Stop bullying elderly people in HUD-subsidized housing

Submitted by Jerry Halberstadt on Wed, 08/15/2012 - 02:00

A petition for legislation, administrative rules, and oversight to correct the abuse


Elders living in subsidized residences frequently are subject to abuse, harassment, and bullying by other residents and/or by staff. Residents in these out-of-control buildings are constantly under siege from bullying, causing them to suffer from stress and related conditions such as depression, high-blood pressure, stroke, and possibly suicide, and have nowhere to turn for relief. This is a petition seeking legislative and administrative remedies. Please join and help make a difference.

Residents living in state-subsidized and locally-managed housing as well as HUD housing, experience similar, flagrant abuses. The agencies and social service bodies tasked with looking into elder abuse are over-burdened and often their employees are fearful of challenging politically-connected landlords and managers. Local HUD offices defer to management. And no one holds management to account.

The story (Note 2) of struggles by residents to achieve dignity in an apartment building for elders subsidized by HUD drew a number of responses from around the country, such as "You have described my own building!" "I am first and foremost a tenant that is absolutely fed up with owners like this and the disrespect, harassment, intimidation and the stereotypical views that we have been defined by."

Factors in HUD housing contributing to the emergence and persistence of bullying

  • failure of HUD and other sponsoring agencies to look after the well-being and quality of life of residents; failure to provide an effective, responsive ombudsman and lack of oversight over management;
  • absence of good managerial supervision and/or adequate, appropriately trained staff on the premises;
  • management relying on maintenance personnel or groups of residents for information, advice, and intervention and for social control;
  • failure of social service agencies and their staff (social workers, activity directors) to carry out their responsibilities and intervene to stop bullying, even when required by law and professional obligations;
  • attacks by staff or other residents on the ability of an independent tenants' association to organize or advocate for the needs of residents, despite HUD explicitly granting the right to organize;
  • mixing incompatible types of residents as well as residents who differ in ethnicity, education, language, and culture; all without creating a suitable framework for social control and security. Elders range from those fully independent and with social support to those in need of extensive physical, social, and emotional support. Elders stepping in to care for adult children or grandchildren. Younger people with disabilities, including histories of violence, drugs, alcohol, and severe emotional problems.


  • HUD must assure that the environment supports the well-being and a good quality-of-life for all residents. To that end, HUD must set forth and enforce rules and regulations for owners and management including programs of oversight, education, and an effective, resident-oriented ombudsman function to assure professional management and to protect the rights of elderly residents to a dignified life in a peaceful community. Residents must be protected from bullying and protected from retaliation when they reach out for help.
  • State and local agencies should have programs comparable to those proposed for HUD
  • HUD should have programs of oversight, education, and an effective, resident-oriented ombudsman function to assure professional management and to protect the rights of elderly residents to a dignified life in a peaceful community. Residents must be protected from retaliation.
  • In evaluating and inspecting a residence, equal attention should be paid to the social aspects as to the physical plant. When HUD or other agencies do property inspections, there should be a meeting with the Tenants’ Association and individual tenants to assess quality of life issues, including relations among tenants and relations between tenants and management. Inspectors should also meet with other residents as appropriate to get a full picture of the social setting. These meetings must be private, in the absence of owners or managers.
  • Owners and all levels of management and staff must be appropriately qualified and trained in customer relations and how to deal with conflict. Training and certificates of training should be mandatory and added to the list of items to check when HUD inspects these buildings and management's record keeping. In many cases the owners just hire those that have worked in buildings or complexes that are rent subsidized. All levels of management and staff must be trained in how to recognize, respond to, and report abuse, harassment, and bullying. Failure to respond appropriately must be dealt with severely.
  • In each residence, there must be social services staff with appropriate training and experience in managing conflict, creating a positive and safe social environment, and with the authority to take corrective steps when needed. This could be a social worker, social group worker, activities coordinator, etc. Based on residences which appear to have less conflict, the appropriate ratio seems to be one full-time person per ~100 residents. Reporting abuse problems to responsible agencies, such as "Elder Abuse," for necessary intervention, should be mandatory.
  • Programs to encourage and support a positive community social life should be part of the mix. Residents should have access to a variety of spaces and facilities to support normal social activities, including appropriate access to the grounds. Residents should be provided with workshops and other educational and support methods to help them recognise and deal with abuse, harassment, and bullying.
  • Quarterly surveys of residents to identify problems with plant or in the social relations/quality of life, with appropriate followup.
  • HUD should prepare and enforce carefully drawn guidelines for screening staff and residents, with due attention to civil rights and the rights of all to decent housing.
  • Building and grounds should be maintained and clean at all times, not just buffed up on the eve of an inspection.
  • Residents as well as HUD (or other supervising agency) should have access to the financial records of the managing agency. How are the receipts and subsidies allocated? Have receipts gone back into maintenance, security, the social well-being of residents, and other things specific to the needs of residents? Are staff incentives in line with the needs of residents?
  • Social service agencies need to address their responsibilities to protect the dignity and rights of elders. Bullying and elder abuse are illegal under state law (in Massachusetts, Michigan and possibly elsewhere).
  • Owners, management, and individual staff must be held accountable (civil/criminal law, administrative procedures) for enabling or permitting abuse, harassment, or bullying. Monetary fines should be directed towards correcting abuses and benefiting victims.

