When HUD created subsidized housing for elders, the goal was to create a safe and secure home for people who could not afford full market rate housing. But certain realities were created to confront elders. Owners believed that not only were they in charge of their buildings, but that they were in charge of their tenants. Shades of the Middle Ages: the feudal lord and his tenant farmers! Managers and staff came to believe that the perks of their jobs were more important than providing services and a safe and secure environment to elderly tenants.
Many HUD buildings have their Guardians—a social clique protective of management and often led by bullies. Some residents came to believe that by forming a social clique and pandering to the needs of managers and staff they could achieve a good life. A social group can provide mutual support, a sense of security, a sense of belonging, help in times of illness, and a system for defense against uncertainty and threats. However, if such a group becomes like a gang and uses tactics like bullying, abuse, and isolation to punish outsiders it can have a very negative impact. The Guardians make common cause with staff to maintain social control through intimidation and fear. It seems as if staff and Guardians alike fear any threat to their domination, thus they react with fear at any show of indepence or attempts to organise an inclusive tenants' association. The Guardians fear to lose their favored role while the management and staff fear the loss of their established ways of doing business, if not fear for their jobs.
New residents learn that the targets for this abuse and bullying are either the very weak or different, or the strong person who stands up for his or her rights. Residents believe that management and staff retaliate against anyone who objected to the current system or who doesn't fit in, with 'punishments' up to and including eviction. If a 'bad' tenant is evicted or forced to move out, staff and Guardians openly express their glee at their success--a clear warning of their power to everyone else.
These conditions create a toxic environment full of abuse, bullying, unfairness, and retaliation. Living under this kind of continual threat and stress can have serious physical and emotional consequences -- high blood pressure, stroke, heart attack, depression, and more.
During the last year or so the tenants Association in one such building, Bleak House, undertook to overcome these challenges. We began when a community organizer attempted to enlist the residents of our building in an action to dismiss the management company. However, there was no effort to first develop the organization and to meet the felt needs of residents. In the face of strong opposition by management the small group of advocates for dismissal could not make any headway. Tenants voted instead to elect a new leadership consisting of five people to serve as a steering committee, with the goal of working with management towards improving management tenant relationships, such as by training staff. Our strategy would be to work with management while at the same time building strength and cohesion among the tenants. We chose our mission statement to help guide us, but never stopped to draw up by-laws.
Dignity, respect, health and well-being of all residents; for mutual support, social and educational activities, and to collaborate with Management.
We hold Association meetings every month. The meetings are open to all residents, and there are no dues̬we want to be inclusive̬and decisions are made by majority vote of those present. The members of the steering committee work together, also by majority vote, to carry out the wishes of the Association. In the meetings we encourage people to state their needs and wishes, and we periodically write to management listing our needs and problems. Despite initial reluctance and resistance by management, we were able to begin to show results--small things such as a bulletin board for residents, or electrical timers to restrict the hours in the laundry room to allow nearby residents normal hours of quiet. Some requests were rejected arbitrarily, but we satisfied ourselves with small victories.
Although there had been a bingo game night every week for many years, some enthusiasts wanted another bingo night. One of the officers therefore took it upon herself to organize a new bingo night. However, the Guardians organized a campaign against the new bingo, a frontal attack on the ability of the Association to respond to the needs of residents. They tried to keep people from attending, they tried to paint it as an attack on the old bingo, and they harassed the officer who was leading the new bingo. The bullying and abuse took a painful toll on her health and well-being, however she persisted and kept the new bingo running and made it a success. Management knew of the bullying but refused to intervene, cynically claiming this was just a fight by rival groups and thus condoning the bullying.
Some of our Association meetings became unpleasant when residents attacked each other or complained about what the Association had or had not done. Therefore, we shifted our focus to bringing interesting speakers and information so that residents would take pleasure and get benefits from our meetings. Nevertheless, it was clear that many residents still were fearful of management and staff. We did not know how to begin new social activities like a movie night, for fear that anyone involved would be harassed by the Guardians and or staff.
When a new management company (keeping the old staff) was put into place by new owners, the Association invited the area supervisor to speak to the Association. At that time, and with full participation by the steering committee voting unanimously on our actions, we outlined our concerns and issues and presented them to the new supervisor. He agreed that people could turn to him with unresolved problems and without fear of retaliation. However one of the members of the steering committee (who had fully participated in our decisions) talked against our actions and went ahead and worked with the Guardians to try and seek the dissolution of the Association.
We felt that the Association was under siege and we did not know what step to take next. We felt we needed an outside source of support, but did not know a suitable agency. Our feeling was that the kind of pressures we were experiencing were simply intolerable, and that management could continue to allow this only if their behavior was not exposed to the light of day.
The area agency that was charged with looking into issues of elder abuse refused to get involved. A consultant (brought in by management and the part-time social worker) had led workshops for residents on how to deal with bullying. About a dozen people told of the bullying and that staff and management not only seemed to condone it, but even participated in it. The consultant found the situation severe and that management was not living up to its responsibility to deal with the bullying and the abuse.
One of the Association leaders turned to a Public Health nurse who had spoken to the Association. He said that we were living in fear in a toxic environment that was causing stress, anxiety, and depression for many people and that we did not know where to turn for help.
