Action is needed now
Letter to Hon Charles D Baker, seeking action on bullying of elderly and disabled persons in public and subsidized housing. Revised for publication.
April 16, 2018
The Honorable Charles D. Baker
Governor of The Commonwealth of Massachusetts
The State House
24 Beacon Street
Boston MA 02133
Dear Governor Baker:
It has been a privilege to serve the Commonwealth and to assist you and the legislature in the administration of the housing of 92,000 elderly and disabled tenants in order to assure their peaceful enjoyment and protection from bullying and mobbing. I was honored to serve as a member of the Commission to Study Ways to Prevent Bullying of Tenants in Public and Subsidized Multifamily Housing pursuant to Chapter 2 of the resolves of 2016.
What we have now learned through research done for the Commission is the basis for necessary and urgent action.
I knew from my experiences as Coordinator of our statewide Stop Bullying Coalition that there was a very serious threat to our most vulnerable citizens. I became increasingly concerned about this pervasive, systemic plague as readers of our newsletter shared their despair.
Much of what we believed about bullying was wrong or incomplete. We are finally forming a more accurate picture by getting input from residents, social scientists, legal experts and housing providers. The Commission undertook to survey residents and staff of public and subsidized housing. We found that very nearly half (46%) of respondents reported being bullied in their housing community and 29% reported also observing others being bullied. We learned that very few victims of bullying dare to seek help and an even smaller number ever receive protections.
The most salient finding of our research is that existing laws, regulations, and institutions fail to provide remedies, protection, or relief for victims of bullying. Today there is no agency empowered to intervene on behalf of victims of bullying, harassment, and mobbing; options for victims seeking justice are few to none.
Tenants of public and subsidized housing—the elderly and/or persons with disabilities—are deprived of their rights and their well being.
While there are laws or agencies that could protect targets of bullying, in practice there is very rare accountability and almost all victims are without remedy. Where do they even begin?
This is a matter of great urgency. People who are living under the toxic context of bullying and mobbing live in fear and anxiety. They become more and more isolated. They are so afraid to leave their homes that they may even cancel medical appointments. Importantly, they may not reveal their circumstances even to family members, fearing retaliation. At this point, loss of right to peaceful enjoyment becomes an understatement. We are therefore obligated to provide relief and justice.
It is well established in federal and state law that landlords have clear legal obligations to assure the peaceful enjoyment of all tenants. Peaceful enjoyment is the right of all tenants to enjoy the use of their homes and common spaces without interference. However, accountability is lacking.
Hostile environment harassment consists of bullying and harassing victims and is a violation of both federal and state law; it is unwelcome conduct that makes it difficult or impossible for victims to have the peaceful enjoyment of their residency. Mobbing takes place when a community harasses a victim and when landlords fail to take measures to stop the harassment and/or mobbing, they are complicit and culpable.
I submit for your consideration the following recommendations, representing ways to achieve the purposes of the Commission through existing agencies at minimal cost and are "...necessary to protect tenants from harm and preserve their rights."
The Commonwealth shall:
- define 'bullying' and 'mobbing' to include psychological and social methods of harassment;
- provide rapid relief and protection for all victims and whistleblowers;
- oversee and intervene to hold landlords, private as well as public, accountable in ensuring peaceful enjoyment;
- remedy egregious situations of severe bullying, mobbing, and hostile environment harassment by administrative and court action;
- develop and support pilot programs of at least two (2) years to perform education, training, prevention and research to be reported to the Commonwealth in a timely manner.
The potential for creating healthy community
Most research on bullying and mobbing in the workplace and housing has focused on the individual perpetrators or on social and community dynamics and the failure of leadership leading to mobbing. The Commission's survey found more than half of the respondents did not report being bullied, and I have studied communities that were essentially free of bullying, as well as those consumed by mobbing and I have compared and contrasted healthy and toxic communities.
Since some housing is relatively free of bullying, and if we better understand how this is achieved, we ought to be able to extend those methods to all housing. So we should continue research. And we already have clear directions that can guide immediate action.
Based on my analysis, I conclude that we can create a healthy community and assure the peaceful enjoyment of all tenants—provided that housing providers and all living or working in the residential community work together to create a common understanding and polity—an agreement accepted by everyone as to how to live together. This cannot take place until mobbing and hostile environment harassment are eliminated.
In my role as Commissioner representing the Stop Bullying Coalition, I filed a minority report with the General Court. Implementing our recommendations as outlined above and in my report (available on request) depends on the legislature and state agencies. Any new legislation can not come to a hearing on Beacon Hill for at least a year.
What can we do to provide relief now?
- Within existing laws and regulations, we can insist that landlords and agencies are held accountable by the Commonwealth.
- We can showcase the examples of healthy communities.
- We can intervene to protect victims whose rights are limited.
- We must give greater respect to residents and empower them to contribute to creating healthy community.
Please do not hesitate to contact me for any clarification, and as always I and the members of the Coalition will be pleased to assist in efforts to serve the people of our Commonwealth.
Thank you for what you do.
Stop Bullying Coalition