How to Stop Bullying & Mobbing

Elderly woman, despairing
This is a guide for tenants, managers, landlords, and community leaders who are concerned about conditions in a multifamily housing community that has become toxic.

The case of "Nowhere"

The setting is "Nowhere," either a small public or subsidized housing development (50 or fewer units), or it might be a large apartment building (100 or more units) 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. Pseudonyms for individuals and places are used to protect their identity. Anyone who lives where there is bullying and 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.

MUPHT CONFERENCE, Tenant leaders who were bullied
MUPHT CONFERENCE, Tenant leaders who were bullied

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

What is bullying?

Bullying is a contagious social disease, not always a symptom of an unhealthy mind or an evil personality. People who bully are "perpetrators" but not necessarily a "bully." They use bullying to get what they want 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 & group bullying

Malicious gossip

"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."

The leader of the "Guardians," a group that uses bullying to enforce their own rules on the community, says:

"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."

"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."

What is mobbing?

Mobbing or group bullying consists of members of a group working together to bully their target(s). The concept of "mobbing" developed in the study of birds and other animals, and describes cooperative and aggressive behavior against a real or perceived threat. Thus, a flock of crows will attack and harass a hawk, forcing it away.

When the leadership of a group identifies a group member as a real or perceived threat to the rule of the leadership; or when the leadership perceives someone outside the group as a threat to the dominance of the group in their community, they will target that person. Janice Harper, Ph.D., is a cultural anthropologist and an expert on mobbing. She has focused

"...on the behavior of the group and on organizational cultures that can lead otherwise good and decent people to behave in cruel and inhumane ways given certain patterned and predictable features of mobbing and how people respond when a leader targets someone for punishment. We act differently in group settings than we do in individual interactions, and as several studies in group psychology have shown, humans will almost always turn against each other when leadership signals that someone is undesirable and/or weak, vulnerable or a threat."

Harper asserts that

"...housing for the elderly and disabled is a high-risk setting for mobbing behaviors, where interventions based on the bully paradigm fail to protect individuals who find themselves the target of group aggression. If anything, the target is likely to be called a bully by the very people who have engaged in bullying behavior, because bullies have been socially demonized as deserving of elimination, while the very label is a form of dehumanization. Accusing the target of always making complaints and being disliked by everyone can be used to portray the target of abuse as the abuser." ---Janice Harper

Group bullying is a form of mobbing

In "Nowhere," where the tenant association was targeting their victims for eviction, I tried to discover the source of the antagonism. I was not in a position to evaluate who was right and who wrong in the situation. And it did not matter, because the underlying problem was a lack of community standards and systems for resolving conflict. The tenant association had worked hard and long to gain power to act on behalf of tenants. But this summary is incomplete because the tenants association has refused to tell their side of the story.

It seems that one of the targets, "Jill," had been actively working with the tenant association to engage tenants in a variety of social activities. A new tenant, "Marie," took over a leadership role and the association shifted focus to increasing unity among the members of the association and to conflict with the management, seeking a greater say in policy. A long-running feud between Jill and Marie began.

Jill dared to be critical of the new strategies and goals of the association. Jill was subject to mobbing for over a year, with multiple accusations of wrongdoing being leveled at the victim, shunning, and unremitting hostility, with two assaults by members of the association. Association members went to court to seek an order of protection against Jill, which was denied. Jill was described by tenant association leaders as a threat, someone who would report tenants for infractions such as smoking or having a boyfriend or relative stay with them. But the association would protect their members from Jill and from sanctions by management. People were urged to shun Jill and warned against her. And Jill was equally critical and vocal in her condemnation of the association.

There was no effective intervention by management to either resolve the underlying dispute or to prevent the bullying and mobbing. I was concerned for the well-being of their target, Jill, whose mental and physical health deteriorated under the unremitting attacks. The association openly sought to "get rid of Jill."

Despite my role as a neutral observer, because the threat to Jill's health and well-being was severe, and the management did not act, I decided to intervene. Therefore, I turned to a local community leader and to the organization that had mentored the tenants association, asking them to influence the tenants association. But I was met by hostility for asserting that a tenants' association may be carrying out mobbing. I was told that the victim was a bad person who had done bad things and that the tenants association was "good people."

"They have a right to do that, because their target is such a bad or evil person who has done wicked things. They are getting what they deserve."

We can debate the terminology and definition of "bullying" and "mobbing," but we do no one a service if we deny that bullying is harmful, regardless of why it is done or who does it. Responding to bullying or other grievances by bullying and mobbing continues the conflict, generates and continues the social and psychological harm, and is unlikely to solve any problems.

We support and seek to empower tenants to enjoy their rights, including the right of peaceful enjoyment. We do not support the use of bullying and mobbing to respond to real or imagined injustices.

When a tenants association uses bullying to rule over others and seeks to get rid of people they don't like or that disagree with them, they lose legitimacy as a democratic, representative organization. They weaken their cause and their tactics can create a toxic environment in the community.

The landlord ought to step in to prevent the harassment and bullying by any person or group, even a formal tenants association.

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 (, 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

  • institutional bullying, i.e., where the landlord and management ignore, condone, and do not seek to prevent bullying by staff and tenants;
  • and in situations of institutional mobbing where the landlord and management not only condone bullying, but may even encourage individuals and groups who bully in ways that supports management.

