This is a guide to tenants and community members who are concerned about conditions in a multifamily public housing community that has become toxic.
The case of "Nowhere"
The setting is "Nowhere," either a small public housing development, or it might be a large apartment building that is public or subsidized.The majority of the residents are elderly, and there is a handful of younger persons living with disability. The details may vary, but the story is all too common in many housing developments, public as well as subsidized. This case is a composite based on several communities, including my own observations in "Bleak House," the reports about "Margaret" in "Wuthering Heights," and a number of other housing developments; and the dynamics are all too familiar to tenants throughout the Commonwealth and beyond. Anyone who lives where there is mobbing can identify with this case. At the Mass Union of Public Housing Tenants conference of tenant leaders, I asked 100 attendees if they had been bullied or seen others bullied where they lived, and about 80 raised their hands.
Residents of "Nowhere" are insecure and fearful. There is bullying and mobbing, car tires are slashed, several residents have gone to court seeking orders of protection from other residents. There are a couple of small groups who seek to control and spread gossip against and to get rid of other tenants. The managers are replaced frequently, and they ignore the problems or side with one of the groups using bullying. If a person makes a complaint, then instead of an investigation, they receive a letter of lease violation for complaining, or even an effort to evict them. The local housing authority seems, for the most part, aloof from the chaos, and may itself be in turmoil. Even attempts by the elected officials of the municipality to intervene may be rebuffed. Can there be hope for justice, hope for change?
This all seems consistent with "hostile environment harassment" and mobbing. For definitions of terms used here, please see http://stopbullyingcoalition.org/definitions
Bullying and Abuse in Housing
The Coalition often receives pleas for help from victims of bullying and mobbing. What are their options for relief and justice?
While we do refer people to our extensive listing of bibliography and materials as well as links to some important agencies on our website (http://stopbullyingcoalition.org/resources), we are aware of how difficult it is to find help. We are working on a long-term solution involving new legislation. But what can be done today?
Here, I outline an approach that may be helpful in situations where there is mobbing, i.e., where the landlord and management do not prevent bullying and may even be a part of the problem.
What is bullying?
Bullying is a contagious social disease, not a symptom of an unhealthy mind or an evil personality. People who bully are "perpetrators" but not necessarily a "bully." They use bullying because the rewards are greater than the costs. Unchecked, bullying will take over a community. If one perpetrator is able to succeed through bullying, others will rally to them and adopt similar bullying tactics to demonstrate their allegiance to the group of perpetrators.
Bullying, mobbing, and hostile environment harassment use social and psychological weapons to disrespect and keep targets from enjoying their rights.
“Bullying” or “harassment” uses any mode of communication to hurt and demean the target or victim, and mobilizes members of the community to use gossip, social pressures, and isolation; and thus to harm and control the victim and take away their rights—their dignity—their self respect—their health—and their well being.
Examples of bullying
"Don't have anything to do with Jill, she is an immoral person" "Jack is a fugitive from justice." "Horatio has a mental health problem and is dangerous."
Control of space and activity in common areas
"You can't park here" "You can't sit here" "You can't join our cookout" "We're going to get rid of you if you don't follow our rules." "We don't want people like Jack and Jill with a disability living here, disabled people don't belong here." "We're going to get rid of the Others, they don't belong here."
What is mobbing?
Mobbing consists of the landlord and their agents allowing and condoning bullying or taking part in the bullying of victims.
What is hostile environment harassment?
Hostile environment harassment is unwelcome conduct that makes in impossible for victims to have the peaceful enjoyment of their homes.
Examples of mobbing
The manager says,
"You say you are being bullied? This is independent living, it is not my job to get involved in your squabbles." "I manage the property, it is all I can do to keep the lights on, provide hot water, and keep the buildings from falling down, and I don't have the budget to do even that. So no, I don't get involved with the life of the residents."
The social worker says,
"Grow a thick skin." "Do what I do: I either "suck it up" and ignore it when people are nasty, or I tell them to their face that they are being nasty."
The leader of the "Guardians," a group that uses bullying to enforce their own rules on the community, says:
"If you complain about us to management, we will make you pay. If you are friends with the Others, the people we don't like, you will suffer. If you park in our spots, your tires will be cut. If you won't follow our rules, we'll get you in trouble and you will be evicted—we've done this before and we'll do it to you."
When mobbing exists in a community, it is difficult and may even be dangerous to challenge one or more perpetrators or even to make a report. The impact of retaliation can be severe.
Roots of the problem
All forms of bullying are harmful to the wellbeing and health of the elderly and people living with disability in multifamily HUD subsidized and public housing. It is a public health problem in Massachusetts and across the nation. And bullying can infect many institutions, from the workplace to the upscale multifamily community.
Public housing has long been considered as fulfilling basic needs for people who lack money or health: "safe and sanitary." And to provide security and safety we must also include social and psychological safety.
