Let us Now Improve Ombuds Bill S1084 for Effective Protection
A well-designed ombuds office is essential to protect the rights and well-being of tenants in public and subsidized housing for elderly and disabled tenants. We have been seeking relief for almost a decade, and we are no longer pleading and petitioning, we now demand legislation to protect our rights.
Extensive research by the Commission on Bullying, the experience of tenants, and our own experiences and the observations of scientists and others lead us to conclude that unless the landlord is held accountable, tenants can not be protected from bullying.
The minority report of the Commission on Bullying addressed the problems of protection for tenants and holding landlords accountable, and is a basis for S1084 of Senator Lovely and Representative Walsh to establish an independent statewide tenant protective services ombuds office.
Accountability & Effective Intervention
Unfortunately, some landlords demonstrate an inability or refusal to follow existing rules and guidelines. Some landlords allow or encourage their staff to use bullying or to condone bullying tactics by tenant groups. When that happens, tenants have no way to be protected, and live in a hostile environment. There is today no agency or court that has the authority to intervene in most circumstances, so very few tenants get relief.
Anyone who seeks their rights in a circumstance of hostile environment risks retaliation and even eviction. Only if the landlord is responsible and acts to prevent bullying, can tenants dare to complain about or seek to prevent bullying.
The Attorney General has clearly stated that the landlord is legally responsible for protecting the rights of tenants, including the right of peaceful enjoyment. Peaceful enjoyment is the right of each tenant to enjoy the use of their home and common spaces without interference. If a landlord and their staff bullys tenants or they allow bullying among tenants, that is unlawful.
If a tenant is harmed by the loss of their rights by bullying and a hostile environment, the victim may bring a civil action against the landlord. However, tenants in public/subsidized housing cannot afford the cost of legal action, there is no free legal aid available, and the matters are too complex for a tenant to bring as a pro se action.
A framework for enforcement
- If a person is bullied or mobbed, how is that to be defined so that the ombuds or a judge can evaluate a case?
- What is the speedy remedy for the target of bullying and mobbing?
- What is the range of remedial interventions and/or punishments for the perpetrator?
- Who will prosecute? In what court or forum?
- Does the Attorney General (or the District Attorneys) have the authority to intervene under existing law? If the Attorney General is unwilling to intervene in situations of hostile environment, the Joint Committee on Housing should explore other avenues for assuring accountability and sanctions. Attorneys now working with the Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) should not be tasked with this accountability function, insofar as this would be in conflict with their role defending managers and housing authorities from the complaints of tenants.
The ombuds should be in the Executive Office of Housing and Community Development, and report directly to the Secretary. This will assure independence from the daily operations of DHCD where the staff tends to routinely work with and support management in disputes with tenants.
Investigation and Protection
The ombuds should have qualified investigators with the authority to collect and review all relevant evidence and to question all parties in housing and the host community, and have the power to protect any tenant or other person who may make a valid or good faith complaint
Those landlords and managers who are themselves perpetrators may not be reliable reporters. A hostile environment is characterized by unwelcome conduct making it difficult or impossible for victims to have the peaceful enjoyment of their tenancy. Typically, a housing development with extensive bullying and mobbing, i.e., a hostile environment, will be well-known to agencies and service personnel in the host community. By enlisting community-based observers as mandated reporters, the chances for intervention will be increased.
The ombuds office should cover protecting the rights of elderly and disabled tenants in public and subsidized housing, including housing that is subsidized in whole or part by Federal programs. Regardless of the financing, tenants are citizens of the Commonwealth and are entitled to equal protection. The ombuds offices should cover the public-private redevelopment programs that shift public housing tenants into subsidized, private developments.
Tenants value their rights
Tenants have the right to the peaceful enjoyment of their tenancy. We seek and are entitled to a safe environment—safe socially and emotionally as well as physically—that is inclusive and accessible to all.
The role of the Commonwealth
The role of the Commonwealth must be to oversee, monitor, and hold landlords and their agents accountable to implement the rights, goals, and values of tenants under the law that assures peaceful enjoyment. Models that should be considered include the Disabled Persons Protection Commission and Elder Abuse.
The ombuds office
The ombuds must have a broad range of functions in order to carry out those responsiblities, including but not limited to:
- Implementing legal standards and/or establishing rules, regulations,and standards to define bullying and the methods for evaluating complaints, and the standards and methods for ascertaining guilt and appropriate interventions and sanctions.
- Receiving complaints and reports from tenants and others
- Investigating and evaluating all claims rapidly
- Intervening to protect targets from continuing harm & from retaliation; protecting reporters from retaliation
- Evaluating the actions of the landlord and all their agents
- Advising and directing the landlord and specific responsible individuals of the need for a plan to remedy, with a timeline for completion. Require training and therapy as appropriate.
- The ability to sanction a continuing failure to remedy and correct with monetary fines and other sanctions on landlord, management, and staff as well as giving warnings and recommendations for eviction as warranted to tenants.
- The ability to reach out to public offices and independent agencies in the community to provide resources and help to mitigate the problems. Recruiting resources and interventions to remediate underlying problems that may lead to friction and bullying.
The following individuals support this petition after having reviewed and/or contributed to the drafting of it. The petitioners include both elderly persons and persons living with disability, including some who have been bullied and mobbed because of issues of identity and disability, or for asserting their rights.
- Bonny Zeh, Co-founder of the Stop Bullying Coalition, tenant in Federal public housing, Somerville
- Susan Bonner, Legislative Chair, Board Member, Mass Union of Public Housing Tenants; Nahant Public Housing
- Mary Margaret Moore, Former Executive Director of the Independent Living Center of the North Shore
- “Margaret,” former tenant in subsidized housing in Attleboro, unfairly evicted for her advocacy on behalf of disabled tenants
- Kolya Lynne Smith, currently living in challenging circumstances in subsidized housing under Preservation of Affordable Housing in Boston
- Anonymous, currently living in challenging circumstances in subsidized housing under Preservation of Affordable Housing in Boston
- Lori Bermani, living in Salem Public Housing
- Grace Breckenridge, living in subsidized housing at Proprietors Fields, Williamstown, managed by Berkshire Housing Services, Inc.; community organizer
- Lynn Costello, living in Lowell Public Housing; community organizer
- LaurieAnn Wright, tenant in Holliston Housing Authority, degreed paralegal
- Chris Hoeh, member of Dignity Alliance
Additional supporters will be added. Write to us with your information in the format: name, location, role