Stop Bullying Coalition Petitions Beacon Hill for Protection

During virtual Beacon Hill testimony before the Joint Committee on Housing on Tuesday, October 12, Jerry Halberstadt testified on the need to establish an independent, statewide ombuds office to protect elderly and disabled persons who live in public or subsidized housing from bullying, mobbing, and harassment.

Halberstadt is the Coordinator of the Stop Bullying Coalition which acts on behalf of over 92,000 tenants in some 1,400 developments across the Commonwealth. He lives in a subsidized housing development in Peabody. He said,

“The Attorney General asserts that it is unlawful to prevent others from enjoying their rights as citizens and tenants. However, the door to the court is closed because we cannot afford justice. Lady Justice holds the scales of the law, and she needs a sword to enforce her judgment. Today we demand a sword for justice.”

The Coalition is petitioning to amend and strengthen the bill proposed by Senator Joan B. Lovely, S.1084, An Act relative to bullying in public housing. They seek an effective ombuds office that will be independent, covers a broad scope of public and subsidized housing, can receive reports from mandated reporters, and is able to investigate, protect, and enforce judgment against the landlord as well as the tenant.

North Shore legislators, including Senator Joan B. Lovely and Representatives Tom Walsh and Sally Kerans, spoke in support of the ombuds bill.

Elderly and disabled tenants of public and subsidized housing have joined in supporting the urgent need for a strong ombuds office.

Bonny Zeh, co-founder of the Stop Bullying Coalition, who lives in Federal public housing in Somerville, said,

“Every time I have used an ombuds office, my problem was resolved because they had both the responsibility and the necessary authority. The housing bullying ombuds must be able to hold people accountable by having the ability to enforce rules, including to bring cases to the District Attorney or Attorney General if needed.”

Timely enforcement of existing regulations, such as the right of reasonable accommodation for persons living with disability is urgently needed. Kolya Lynne Smith, who lives in subsidized housing in Boston, said,

“Reasonable accommodations have been denied and delayed. On Saturday night, I was hospitalized because I'm unable to regulate my body temperature, and the excess heat in my apartment caused dehydration and inevitably my kidney functions declined. I have no way to enforce a reasonable accommodation. That's why we need an ombuds office. We're asking for accountability, action and advocacy.”

Halberstadt added,

“As Commissioner appointed by Governor Baker I did extensive research into the conditions that encourage a healthy community life or favor bullying and a toxic environment. However, the Commission on Bullying refused to accept my minority report—because...

‘We won’t let you advocate for tenants.’”

Halberstadt concluded by saying,

‘Today, we advocate for tenants. We need an ombuds office to protect tenants.”

Video of the testimony of Halberstadt and Smith are on youtube. See below for their testimony as well as that of Bonny Zeh.

Correction made: Ms. Smith misspoke when she stated in her testimony that she had gone to the hospital on the preceding Friday, however she had actually gone on Saturday. During her testimony, she was not fully recovered, and regrets her error.

Testimony of Ms. Kolya Lynne Smith

Good afternoon, Chair Arciero, Chair Keenan, Members of the Committee. My name is Kolya Lynne Smith and I am a disabled 45-year-old, living in low-income housing in Boston. In August I formed a support group, “Housing Without Harassment” to provide support and coping skills to people who are being bullied, harassed, and retaliated against by their housing manager/management, landlord and/or fellow tenants.

I hope that you will give S. 1084 a favorable vote. If passed, this bill would protect the already vulnerable residents of public housing from bullying, through an ombudsman office. Today, we are asking for accountability, action and advocacy.

An ombudsman would hold management accountable.

It’s not a requirement to bully tenants. It’s additional and unnecessary. It has nothing to do with putting a roof over someone’s head.

Reasonable accommodations have been denied and delayed. On Saturday night, I was hospitalized because I’m unable to regulate my body temperature, and the excessive heat in my apartment, caused dehydration and inevitably my kidney functions declined. I asked management for a reasonable accommodation and I have not heard back from them about shutting off the heat to my unit.

A fellow tenant, who is legally blind was denied a reasonable accommodation for extra lights in his apartment. A friend had to put them up.

Retaliation is rampant. People are afraid to speak up for fear of retaliation, in the form of eviction. One of my personal examples of retaliation, was my manager falsifying documents to double my rent to half my income and I was given 5 days to approve it, to intimidate me into moving out.

Management lies compulsively about residents. They and maintenance gaslight for necessary repairs that need to be made. Bullying, harassment and retaliation cause tremendous stress, which affects residents physically and mentally. For all these reasons and more, we need an ombudsman office. 

Despite not feeling well, I showed up to testify today, because the subject of bullying in public housing is so important. Thank you for the opportunity to testify today.