At times, we may be unable to distinguish between institutional mobbing and institutional bullying and refer to institutional mobbing or mobbing.

NOTE: There is no practical difference between situations where the landlord ignores bullying and mobbing, and where they actively promote and engage in bullying and mobbing. These are just variations on hostile environment harassment.—JH, December, 2023

The failure of management and the landlord to assure peaceful enjoyment for all tenants is unlawful, according the Attorney General of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Office of the Attorney General Advisory: All Tenants Have a Right to Be Free from Harassment and Intimidation, April 11, 2018.

Institutional mobbing consists of the landlord and their agents allowing and taking part in the bullying of victims. When institutional mobbing combines with group bullying, this creates a toxic situation that is a form of hostile environment harassment. Hostile environment harassment is a situation that makes it impossible for the victim to have "peaceful enjoyment,"

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, meaning that they can not be safe and secure in their home, including in common areas.

Examples of institutional bullying

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."

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.

Institutional mobbing

There are many effective styles of leadership and management. And there are some styles of management that are defensive, controlling, and even abusive of staff as well as tenants.

In Upton, although the housing authority board meetings are controlled by the public meeting laws and thus open to the public and to filming, the board sought to prevent filming. There was ongoing conflict between tenant activists and the board, and Pamela Goodwin, an activist was bullied by tenants and harassed by board and management.

In the board meetings of some local housing authorities, managers and their boards either do not permit any tenant participation, or severely limit and restrict it.

When communication among tenants, management, and board members is not open and effective, then bad things can happen and the board may find itself dealing with a disaster that could have been avoided. 

And when a chaotic situation exists for tenants, they may form groups to take matters into their own hands. They will attempt to control the actions of others and bully and mob those that do not join their group. They may interfere with management, flout the basic rules, and use bullying and mobbing tactics against everyone else, including attacking management and board of the housing authority.

Roots of the problem

All forms of bullying are harmful to the well-being and health of the elderly and people living with disability in multifamily 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."

"Even though there are no official assigned space, this parking space belongs to a member of our group, don't park here."

When a landlord and their agents fail to establish and enforce basic rules for communal life, rules that are reasonable in the eyes of the tenants, 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 representing the Stop Bullying Coalition 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 landlords that allow hostile environment harassment and mobbing to take over life in their properties.

The law

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 Massachusetts law for failing to assure 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.

I had believed that harassment protection orders should apply, according to my reading of the text of the harassment protection 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. But we were wrong. 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. For more information, including the legislative history and intent of the law, please see "It's the law!" at

Today, there is very little accountability for the errant landlord.

Advocacy as a strategy

How to deal with institutional bullying that happens when the landlord and their agents either ignore bullying by individuals or groups, or institutional mobbing when the landlord actively supports bullying and favors the perpetrators of bullying?

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.

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. Building trust among all parties is an essential step.

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. A person with a disability should have access to the services and facilities they require to live in an independent setting. Marsha Frankl and other experts have outlined the importance of services for persons with mental health issues.

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. The other members of the community need to be reasonably tolerant while the issues are resolved. And regardless of the cause or motivation of behavior that harms others or restricts their rights, the housing authority has the duty to resolve the issues and assure the right of all tenants to peaceful enjoyment.

Take care of yourself

If you are a tenant, 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.

When under attack, we easily slip into aggressive response patterns. But when we adopt tit-for-tat tactics to confront a group of bullies, we become bullies ourselves. Thus, good people, with good intentions, can do bad things. That is why it is so important to have a legitimate, lawful policy implemented by the landlord to prevent bullying. And why it is essential to create an ombuds office to provide oversight to hold an errant landlord to account.

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.

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.

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.

The Stop Bullying Coalition recognizes the challenge, and we have worked and will continue to work towards solutions and protections.


How to stop bullying and create a healthy community

There are several 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.
  • Clear guidelines for behavior of staff and tenants;
  • Competent social and mental health services to provide evaluation and assistance to enable each resident to live independently with consideration for their neighbors' rights.
  • Staff and service providers help resolve conflict and support the growth of a positive community. 
  • A procedure for investigating and evaluating complaints and protecting people from retaliation;
  • Methods for dispute resolution;
  • A fair and reasonable series of graded interventions for transgressions of the rules, up to and including eviction;
  • 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;
  • 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 achieve a peaceful community life. Tenant participation must be monitored and subject to accountability.

Moving forward

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 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.


Man and woman on bench in garden at sunset
Man and woman on bench in garden at sunset


Office of the Attorney General Advisory: All Tenants Have a Right to Be Free from Harassment and Intimidation, April 11, 2018.

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

Jerry Halberstadt and Marvin So, Statewide Survey on Bullying of Tenants in Public and Subsidized Multifamily Housing: Report of the Committee for Research on Conditions and Prevalence of the Commission on Bullying, (Boston: Mass Commission on Bullying, 2017).

Duffy, Maureen and Len Sperry, Overcoming Mobbing: A Recovery Guide for Workplace Aggression and Bullying, (New York:Oxford University Press, 2013).

Frankl M., Freed G., Isenberg L., Silverlieb C. and Burns K., "Tips and Techniques for Supporting Residents with Mental Illness: A Guide for Staff in Housing for Older Adults." 2012: JCHE & JCFS

Statement of Janice Harper, bullying and mobbing in group settings., and see: review at

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,

For a Healthy Community,

Extensive listing of bibliography and materials as well as links to some important agencies: