Follow 4 Tips to Address Resident-on-Resident Harassment

Turning a blind eye can backfire badly, as an Oklahoma owner recently learned.



Sometimes residents may complain about the behavior of a particular resident who engages in a pattern of harassment and abuse towards other residents at your site. In these situations, it’s important that you don’t ignore the complaints or dismiss them as personal issues between residents. These claims of harassment and abuse could be discriminatory, requiring you to take action under the Fair Housing Act (FHA), or, in other instances, the behavior, while not discriminatory, may obligate you to act due to your lease obligations.

In recent years, HUD and the DOJ have focused more attention on harassment and resident-on-resident disputes. HUD recently found that an assisted site owner and its management company had discriminated against residents by failing to adequately respond to known serious racial harassment among the site’s residents. Under the FHA, it’s illegal to harass a resident based on a protected class, such as race, religion, or sex. However, your potential liability for discriminatory harassment extends from actions by your staff to your actions when you have knowledge of residents who harass their neighbors. We’ll take a closer look at the facts of this recent case and draw some important tips for dealing with harassing residents.

Owner’s Duty to Address Harassment

The law gives every resident a right to “quiet enjoyment” of his or her unit. This legal term means that a resident has the right to live in and enjoy her unit without being disturbed, harassed, or threatened by an owner, manager, or employee—or by other residents. This makes it your responsibility to protect residents who you know are being harassed by other residents. If you choose to ignore harassment, you could face a lawsuit for “constructively evicting” the harassed resident.

HUD’s model lease spells out your residents’ right to quiet enjoyment of their unit and requires you to deal appropriately with any resident who disrupts “the livability” of your site or who adversely affects the health or safety of others who live there. Section 13(e) of the lease says that residents agree not to “make or permit noises or acts that will disturb the rights or comfort of neighbors.”

Also, Section 23, Termination of Tenancy, says, “The term material noncompliance with the lease includes: (1) one or more substantial violations of the lease; (2) repeated minor violations of the lease that (a) disrupt the livability of the project, (b) adversely affect the health or safety of any person or the right of any tenant to the quiet enjoyment of the leased premises and related project facilities….”

If neighbors harass and intimidate other residents on the basis of their race, color, religion, sex, familial status, disability, or national origin, the FHA and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 require you investigate and address these harassment complaints. Title VI prohibits discrimination on the basis of race by recipients of federal financial assistance.

This duty was reinforced in 2019 when the Second Circuit Court of Appeals concluded that an owner could be liable under the FHA for intentionally discriminating against a tenant by choosing not to take any reasonable steps within its control to address racially based tenant-on-tenant harassment. In this particular case, a next-door neighbor began a relentless months-long campaign of racial harassment, abuse, and threats against a resident. After being notified of the neighbor’s actions, the owner took no action [Francis v. Kings Park Manor, Inc., December 2019].

HUD’s Letter of Finding Against Oklahoma Owner

Once a formal complaint is filed, HUD’s Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity investigates allegations and notifies the parties about the results of its investigation in a Letter of Findings. The letter will include information about the facts found during the investigation and whether HUD found non-compliance with fair housing and civil rights laws.

HUD recently issued a Letter of Findings on an investigation of racial harassment at a Section 202/8 site in Cushing, Okla. HUD concluded the owner and management company failed to stop harassment and violated the Civil Rights Act and Fair Housing Act. HUD had investigated incidents that occurred at the site in 2016. In addition, HUD found that the owner had retaliated against the victims by moving to terminate their tenancy [Cushing Housing Inc., Case Number 06-17-8923-6]. Consequently, HUD says it will seek monetary relief for the victims, training for the staff, and changes to the site’s policies and procedures to eliminate discriminatory practices.

In a statement, Demetria L. McCain, HUD’s Principal Deputy Secretary for Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity, said, “Bigotry and racial discrimination have no place in housing. It is inexcusable for a HUD-funded housing provider to discriminate and retaliate against its tenants while denying them the ability to peacefully enjoy their housing. This Letter of Findings of Noncompliance demonstrates HUD’s unwavering commitment to ensuring that entities receiving HUD funding comply with their civil rights obligations and that all individuals have the opportunity to live in HUD-assisted housing, free from discrimination.”

According to the facts of the case, a mother and her daughter filed a complaint with HUD alleging that they had been discriminated against by the owner and the management company due to the race of the daughter’s boyfriend. When the daughter, who’s white, was seen dating a man who’s Black, they became the target of severe and pervasive racial harassment from other residents at the federally subsidized site.

The mother and daughter were repeatedly called racial slurs by other residents and were threatened with racially motivated violence. This harassment occurred on a regular basis for six months despite the residents’ notifying the owner, management company, and the local housing authority after each incident to take action to stop the harassment. Due to the pervasive nature of the harassment, the mother was afraid to leave her apartment, and because she was afraid of getting trapped in the elevator with her harassers, she had to use the stairs despite this causing her pain due to a preexisting mobility impairment.