Testimony of Ms. Bonny Zeh

[Bonny Zeh was unable to testify during the hearing because of a fire in her building that forced her out of her home for several hours. The following is her testimony prepared for the hearing.]

I’m Bonny Zeh and I’m the co-founder, along with Jerry Halberstadt, of the Stop Bullying Coalition, a grassroots group of seniors and persons with disabilities who live in public housing, who are, or were, victims of bullying, as well as others concerned about this topic. I live in Weston Manor, 15 Weston Ave, Somerville, MA. This federally subsidized building is owned and operated by the Somerville Housing Authority.

I was the victim of mobbing in public housing. It took five years, and thanks to not only my persistent advocacy, but also as the result of the interventions of Senator Pat Jehlen and Mayor Joe Curtatone, the decisions of the new director of the Somerville Housing Authority, and actions taken by my building manager, Cathy Federico, I can now live peacefully here at Weston Manor. 

I am here to offer support for bill S1084, An Act Relative to Bullying in Public Housing. This legislation would establish the office of an ombuds within the Department of Housing and Community Development. Jerry Halberstadt, in his testimony, demonstrated why this would be good public policy.

I have used an ombuds to solve problems, four times. I’ve been happy with the results. I used an ombuds to figure out why my Workers’ Compensation case in New York State was not scheduled for a hearing long after it should. I have used an ombuds to resolve more serious problems, such as when a health care professional improperly conducted a test, injured me and acted rudely when I complained. The ombuds took my complaints seriously, investigated them and saw to it that appropriate action was taken.

One of the strengths of an ombuds is that person’s neutrality. An ombuds needs to have both the responsibility to investigate incidents, write an appropriate report, suggest remedies and do this with the support of the highest levels of management.

When I moved to Weston Manor and, for several years, was being mobbed by a group of senior citizens who loitered at the main entrance to Weston Manor, whom I couldn’t avoid (due to house rules). I wish that I could have spoken to an ombuds. Eventually, management, and especially my building manager, Cathy Federico, took this problem seriously and became proactive. My building now has a security camera monitoring the main entrance. I can use the more convenient side entrance and avoid the loiterers altogether. Had I been able to call upon an ombuds, I think my problem could have been solved in months, not years. An ombuds could have educated management and made easy to implement suggestions that would have provided me with relief.

I think ombuds are effective when they have both the responsibility and authority needed to resolve problems. We need an ombuds who will be supported by DHCD management, who will have the authority to refer cases to other agencies, such as Senior Services, Adult Protective Services, the Attorney General or the appropriate District Attorney if needed.

Testimony of Jerry Halberstadt

Good day, Chairpersons Keenan and Arciero, Members of the Committee, Ladies and Gentlemen. I thank the legislators who have supported our cause, including Senator Joan Lovely and Representative Tom Walsh, our constant partners, and Representative Sally Kerans for her interest.

S.1084 An Act relative to bullying in public housing will establish a statewide tenant protective services ombuds program for elderly and disabled tenants in public and subsidized housing and must implement the principle stated by the Attorney General—it is unlawful to prevent others from enjoying their rights as citizens and tenants.

Unlawful! The door to the court is closed because we cannot afford justice. Lady Justice holds the scales of the law, and she needs a sword to enforce her judgment. Today we demand a sword for justice.

We are here to advocate for our rights:

  • peaceful enjoyment;

  • safety and security in our home;

  • freedom from bullying, mobbing, and harassment;

  • protection from retaliation;

  • accountability for all, landlords and tenants.

We advocate on behalf of over 92,000 elderly and disabled persons. Our Coalition has progressed in partnership with Mary Margaret Moore; Susan Bonner, Legislative Chair, and the Mass Union of Public Housing Tenants; tenants in subsidized housing; CHAPA; members of Dignity Alliance; members of the Massachusetts Human Rights Coalition.

We speak for those who fear retaliation. I hear from people who are terrified and have nowhere to turn for relief. Alas, I have very little to offer them in terms of protection. It is painful to hear their pleas and not be able to respond. That is why we petition for an effective ombuds.

We seek amendments to S.1084 to establish an effective ombuds office that is:

  • independent;

  • covers a broad scope of public and subsidized housing;

  • receives referrals from mandated reporters;

  • and is able to investigate, protect, enforce and hold landlords and tenants to account.

We have testified on Beacon Hill, bringing tears to all hearing the plea of Margaret, a disabled woman evicted and made homeless for advocating for disabled tenants;.

We wrote the legislation for the Commission on Bullying. I served as Commissioner on it in 2017, only to be told,

"We won't let you advocate for tenants."

Today we advocate for tenants. Work with us to advance the cause of justice and democracy in housing. Send justice from the people’s house to our home.