As a result of this plea for help, the city nurse called the problem to the attention of the local Council on Aging (COA), and the COA was very helpful. First the director of the COA met with the new area supervisor of the management company and made clear to him that the problems in Bleak House were the worst of all elder housing units in the city. Second the COA introduced the tenants' Association to Jill, a community organizer of Elder Advocacy, a state-wide advocacy representing seniors. The Director of the COA spoke to the Association about the activities and resources available at the senior center and a COA social worker provided support to individuals and the Association.
Here's what we had accomplished. First, all but one of the members of the steering committee held fast to a vision of working as a team towards the best interests of all residents and a resolve to change management and staff practices to those normal in civil society. We discussed every issue and we went over every document before it left our hands. We supported each other during difficult times and we shared responsibilities. Second, in a building of about 90 residents, we managed to have about 30 residents attend our meetings on a regular basis. We listened to their concerns and needs, we followed up, and we reported to them on what we had done in some detail--transparency and communication are important to build trust. Despite opposition by management, staff, and the Guardians we built up a sense of trust and cohesion in our core members. Third, when we reached the limits of our abilities we reached out to seek help and were able to find support in the city including the city nurse and the Mayor, as well as the COA.
By bringing in speakers from outside and involving outside agencies, we figuratively opened up the windows to let in light and air. By doing this we started to break the isolation which had given so much inappropriate power to management, staff, and the Guardians.
From our perspective, Jill has been the perfect consultant. Her extensive experience in helping other tenant groups to organize allowed her to see that we were facing the same issues as others. She showed us how to use the rights of tenants under HUD rules. She led workshops to help us to focus anew on the serious and continuing issues and take up battles that we could not lose under HUD rules. For example, when one of the Guardians said that the manager was working with her to help dissolve the Association, one of the members of the steering committee called the management area supervisor and warned him that under HUD rule any interference with the Association was a battle he could not win. He said he would immediately cause the Manager to cease her interference. Jill helped us to see that the way to break the alliance of the Guardians and management was to force management and staff to stop meddling in the social and personal lives of residents. We had to teach them to maintain appropriate boundaries. This would take away the power of the Guardians and the bullies, and although we probably could not change a bully we could choose our own responses.
And not to diminish in any way the skills that Jill herself brings to her work, the fact that she represents the Elder Advocacy is vitally important. Management in fact said they were afraid of Elder Advocacy because of their ability to rally support and to picket opponents. The owners have a stake in maintaining a good reputation!
We invited the Mayor to speak to the Association. Many of our residents know the Mayor, a popular figure in the city. In addition to a very large turnout of residents, we also hosted members of management and staff. The subtext of that invitation to management was saying that residents and management together are part of a larger community, and an attempt to break down barriers. Knowing that the Mayor was aware that the COA had intervened on behalf of the Association, management was fearful of being attacked in the meeting—a projection of their fear rather than what was intended or what we would have permitted.
Working closely with Jill, we called a meeting between management and the steering committee. We set the agenda and chaired the meeting, thus gaining a measure of recognition and respect from management. A representative of the owners who had extensive experience working with tenant associations also attended. We answered their challenges to our legitimacy. We stuck together to support our common position. And we stated our case strongly and with clear persuasive documentation. We gave examples of egregious conduct that transgressed HUD rules. We demanded follow-up on the key issues as well as accountability. The key issue that we focused on was setting appropriate boundaries for staff and stopping inappropriate collaboration among management, staff, and the Guardians. Despite the fact that, as the diplomats say, we had a full and frank exchange of views, we managed to keep the meeting polite and civil.
The owners' representative (a social worker) talked about her experiences and ideas for making a successful tenants Association -- something that she and the owners favored. We were able to tell her that we agreed with her points and were well on the way to developing our organization along those lines with the support of Jill and the Elder Advocacy. Weeks later we are still following up trying to make sure that management keeps its part of the bargain; we intend to persist no matter how long it takes. We measure our success to date in two ways̬first, the guardians have been reduced to demanding that we stop working with Jill; second, and most important, people are less fearful and are beginning to step forward and participate in the affairs of the Association.
A year ago we had practically no experience as organizers or community leaders. We've been making it up as we went along. We acted on these principles: As leaders, the job of the Steering Committee is to listen to and serve the interests of all the residents. The leadership must work together in a democratic collaboration, and persist through thick and thin. We need to constantly earn the trust of the residents. One of our jobs is to work with management to assure all residents of decent, fair treatment. And we reach outside for support and influence in our negotiations with management. We know that in a conflict or a negotiation the weaker partner needs allies. Until HUD does inspections on the rights of tenants and their quality of life, and not just on how well the building is maintained, tenants need to organize, to persist, and to reach out for support and guidance as well as for leverage against the strength of management. And a Tenants Association is like riding a bike: sometimes it is hard to go uphill, sometimes you can coast downhill, but you have to keep moving or you fall down!
Copyright 2011 Anonymous & Jerry Halberstadt All rights reserved.
This is a work documenting efforts to improve living conditions in Bleak House, an elderly residence subsidized under HUD, located in Riverby, a community north of Boston, MA. Names, characters, places,and incidents are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
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