There is not enough housing for everyone, much less for the elderly and disabled. We house elderly and disabled persons together from a wide range of social and cultural backgrounds, without making sufficient provision to enable them to live together in a community setting with shared facilities.
Outside of multifamily public/subsidized housing, Americans compete to pursue success and prestige. They try to live in a community with people like themselves, and isolated from others that they consider inferior. In their homes, they do as they please. In America, despite our stress on equality, the poor, the old, the disabled are all considered of less value.
In housing, Americans are expected to live in a community with many different kinds of people, some whom they consider inferior or dangerous. In the common areas, the rules say they can't do as they please, but must share with others who may have different customs and values.
They are confused by what is appropriate in their own private space and what is appropriate in the public square, or commons. Some try to treat the common areas as their own space, or the space of their group, a space that they rule.
"This is our bench, you are not welcome here." "When one of the Others tries to join our group, I am very nasty towards them and they will leave us alone." "This parking space belongs to a member of our group, don't park here even though there are no official assigned spaces."
When a landlord and their agents fail to establish and enforce basic rules for communal life, this leaves a vacuum which is filled by the person or group using bullying to enforce their rules. One or more groups of "Guardians" or perpetrators tends to emerge when tenants seek to impose order on what they perceive as the chaos of a situation without rules, or at least rules that please them.
Impact of bullying and mobbing on community life
Research, including that done for the Commission on Bullying, shows a correlation between the relatively peaceful situation with effective, appropriate management & social services, contrasted with the toxic outcomes with mobbing and bullying.
Is bullying common?
I was honored to be appointed by the Governor to serve as Commissioner on the first legislative study commission to address bullying. Our mandate covered 92,000 elderly and disabled persons in 1,400 subsidized and public multifamily housing developments in the Commonwealth.
We conducted a survey of over 600 individuals, including also some managers and staff as well as tenants. Close to half of the respondents reported being bullied where they live, about 30% lived where they were bullied and also observed others being bullied, suggesting mobbing. Most don't seek help out of fear of retaliation, and of those that seek help, very few actually succeed in getting relief.
Is there protection from bullying?
The landlord has a legal obligation to assure "peaceful enjoyment" to all, but there is no effective accountability, either at the state or federal level. There are a few civil actions undertaken by the Office of Fair Housing at HUD, and some cases are reviewed by the Mass Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD).
The Coalition sees cases where a victim has been targeted by a group of Guardians using bullying tactics where the group of perpetrators is allied with management. Anyone who seeks their rights against the bullying group or the management can be mobbed, evicted, or driven out of their homes.
“Margaret,” a woman in HUD-subsidized housing living with severe mobility disability, appealed to management on behalf of the several tenants with disability, seeking relief from bullying by a group of “Guardians.” The Guardians resented the presence of people with disability and were cruel to them. The Guardians told her that she must follow their rules, stay out of the common areas, otherwise they would find a way to lodge complaints against her. As a result, Margaret was evicted and was homeless for over a year and a half, and nearly died during that time. She nevertheless, while homeless, appeared to testify passionately before the Joint Committee on Housing at the State House.
Pamela Goodwin was bullied and harassed by management and residents in Upton public housing because she demanded her rights and fair play, and when her many efforts to seek justice failed, she finally left to save herself and was much happier living in a tent.
We receive complaints and pleas for help from all over the country, and tenant advocates who are familiar with public and subsidized housing in the nation assert that things are difficult everywhere.
How to deal with mobbing and bullying
Remedies in Massachusetts
Two complementary reports came from the work of the Commission on Bullying, a consensus report and a minority report. The Commission on Bullying consensus report proposed a system that would establish standards, best practices, and provide additional social work staff, training, and support for developing ways for healthy community to develop in each multifamily housing development. The minority report on the work of the Mass Commission on Bullying addresses legislative and administrative policy. The research done for the Commission points to the potential for change, including methods that may overcome mobbing.
Following the minority report to the legislature, the Coalition is seeking legislative and administrative remedies; first to make bullying by psychological or social means illegal, second by empowering agencies to create a hotline and to investigate and remedy complaints; and third, by seeking the intervention of the Attorney General of the Commonwealth to take legal action against bad landlords that allow hostile environment harassment and mobbing to take over life in their properties.
The fundamental leverage for change is to be found in existing law which, under civil rights and fair housing law, as well as every lease, makes the landlord responsible for assuring "peaceful enjoyment." A landlord can be held to account under Mass. law under peaceful enjoyment, as well as under other laws that protect the rights of all citizens; and this is done through a civil suit to protect the rights of any aggrieved person—but residents can't afford the legal costs to pursue this remedy.
