Urgent Need, Targeted Remedy
We, the elderly and disabled tenants of public and subsidized housing, need legislation to establish an independent ombuds office to protect us from bullying and mobbing and hold landlords accountable. The Attorney General has decreed that preventing harassment is the responsibility of the landlord, and failure to act is unlawful. However, there is no effective remedy available to targets of bullying and mobbing.
The solution is an independent ombuds office with the power to receive reports, investigate and evaluate, resolve where possible, and with the authority to hold the landlord accountable before the law—this is essential to protect tenants from bullying and mobbing, and thus assure their rights.
Scope of the problem
Public and subsidized housing in Massachusetts includes 1,400 residential developments, with over 92,000 units for elderly and disabled persons; others use vouchers in market-rate settings. Almost half the respondents to a landmark survey done by the Commission on Bullying reported being bullied in their residential setting, and about 30% also observed others being bullied.
Bullying is any mode of action or communication used by one or more perpetrators to hurt, demean, or inhibit the target in an effort to wield inappropriate control over the victim. Bullying tactics include aggressive psychological and/or social actions that threaten the target. Harassment includes bullying as well as actual or threatened harm to the person of the target or their property. Mobbing is bullying that leadership initiates, enables, or fails to prevent. Hostile environment harassment prevents targets from enjoying a safe and secure life in their home.
The goal of our efforts is not to create a utopian community where everyone loves each other and there is no strife. Instead, we seek to make it possible for people to live together despite their differences and to create a social environment that is, at least, not toxic and harmful. Only in such a situation, free from bullying, can people build a positive, supportive community.
A bully-free community is possible when tenants and the landlord understand the appropriate limits of behavior and have a way to resolve differences without resorting to aggression—physical, emotional, bullying, harassment, or mobbing.
What is mobbing? Mobbing is a symptom of landlord and system failure. You will recognize it when tenants say, “They don’t belong here. Let’s get rid of them.” You will know it when bullying is common.
When a tenant group tries to evict people, where will it end? Do we really want to live like that? Tenants have no right to judge the suitability of another tenant for residency. Under current law, only the landlord (including their agents) has the authority to maintain order and protect the rights of all tenants to be free of bullying and to have “quiet enjoyment.” It is the duty of the landlord to mitigate and prevent bullying. The landlord has the sole ability, subject to court action, to include or exclude individuals. Landlords can sometimes wrongly take control of the actions and rights of tenants. They may assert they have no obligations for the well-being of tenants, because the housing is for "independent living." This, of course, is a fiction. Elderly and disabled people living in poverty are not truly independent because their landlords are paid by government. Because of a lack of oversight, landlords can take their human and basic rights from tenants. At present, tenants have no way to assure their safety and their rights.
Mobbing is different from bullying among individuals or between groups of tenants. It is almost identical to hostile environment harassment, and unwelcome conduct creating a situation that makes it difficult or impossible for victims to have the peaceful enjoyment of their residency. Mobbing results when tenants and landlords have not agreed on how people can live together with mutual respect and consideration of differences.
Ombuds office needed
The need for remedy has been clearly demonstrated by testimony before multiple sessions of the Joint Committee on Housing and by the formal report and the minority report of the Commission on Bullying and other research and reports.
A decade of progress
The Stop Bullying Coalition was formed in 2012, and a decade later, despite the significant success, we still lack a law to protect targets. In January 2013, I submitted a bill on bullying “by right” through Senator Joan Lovely. In collaboration with a bipartisan group of legislators including Senator Lovely, Representatives Brad Hill, and Kevin Honan, and with the help of Attorney Annette Duke of Mass Law Reform Institute, and many tenant advocates, I revised that bill to create a commission to study bullying. In the following legislative session, that bill was the basis for legislation sponsored by Senator Lovely that was passed and signed into law as Chapter 2 of the Resolves of 2016. The work and goals of the commission were clear.
“The commission shall study the prevalence and impact of the bullying of tenants, with a focus on elderly and disabled tenants, in public and subsidized multi-family housing…”
As a Commissioner in 2016-to 2017, I helped to guide extensive research with help and input from tenants, advocacy groups, housing directors, and experts in mental health, law, and anthropology. When the consensus report of the Commission downplayed essential aspects of the research findings and the need for effective protections, I drafted a minority report to address the concerns of tenants.
The minority report of the Commission on Bullying—which focused on mobbing, the role of the landlord, and detailed the lack of effective and available remedy—was rejected by the Chair of the Commission because
“We won't let you advocate for tenants.”
This was a direct contradiction of the charter of the Commission:
“This research shall be used to identify and develop best practices; raise public awareness, and propose public policy recommendations and legislation necessary to protect tenants from harm and preserve their rights.”
We are still determined to continue our partnerships and pass remedial legislation creating an ombuds office.
Relief is still missing
Pamela Goodwin, a tenant in subsidized housing in Greenfield, initiated and organized an all-tenant panel presentation on social aggression, bullying, and mobbing that was held on Saturday, April 30, 2022, as part of the 51st annual spring convention of the Mass Union of Public Housing Tenants (MUPHT ) in Marlborough MA. Tenants reported their successes and challenges of tenants in efforts to mitigate bullying.
The salient theme that has emerged from all these sources is that only where the landlord is competent, caring, and perhaps even compassionate is it possible to prevent bullying and that where the landlord fails in their responsibilities under the law, there can be no relief. While a tenant association or local tenant organization (LTO) can sometimes make significant progress, the effort can also increase conflict among tenants and increase the hostile atmosphere between management and tenants.
Each housing community needs an agreement that is backed by a fair and just procedure for setting limits on all wrongful behavior that holds landlords and management as well as tenants responsible to the community. We need an agency to provide oversight, investigation, resolution, and accountability.
The essential remedy is to assure that landlords are held accountable. We propose to create an ombuds office that will protect tenants from bullying, and where mobbing is found, hold the landlord to account. We seek a statewide tenant protective services ombuds program for elderly and disabled tenants in public and subsidized housing to implement the principle stated by the Attorney General—it is unlawful to prevent others from enjoying their rights as citizens and tenants. Otherwise, we are doomed to fight each other and the landlord for control of our homes and our rights.
There is no good reason to delay a remedy. When we see the long-term impact on the health and well-being of targets of bullying and mobbing in public and subsidized housing, we must act to create effective legal remedies to prevent such aggression and hold landlords responsible for failing in their obligation to protect tenants.
In the final days of this legislative session, we continue to seek results. We are prepared to seek action in the next session, in January of 2023, if necessary.