HUD’s investigation found that the mother and daughter repeatedly notified the owner and the management company of the racial harassment, but the recipients failed to address the harassment. And when they eventually responded, it was in the form of a notice to vacate to both the mother as well as the harassers. HUD found that the owner then failed to follow through on their actions against the harassers. Shortly after the mother and daughter moved, the harassers were given new leases and allowed to remain on the site. Ultimately, HUD’s investigation found that the mother was unlawfully retaliated against for her efforts to have the harassment addressed.

Tip #1: Get Complaints in Writing

In the Oklahoma case, the mother and daughter had reported harassing incidents to the property manager but no responsive actions were taken. There was no system in place to process resident complaints. The mother and daughter would send texts to the manager and the manager would actively avoid meeting them face-to-face. The mother also attempted to report the harassment directly to the owner entity’s board members. She had a phone conversation with one board member, during which she detailed the harassment and requested action. She followed up with paper copies of police reports and text messages between herself and the manager. However, the mother received no response from the owner to any of her efforts to prompt them to act.

When residents approach you about a harasser, you should get the complaint in writing. The document should identify, to the degree possible, the person(s) who are believed to be doing the harassing and include such details dates, times, places, and witnesses, if any. These details will help you begin an investigation and verify the information given to you.

We’ve created a tenant complaint form that you can adapt for your own use. Our Model Form: Use Complaint Form to Gather Details and Get Witness Cooperation, below, includes spaces for all the information you'll need about a disturbance and contains a section saying the resident agrees to testify in court if necessary. Once the form is received, notify the complaining resident, in writing, of the steps being taken—for example, “We will contact the individual(s) you identified, as well as any witnesses. We take these allegations seriously.”

If the matter escalates and a resident’s disruptive or abusive behavior disrupts the livability of residents at your site, the information on this form can be used in your “notice of termination” that you send to the nuisance tenant before you start an eviction case against him. With these notices, you must give specific facts about what the tenant has done that qualifies as a nuisance. This same information can be used to help you and your attorney prepare for trial. The answers on the form will give you the “who, what, where, and when” about the harassing tenant's behavior that's critical to winning the case.

Tip #2: Verify Complaints Before Acting

Ongoing objectionable conduct or conditions may be grounds for eviction. Remember that HUD leases contain provisions that identify actions that adversely affect the health or safety of any person or the right of any tenant to the quiet enjoyment of the leased premises and related project facilities as noncompliance with the lease.

After getting a complaint in writing, be sure to verify it before acting. Make sure the reports are credible. Try to have your staff observe the behavior. For example, if the resident reports that another resident yells at him each night, have a staff member be on call to hear it.

Also, you can seek information from additional third-party witnesses. Talk to other residents who live nearby to see if they’ve heard or seen anything. The staff member should bring a witness along and document the conversations with residents and keep a copy of the reports in the abusive resident’s file. In the event of disturbances that warrant police intervention, staff should request the badge numbers of the responding officers and copies of police reports made in connection with any incidents.

Tip #3: Meet with Abusive Resident

As part of an investigation, you should notify, in writing, the “target” of the investigation that a complaint was received and you need to meet with him to discuss the matter. Give him the specifics about the complaints, such as the dates and times they occurred. Also point out that your lease bans abusive, threatening behavior. Write down the date and time of your meeting with the abusive resident.

During the meeting, the harassing resident may claim that the other resident started a fight or offer some alternative narrative. However, if the harassing resident has crossed a line and acted in a way he shouldn’t have, it doesn’t matter who started the dispute. Engaging in threatening, abusive behavior crosses the line.

If the offending behavior continues, send the abusive resident a strongly worded letter. Mention the specific incidents. Tell the abusive resident that his conduct violates the lease and that you’ll take steps to terminate the lease and evict if the conduct continues. We’ve provided a Model Letter: Send Warning Letter to Harassing Resident, below, to warn harassing residents that their behavior must stop.

Tip #4: Don’t Retaliate; Follow Through with Legitimate Enforcement Actions

If the problem continues, you’ll need to evict the abusive resident. Gather your written records of complaints and violations, prepare other residents to testify, and go to court to evict. You owe it to harassed residents to evict abusive ones; it’s not enough to write letters and make idle threats.

In the Oklahoma case, HUD found the owner had retaliated against the mother and daughter for exercising their fair housing rights. HUD’s Title VI regulations prohibit retaliation based on a complaint about conduct prohibited by Title VI. Prohibited retaliation occurs when an individual engages in a protected activity of which the recipient is aware; the recipient takes a significantly adverse action against the individual; and a causal connection exists between the individual’s protected activity and the recipient’s adverse action.

HUD found that seeking to evict the mother and daughter was a significant retaliatory adverse action and their alleged violations in their notice to vacate were old and not credible. The investigation also found that the manager had told another resident that she issued the notice to the mother and daughter because they complained to the management company about being harassed.

Another indication to HUD that the owner didn’t take effective action against the harassers was the owner’s actions after issuing to them a notice to vacate. The management company allowed the harassers to sign new leases and continue to live at the site even though their conduct blatantly violated their lease terms by jeopardizing the health, safety, and welfare of other residents. Also, despite this authority to terminate their tenancies, the management company allowed the harassers to remain on the property and continue to harass the mother and daughter for several more months until the mother and daughter moved out.