There are no agencies or laws that provide intervention and protection for all victims of bullying and mobbing. However, there is potential protection for a person who is in a protected category and is bullied because of that membership. Harassment protection orders should apply, according to my reading of the text of the law (258e), where psychological or social pressure is used to harm the target. I was informed in 2010 by State Representative Joyce Spiliotis that 258e made bullying illegal. I therefore considered this was the legislative intent. However, the law (258e) has been interpreted by the courts to protect only where there is a threat of, or actual physical assault; or a threat of, or actual, damage to property.
Today, there is very little accountability for the errant landlord.
Advocacy as a strategy
Other strategies must come into play. In public housing, advocacy is essential to make landlords accountable. These tactics include moral, social, and political pressure on the leaders of the local community, putting pressure on the members of the local housing authority, up to and including removal of non-performing members. The composition of the local community, the political tenor of the moment, and a host of factors determines the degree of sympathy in the community towards the residents of public housing. Sometimes an elected official at the state level (senator or representative) can exert influence.
It is harder to influence landlords of privately owned, subsidized properties, especially when the landlord is a developer of a regional or national chain of properties, with offices far from the housing development.
How to deal with mobbing? Mobbing happens when the landlord and their agents either ignore bullying by individuals or groups, or when the landlord actively supports bullying and favors the perpetrators of bullying.
The advocate should focus on influencing the landlord to act responsibly.
The first step is for the landlord—the private developer/landlord or the local housing authority—to be responsible. They need to understand their obligations to assure "peaceful enjoyment" to all tenants.
The landlord should hire competent, experienced executive directors and supervise their performance, and hold them accountable.
A competent executive director who has the backing of the housing authority can stop or prevent bullying. For example, they can refuse to accept verbal complaints which are often just malicious gossip, and insist on a written, signed complaint. They can carefully investigate the complaint and have a serious talk with the alleged bully, and explain that bullying is not tolerated, and that such behavior can lead to eviction proceedings. Open and constructive two-way communication between management and all tenants can be an additional way to bully-proof a community.
Bullying and health issues
The fact of a person's mental or other disability does not relieve them of the need to comply with the terms of the lease, and it does not relieve them of the need to respect others. And the other members of the community do not have the right to try and get rid of someone who has a disability, they need to learn to be respectful and tolerant.
Bullying behavior is intentional, repeated, and harmful and seeks to gain inappropriate power over another. But if the behavior is not intentional, and rather is rooted in a mental illness, dementia, illness, or inappropriate medications, it should be addressed as a health issue to be treated. And the other members of the community need to be reasonably tolerant.
Management should provide:
- clear guidelines for behavior of staff and tenants;
- a method for receiving concerns and complaints and protecting people from retaliation;
- a procedure for investigating and evaluating complaints;
- methods for dispute resolution; and a fair and reasonable series of graded interventions, up to and including eviction.
- Further, there must be competent social services to provide evaluation and assistance to enable each resident to live independently with consideration for their neighbors' rights.
A new program
Jeanette Porter, Property Manager at a multifamily housing development in Denver, Colorado, has been developing and teaching methods for combating bullying to achieve a positive outcome.
The residents in her subsidized section 8 building with 92 units and 100 residents include people with mental health and other challenges as well as elderly. There has been mutual conflict between the people living with disability and others.
“We have started seeing a lot more residents moving in with the disability being a mental rather than physical challenge. Interestingly enough it seems to be the people with mental disabilities that are main targets as well as aggressors. It is an interesting phenomenon because people with past trauma feel we need to just evict any one that doesn’t meet their personal criteria for the community. I have worked with the police department, tried to mediate, suggested a bridge between housing and mental health to keep people housed rather than making eviction the only option.”
Porter was frustrated by the lack of tools and guidance to help her deal with the bullying. Jeanette reached out to us a year ago, we provided some ideas and encouragement, and in less than a year, she has created an important demonstration of what is possible. With the help of Colorado Housing and Finance Authority, and the backing of her employer—the landlord—American Baptist Homes of the Midwest, Porter has developed a program to work with managers and residents. It includes procedures for the manager to follow when dealing with bullying, a course in first aid for mental health issues, education about bullying for everyone, and a spirit festival where they spend a day working on understanding empathy.
Here are some of the excellent suggestions she shared from her program experience:
- All management and staff as well as all residents need to learn what is bullying, what makes a hostile environment.
- Residents need to know their responsibilities as well as their rights.
- The landlord/local housing authority must set forth guidelines for how to handle a complaint.
- The manager must respond to a complaint by investigating the facts, hearing all sides, and reach an unbiased conclusion. The findings should be in writing and there should be followup with education and counseling of victims as well as perpetrators.
There is a risk that the perpetrator might game the system, provoke the victim, and them complain that the victim is the aggressor. Porter writes, "I will tell you I have used the process and found at times the victim is actually the bully. This is where development of a process for management is so important."
- Bob makes a complaint that Louis yelled at him in the courtyard and made him feel he is unwelcome.