Action steps

People have been asking how to sign the petition. My bad, I assumed you would meet with or send a copy to your elected officials. Never assume! And I've been told that letter writing campaigns are not as effective as direct personal contact or focused meetings in the community. So here are some ideas how to take action.

Find your Representative in Congress: name, contact information

Find your Senator in Congress

  • We are looking for quality, not quantity in petitioning our representatives. If we work together as peers sharing common issues, we can make a difference.
  • Write a letter that briefly states your experience and why you endorse this petition; and include a copy of this petition. Send to your elected representatives at the local, state, and federal level. Your mayor, city council, state legislators, governor (and look for specific agencies), congressional delegation: house and senate.
  • Another good strategy is to meet directly with your congressperson or other elected official. A small group that is well-prepared can have a big impact. We want to inform, educate, and motivate. If you can involve some kind of professional such as a social worker, community organizer, director of your local senior center, etc., have them come with you to confirm the validity of your issues. Prepare for your meeting by having a session with the people who will come with you, make sure each person knows their role, and don't get bogged down in personal stories of grief. You are trying to advocate for legislative and administrative change, not seeking intervention for any specific problem (although that may be an outcome). Prepare a one-page outline/bullet points to guide the meeting. And leave a document that summarizes 1: the problem 2: the causes 3: remedies that you seek, and a copy of the petition.
  • Please share your ideas and experiences, for example, copies of your letters and meeting agendas, etc. We can learn from each other.
  • Another strategy is to hold a forum to which you invite the elected officials. This will help to raise the awareness of the bullying problem in the community, making it visible. Shine light on the evil that hides in the shadows. For example, enlist social service people and the local senior center, hold the forum there. Have a mix of peers living with bullying, professionals who help, etc.
  • Write to Jerry with as much personal identification as you feel comfortable giving, but at least a first name, city, state, zipcode, and a list of the people you have written to/or met with in your advocacy efforts. We can publish this list (on this blog) and we can try to get our legislators to understand this is a widespread, serious problem. And we can try to get a few members of congress to work together towards a solution. That's why it is so important for you to give us feedback and to follow through. Contact Jerry:

Consultants and contributors

This proposal has benefited from contributions by seniors living in HUD-sponsored and state subsidized housing, many of whom have requested anonymity. In Massachusetts, two contributors under HUD plus state and local management, one contributor in HUD-subsidized and under the ownership of a large, national non-profit for subsidized housing. Other contributors are from Tennessee, Michigan, and California. The professional director of a national tenant-support organization confirms that the problems are nationwide. My thanks go to each of them, including: Kenneth L., Michigan, and those whose names are withheld for reasons of privacy.

Notes and references

This document is based on A Petition for a Safe and Dignified Life for Elders in Subsidized Housing (Jerry Halberstadt 2012) and is intended to be used by residents to seek remedies through their national, state, and local legislators and officials. This is a free, non-exclusive license with the following provisions: A) That it not be included in any work that is offered for sale without advance written permission. B) Include the whole document including this notice Copyright 2012 Jerry Halberstadt and a link to this page C) And let me know how you improve it, to whom you send it for action, and keep me in the loop on your progress. I ask that everyone comment with ideas from their own experience. We will have more power if we work together.

Note 1: Bullying is the inappropriate use of power. Social workers who study bullying and seek to prevent it view bullying as aggressive behavior that is intentional, repeated, and involves an imbalance of power or strength. The bully wants power and control. My Better Nursing Home, Senior Bullying Series: Guest Post[s] by Robin Bonifas, PhD, MSW, and Marsha Frankel,LICSW

Note 2: Jerry Halberstadt, "Conflict and Bullying in a HUD-subsidized Building for Elderly Residents: A Case Study" 2011 Also see the longer study, Jerry Halberstadt, Conflict and Bullying in a Building for Elderly Residents: A Case Study, 2012, available on request

NCHM is an organization that offers training in courses that are HUD related in all aspects of management.

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