BOSTON —Bullying and intimidation of elderly and disabled residents by landlords or their neighbors is widespread in public housing in Massachusetts, according to a new report that is driving calls for more oversight and protections.
The report is the work of a 19-member commission, billed as the first of its kind in the nation, which studied the prevalence of bullying in state-subsidized and multifamily housing.
Nearly 46 percent of about 600 respondents to a survey said they had been bullied by a landlord or others, while more than than half said they had witnessed other individuals being bullied, according to the report. Of those, only a third said they knew where to get help.
The report points out that elderly and disabled tenants have options, such as filing a complaint with the attorney general's office, though many are not aware of their legal protections. Others felt that complaining could result in retaliation.
Jerry Halberstadt, a member of the commission created by the Legislature last year, said the findings are "troubling."
"It's scary," said Halberstadt, 81, of Peabody. "People are being bullied and harassed every day. And they're afraid to speak out because of retaliation."
Halberstadt, coordinator of the Stop Bullying Coalition, said bullied tenants often don't know where to turn.
"Nobody has the authority to intervene in a disagreement between neighbors," he said. "Tenants of public and subsidized housing, the elderly and people living with disabilities, are deprived of their rights and their well-being."
He wants the state to implement tougher restrictions to hold landlords accountable.
Harassment, pushy behavior, arguments and, at its most extreme, physical violence often go unreported, according to the American Association of Retired Persons. Bullying has a negative impact on seniors' quality of life, well being, and emotional and physical health, the group reports.
It persists at senior centers, assisted living facilities and nursing homes. Between 10 and 20 percent of residents in senior care homes nationally are mistreated by peers, according to the AARP.
In Massachusetts, there are more than 32,000 state-subsidized apartments for elderly and disabled residents, according to the Department of Housing and Community Development.
The commission, which was made up of state officials, legislative aides and advocates appointed by Gov. Charlie Baker, recommended increased training for housing staff and residents on how to recognize bullying and beefing up state laws and policies to prevent abuse. The panel also called for the creation of a statewide grievance system for reporting allegations of bullying, harassment and intimidation.
A spokeswoman for state Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders called the report a "blueprint for how to best address bullying, and promote awareness of existing protections available to individuals experiencing intimidation."
"All members of the housing community must be engaged to ensure that no one in public and subsidized housing feels threatened due to their race, sex, religion or disability," the spokeswoman said.
Rep. Brad Hill, R-Ipswich, hadn't yet seen the report on bullying but said he expects it will prompt calls for change on Beacon Hill.
"There clearly is a problem and people are being treated horribly," he said. "People shouldn't have to be bullied in public housing, or anywhere for that matter."
Sen. Joan Lovely, D-Salem, said the report highlights the need to toughen laws on bullying to include people living in state-subsidized housing.
"This is clearly a serious issue, and tenants don't know where to turn," she said. "We have to do something about it."
Rep. Ted Speliotis, D-Danvers, agrees that there's a problem but points out that differentiating between bullying and a neighborhood dispute is often a challenge.
"It's not like dealing with bullying in school where you can keep a kid after school or suspend them," he said. "These are adults and people have rights."
Halberstadt said the report provides ample ammunition for policymakers to seek changes in the law to offer more protection to disabled and elderly tenants.
"We need laws that can actually protect and empower tenants, rather than expose them to continuing harm," he said. "Frankly, we've waited far too long."
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at email@example.com.