- Upon investigation the camera shows Bob destroying some of Louis’s work and Louis yelling at him to stop and then Bob goes to get management.
- Later that day Bob starts telling those around him that Louis is a fugitive with a long criminal record.
- Both parties receive a letter with the findings regarding bullying and stating options to change the narrative and end the problem. If the problem continues there have to be forms of compliance to get residents to understand and follow the lease.
- Bob is not really a victim; in truth he was the bully.
How to stop bullying and create a healthy community
There are four elements needed to stop bullying and create a healthy community.
- Housing provider and all agents (including providers of social work and mental health services) take responsibility, are trained to recognize and deal with bullying and with developing healthy community, and are certified to be competent in these areas.
- Trained professionals provide necessary social, psychological, and medical support for all residents. They help resolve conflict and support the growth of a positive community. There are appropriate methods for resolving disputes.
- All residents can participate in a democratic, representative tenants’ association through which they negotiate and collaborate with the housing provider. Empowered residents receive education, training, and guidance and there is oversight, enabling them to develop community life. Social, educational, and cultural activities organized by residents or staff help to create a healthy community.
- External oversight provides readily available, effective, and fair legal protections for victims, along with respect for the rights of the accused. There is an ombudsperson.
Together, landlord, management, and tenants help to create a polity, a form of governance with accepted norms and rules that are enforced, and with a means to resolve disputes. Everyone shares responsibility and no person—housing provider/landlord, manager, staff, resident, visitor either bullies or is bullied.
A residential setting is also influenced by the relationship to the surrounding community and the dominant values in that community; and by the actions of local and state elected legislators and officials.
While the landlord is responsible for enforcing the rules of the game, it is important for all the residents to recognize that the rules apply to them, and therefore some form of tenant participation in governance is helpful, provided that groups of perpetrators do not seize control of that process. In a cooperative housing situation, where tenants actually are the management, subject to professional oversight, tenants have been seen to achieve a peaceful community life. Tenant participation must be monitored and subject to accountability.
Take care of yourself
Don't try to challenge mobbing alone, have support from within and from outside the residential complex, be aware of the risks of retaliation, and know that there are no guarantees of a rapid, positive outcome. Be sure to consider carefully the dynamics of mobbing as reported by Janice Harper and consider your options in the light of her warnings as well as the options for a target of mobbing as presented by Maureen Duffy and Len Sperry.
Harper argues that the victim of mobbing can never win. She advises that the victim can't fight workplace mobbing and should make every effort to get out. And that we should treat each other with kindness and compassion.
Anyone who is the target of mobbing needs to make very careful strategic choices, and for guidance they should read two books, Mobbed by Janice Harper and Overcoming Mobbing, by Maureen Duffy and Len Sperry.
Hope becomes reality when we work together
There is hope for change. The Coalition will continue to work with our legislative partners on Beacon Hill to seek legislative remedies. All of us can support the educational and advocacy efforts to inform the public, legislators, and all the so-called stakeholders in housing: landlords, managers, federal and state agencies, and of course, we the tenants.
Commission to Study Ways to Prevent Bullying of Tenants in Public and Subsidized Multi-Family Housing, pursuant to Chapter 2 of the Resolves of 2016. The Consensus Report as well as the Minority Report were filed with the Legislature.
Jerry Halberstadt, To Stop Bullying: Protecting Elderly and Persons with Disabilities, A Handbook for Change in Housing (Peabody: Togethering Press, 2018, forthcoming) This is the Minority report of the Commission on Bullying, filed with the Legislature on December 31, 2017. Write to request "Minority Report" file:commission-research-report-209.pdf
Jerry Halberstadt, To Stop Bullying: Legislative Remedies to Protect Elderly and Persons with Disabilities in Subsidized and Public Housing. This is a revised, shorter presentation of research and advocacy goals. Write to request "Solutions" file:00-solutions-300.pdf
Duffy, Maureen and Len Sperry, Overcoming Mobbing: A Recovery Guide for Workplace Aggression and Bullying, (New York:Oxford University Press, 2013).
Harper, Janice, Mobbed!: What to Do When They Really Are Out to Get You, (Tacoma:Backdoor Press, 2013). (paper)
Harper, Janice, Mobbed!: A Survival Guide to Adult Bullying and Mobbing, (Tacoma:Backdoor Press, 2013). (Kindle)
Jerry Halberstadt, Mobbed but Thriving (About Janice Harper)
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, p. 63075
For an discussion of how a manager should respond to a complaint:
The Oracle Speaks: Jack & Jill in Erehwon Village, http://stopbullyingcoalition.org/erehwon
For a Healthy Community, http://stopbullyingcoalition.org/remedy
Extensive listing of bibliography and materials as well as links to some important agencies: http://stopbullyingcoalition.org/resources