of my building. If the management had taken an interest in the problems earlier, the bullying that had taken place wouldn’t have reached such terrible levels. We definitely need the protections this bill will provide and then maybe more. I am urging our government officials to take these matters seriously. People’s lives and their health are at stake.”
Bonny Zeh, who lives with disability in federally funded public housing, helped to found the Stop Bullying Coalition and started us on the path of advocacy for legislation. She said,
“As someone who has been a target of mobbing in subsidized housing (organized bullying by a group of tenants), I am grateful that the Commonwealth of Massachusetts is taking this problem seriously. We must remember that, for every person who steps forward and who actively tries to get this behavior stopped, there are many, many more who suffer in silence. Most victims of bullying don’t realize that there are, albeit limited, resources that might help get this problem stopped. Together, landlords, building managers and residents can create a culture of civility, where everyone—that includes landlords and their employees, contractors, residents, and visitors—is treated with dignity and respect. In order to accomplish this, we need both support and oversight from the Commonwealth.”
Protecting elderly persons from bullying
A separate bill has been filed by Representative Alan Silvia to protect elderly persons from bullying, prompted by his concerns on behalf of elderly tenants.
Representative Alan Silvia has filed An Act protecting elders from bullying HD 3286 “to protect our most vulnerable citizens from acts of bullying that are often the cause of psychological stress, depression and disrupts lives.”
“This bill clearly defines the term ‘Bullying’ as it relates to the Department of Elder Affairs, and it expands mandated reporters to report incidents of bullying. Furthermore, rather than exhaust additional funds and time to create a separate agency to address this problem, this bill takes advantage of the efficiency that already exists within the Department of Elder Affairs and will include bullying as one of the matters the Department's Protective Services Units responds to and investigates. The Department of Elder Affairs will receive those reports of bullying and will submit a copy of said reports to the Department of Housing and Community Development. DCHD will then maintain a central database of all reports and the tenant and housing unit or units involved in each report. DCHD will send quarterly reports to the appropriate agencies.”
This bill may well provide a parallel and complementary pathway to protection of the elderly tenant population.
Identifications & Affiliations
The Mass Union of Public Housing Tenants is a statewide organization representing tenants living in public housing for the elderly and people with disability.
The Stop Bullying Coalition is an organization of tenants, advocates, and advocacy groups with a mission of research, education, advocacy, and legislation to protect people from bullying.
Susan Bonner is the Legislative Chair of the Mass Union of Public Housing Tenants and lives in Nahant public housing.
Jerry Halberstadt is the Coordinator, Stop Bullying Coalition. Governor Baker appointed him to serve on the Commission on Bullying. Halberstadt has been living in subsidized housing for a decade.
Mary Margaret Moore is the Former Executive Director, Independent Living Center of the North Shore and Cape Ann. and an advocate for the rights of every person.
An Act relative to bullying in public housing.
An act to prevent and respond to bullying of elderly and disabled residents (Senate Docket No. 2192).
For Peaceful Community, We Can Prevent Bullying.
How to Stop Bullying & Mobbing.
Janice Harper, Ph.D., Bullying and Mobbing in Group Settings
Attorney General, Advisory on Harassment...
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