Freedom From Bullying, Mobbing, and Hostile Environment Harassment
The Office of the Tenant Advocate
§ An office of the tenant advocate shall be established within the Office of the Attorney General. The office shall assure that the rights of all tenants living in public or subsidized housing are protected, with the primary focus to hold landlords or housing authorities accountable for situations of hostile environment harassment.
We all need to be safe and secure in our homes—a basic human right protected by law and in our lease agreements with the landlord. The landlord is responsible for assuring the safety and peaceful enjoyment of every tenant. Unfortunately, in many multifamily buildings and settlements, including public and subsidized developments, bullying and mobbing create fear and insecurity. Police and other agencies have no authority to intervene when bullying, mobbing, and harassment threaten our safety and well-being; thus we have no remedy when the landlord fails to assure our rights.
The Commission on Bullying conducted a survey of 617 residents and staff of public and subsidized housing among the 92,000 tenants of 1,400 housing developments for the elderly and disabled, almost half (286 out of 617 responses or 46%) reported being bullied in their housing community. About 29% of respondents lived where mobbing likely took place; at least two persons were reported bullied there.
At the fall 2017 convention of the Mass Union of Public Housing Tenants, about 80 out of 100 tenant leaders reported they had been bullied or had witnessed bullying in their housing communities.
Based on extensive research including by the Commission on Bullying and testimony before the Joint Committee on Housing on Beacon Hill, we have concluded that mobbing needs to be controlled before it is possible to address bullying and develop a positive community environment. Therefore, there must be a way to hold the landlord accountable to assure the safety, security, and well-being of tenants, and we propose legislation to do just that.
This legislation aims to protect all persons, including tenants and visitors, in the covered residential settings from hostile environment harassment. Hostile environment harassment is the most severe form of aggression short of physical assault whereby tenants can be harmed and prevented from enjoying their tenancy.
This legislation aims to hold the landlord (owner of subsidized housing, or housing authority for public housing) and their agents responsible for preventing any bullying, group mobbing, or institutional mobbing; including bullying by the landlord and their agents; by individual tenants; and by groups of tenants; and of all targets, individuals or groups.
Fortunately, the elements of an effective solution exist. The Attorney General has the authority to intervene to protect the rights of any person, and the Office of the Attorney General asserts that harassment of a tenant is unlawful. The HUD Office of Fair Housing has codified a definition of “hostile environment harassment,” and determined that landlords have the obligation and ability to prevent it.
Hostile environment harassment is essentially identical to mobbing. While the Fair Housing Law only applies to tenants in specific protected classes who are discriminated against because of their membership, bullying and mobbing are equal opportunity harms.
We propose to adapt the Fair Housing rule on hostile environment harassment by making it apply to all tenants in the covered situations. We propose to create the Office of the Tenant Advocate in the Office of the Attorney General with the ability to pursue justice on behalf of tenants exposed to hostile environment harassment.
Because landlords who are egregious offenders are unlikely to respond to persuasion through an ombuds office, we hold that the authority of an advocate able to intervene through administrative or legal action is needed.
I have circulated the included preliminary draft bill among several tenants in both public and subsidized housing before presenting it to our legislators and continuing to circulate it to attorneys and others with relevant experience.
We have provided the core elements of a legislative bill to create the Office of the Tenant Advocate in the Office of the Attorney General to Senator Joan Lovely, Representative Sally Kerans, and Representative Tom Walsh. Over the next few weeks, we will have the opportunity to collaborate with Senator Lovely, her legislative aide, representatives, and their aides, to flesh out a well-defined bill.
I am eager to have comments and suggestions to assist us in those deliberations. See the most recent draft at http://stopbullyingcoalition.org/tenantadvocate
Some of us are discouraged and skeptical of the years spent in the legislative process, but that is the best process we have. As we look back on our efforts, we had rapid success when we fought for and passed the bill to create the Commission on Bullying. Let us consider how we won that victory by building partnerships with our legislators and by creating a coalition of tenants and building on it this time around.
- Two people started the Stop Bullying Coalition. One of us filed bullying legislation “by right” through the help of Senator Lovely.
- We assembled a broad coalition of tenants and organizations including the Mass Union of Public Housing Tenants, CHAPA, Independent Living Center of the North Shore and Cape Ann Inc. (ILCNSCA), and in some areas, the Mass Alliance of HUD Tenants.
- Across the state, legislators routinely receive a stream of complaints about the problems in housing. They know we have a problem, and our bill created the chance to address it.
- Many tenants and supporters, including our legislators, testified with great impact before the Joint Committee on Housing.
- We engaged with many legislators, including the small group of legislative leaders who manage and control legislation, including the Speaker of the House, the Chair of the Joint Committee on Housing, a senior Republican representative, and the Chair of Bills in 3rd Reading.
- We worked with both Republican and Democratic legislators.
- We worked closely with legislators and adopted strategies they proposed. For example, when Representative Kevin Honan determined that, despite favorable testimony, our bill was not ready, Representatives Brad Hill and Honan proposed changing our bill into a call for the Commission on Bullying.
- We worked with an attorney to draft the language for a strong bill that created a Commission representing many of the key stakeholders of housing, including tenant advocacy groups. The first try failed to pass, but in the next session, we had great support.
- We had the strong support of legislators, including the “North Shore Contingent,” led by Senator Lovely. A bill to create the Commission on Bullying was sponsored by Joan B. Lovely, Bradford R. Hill, Leah Cole, William N. Brownsberger, and other members of the General Court including Barbara L’Italien, Bruce E. Tarr, Richard J. Ross, James M. Murphy, and Jason M. Lewis was amended and sponsored by the Joint Committee on Housing. They were joined by their colleagues including the leadership of the House and Senate in the General Court, spearheaded by the combined North Shore delegation, all pushed to create a commission to bring together all the stakeholders in housing to better understand the causes, and find solutions to, bullying and harassing. The bill passed in 2016.
- Many tenants contributed to the work of the Commission during 2017 by helping to develop the survey of bullying and by attending Commission meetings.
- We served on the Commission on Bullying and carried out extensive research, including the design of the survey, with the help of tenants.
- We have persisted despite the reluctance of the Commission Chair to allow our minority report because “We don’t want you to advocate for tenants.” Our job is to advocate for the rights of tenants.
- We continue to testify for our rights, as Pamela Goodwin did in 2021, describing why she chose homelessness to escape intolerable housing.
- We need an effective system of oversight and accountability. When we work together, we win. We organize. We write and call our legislators. We testify. Let's do it!