How to Respond to Claims of Resident-on-Resident Harassment
If you are ever approached by a resident complaining of harassment by another resident, you need to take the claim seriously and follow up accordingly. The worst thing you could do is to ignore the complaint or write it off as a personal issue just between the two residents.
HUD rules and the lease your residents sign assure them of the right to “quiet enjoyment” of their unit. Furthermore, you are obligated 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.
As a General Restriction, the HUD model lease, Section 13(e), says that residents agree not to “make or permit noises or acts that will disturb the rights or comfort of neighbors.” In conjunction with language that addresses reasons for lease termination, you have the foundation for dealing with resident-on-resident harassment, explains Massachusetts attorney Dan Bancroft.
“I think the general restriction does cover the type of behavior we're talking about, and combines with the language found in the Termination of Tenancy Section 23(b) to provide an adequate basis for eviction, should that become necessary,” Bancroft says.
This section of the lease begins: “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….”
Not only does the lease give you some responsibility to protect your residents if you know they are being harassed by other residents, but you also must consider federal fair housing laws. While the lease, of course, deals with those already living at your site, you are expected to give similar consideration to those applying to live at your site.
If residents harass or intimidate other residents or applicants because of their race, color, religion, sex, familial status, disability, or national origin, you could be sued for violating fair housing laws if you ignore a complaint. The law often makes owners and managers responsible for fair housing violations if they know residents are discriminating against other residents or applicants and they do nothing to stop it.
Follow 10-Step Action Plan
Bancroft advocates taking action promptly to reported situations of resident-on-resident harassment, with a systematic approach. Here's his 10-step response plan for site owners and managers:
- Get the complaint in writing. Identify, to the degree possible, the person(s) who are believed to be doing the harassing. Include dates, times, places, and witnesses, if any.
- Begin an investigation promptly.
- 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.”
- Notify, in writing, the “target” of the investigation that a complaint was received and you need to meet with him to discuss the matter.
- Meet with the target.
- Meet with witnesses.
- Complete the investigation.
- Notify, in writing, both the complaining resident and the target of the action management will take, even if no action will be taken. “You can still tell all concerned that because this was a matter, for example, where management could not determine exactly what happened, no action will be taken, but allegations like this are taken seriously and any repetition will be met with serious consequences,” Bancroft says.
- Be prepared to deal with reasonable accommodation requests. For instance, the target may have a disability that's causally connected to the offending behavior. Understand what you can and cannot share with the complaining resident about the target's situation.
- Adopt these steps as a uniform policy, so no resident can complain that he or she is being treated differently than any other resident.
Add Language to Lease or House Rules
Bancroft notes that you could choose to add a clause to your lease or house rules that addresses offensive behavior, including harassment, without naming it. He offers the following language as an example; show it to your attorney before using it in your leases:
Resident agrees to live in a peaceful way, respecting the rights of other residents to comfort, safety, privacy, security, and peaceful enjoyment, and to refrain from all acts that would interfere with such rights.
Another clause that would cover this type of offensive behavior would be:
Resident agrees not to create or allow to be created by Resident, members of Resident's household, relatives, guests, invitees, or agents any disruptive, noisy, or otherwise offensive use of the premises, and not to commit any disturbance or nuisance, private or public.
It's a good idea to ban abusive or harassing behavior directed at all parties connected with your site, including occupants, guests, management, employees, and contractors. You'll give the impression that you desire your site to be a civil and welcoming environment for all. Bancroft recommends the following, in addition to the language noted above:
Resident shall respect the rights of other residents, occupants, staff, and all persons lawfully upon the premises.
“I believe this language, added to your lease or house rules as appropriate, adequately covers harassment without naming it,” Bancroft says. “Remember, any change to the lease requires HUD approval, and if you add a house rule to existing leases, be sure to disseminate it to all residents,” he adds.
Get Everyone on Board
Be sure your site procedures and/or employee handbook include directions on how to handle complaints of harassment, whether it is resident-on-resident or resident-on-applicant. Require all employees—even part-time maintenance or office staff—to report any complaint of harassment to the appropriate manager or supervisor.
If you have resident meetings or a site newsletter, you also can use these vehicles as opportunities to make residents aware of the fact that you take situations of harassment very seriously and will not tolerate such behavior. Be careful not to make any mention of a specific incident or to use any resident names or other possible identifying information.
Dan Bancroft: Broderick Bancroft, 313 Washington St., Ste. 207, Newton, MA 02458; (617) 641-9900; firstname.lastname@example.org.
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