As an attorney and an apartment dweller, Michelle Freudenberger has seen it all when it comes to living with difficult residents.
“I lived next door to twin toddlers whose parents were both attorneys,” says Freudenberger, principal attorney for the Law Offices of Michelle Freudenberger in New York City. “They took turns sleeping late and brought the kids to the kitchen early. Every morning, one child screeched at the crack of dawn.”
Wanting to keep peace, and understanding parenting challenges, she didn’t complain to the neighbors until one morning when she had been suffering with a bout of the flu and finally fell asleep around 4 a.m., only to be awoken once again by a screaming child.
“I was banging on the walls out of desperation, but the father screamed back ‘get used to living in an apartment!’” says Freudenberger.
Can’t we all just get along?
The reality is that while most cooperative and condominiums will, at one time or another, have difficult residents—a noisy neighbor, a complaining shareholder, or perhaps a more difficult tenant who habitually breaks the house rules—Freudenberger and others do not have to ‘get used to it.’ There are several steps that should be outlined in the association bylaws, that a resident, management and the board can take to effectively solve the problems of objectionable tenants and ultimately create a positive neighborhood atmosphere throughout the association.
More Than Just Noise
Neighbors can complain about a host of things, but some of the most common complaints from shareholder to shareholder include: excessive noise; smoking; leaving belongings out; stealing laundry; and not locking doors after exiting or entering. But because the concepts of 'noise' and 'disruption' are so subjective, it is important to know when to act.
According to Judge William Huss, co-author of Homeowners Associations and You: The Ultimate Guide to Harmonious Community Living, (Sphinx Publishing; 2006), a vocal tenant morphs into an ‘objectionable’ tenant “[When] the person who is complaining interferes with the normal atmosphere of the association’s activities.”
As many of us know, what is considered normal is in the eye (or ear) of the beholder, it is therefore important to know how to deal with residential conflict in a mature and timely manner. Easier said than done, right?
Solving the Problem
There are many approaches to problem solving, depending on the nature of the problem. Solving neighbor-to-neighbor problems should simply start between the neighbors themselves.
“The first thing that I would always suggest is to remember that it is a community, remember it is your neighbor,” says Bill Worrall, manager at The Continental Group. “It's better to try to knock on the door and establish a relationship in a nice way. Try to deal with it that way before taking any other type of more aggressive action.”
He also recommends maintaining a cool, collected attitude but also laying all concerns out openly. “I think the biggest mistake managers and sometimes residents make in dealing with these issues is having the wrong attitude. It's important to be open and honest and communicate clearly but it's not good to be combative right off the bat, screaming and hollering, this type of behavior doesn't help resolve issues,” he says.
Some cases will be resolved more quickly than others. Freudenberger’s situation ended when her neighbors abruptly moved after being cited for not complying with the 80 percent carpeting rule, which might have softened the noise.
In cases where moving isn’t really an option for either party, yet one resident’s behavior is upsetting his or her neighbors’ ability to enjoy their apartments peacefully, it’s the primary responsibility of the board and management to look into and resolve the problem once a shareholder has initiated a complaint. How exactly the board acts will depend largely on what’s laid out in the community’s bylaws.
“The resident would contact the person, who will receive the complaint, whether it is the managing agent or the board and in the perfect world, the complaint should be in writing and it should be detailed,” says Jay Steven Levine, principal attorney at the Jay Steven Levine Law Group with offices in Boca Raton and Palm Beach Gardens. “The board would then decide if it is a violation or is it two neighbors who can't get along.”
In some associations, mediation is another problem-solving possibility. To minimize potential problems neighbor-to-neighbor or shareholder-to-board, Huss makes several recommendations, including:
Give everyone who wants to speak a chance: “Every meeting should have a certain time when members can speak out about certain problems,” he says. “The people have to feel they are having that opportunity.”
Avoid special treatment for certain members. “Some board members are tempted to ask for all kinds of special privileges, and when anyone is given special treatment it creates animosity and creates litigation.”
The last resort should be litigation. “The board and management have to be peacemakers,” says Deborah Gordon, who is the director of operations at Kaled Management Corporation, which is located in Westbury, New York. “If lawyer’s letters are involved, it’s going to cost the building money. If the case is won by the board, the shareholder has to pay the legal fees. If the case is not won, the building gets stuck with legal fees -- and the building doesn’t want to do that.”
Iris Shorin, a Manhattan-based real estate attorney, cites a “traditional, non-litigious” building and says this type of building can exist. “Neighbors may sue neighbors, but we’re not a litigious board,” she explains. “We know how much litigation costs, and we will try to settle with the resident no matter how long it takes.”
However, if the board or management company is not being responsive and the problem is escalating, residents may consider taking matters into their own hands. “A lot of times owners think that the association is Big Brother and takes care of everything for them and that's not the case,” says Levine. “They certainly have independent rights to go directly to court.”
The Last Straw
If your board has tried negotiating, mediating, and friendly-but-firm directives to get a problem resident to change their disruptive ways to no avail, voting them out of the building may be the next, and final, step in solving the problem. “The notice must be detailed, telling the shareholder what they’ve done,” says Gil Feder, who practices law in New York City. “The letter should outline how long they have to fix the problem; sometimes, if it’s one incident, they’ll say don’t do it again.”
A resident or tenant can overturn the eviction decision if, according to Worrall, the board attempted to evict someone without following the proper legal process and without the proper legal advice from their attorney. “That can open you up to all kinds of liability and accusational issues,” he says.
In the end, dealing with a disruptive, unpleasant, problem resident is hard on everybody—both the disruptive resident’s neighbors, as well as the board and building management. That said, neighbors, boards and management who work together to resolve problems efficiently and effectively will find that the residents do not really want to cause problems—they just want to have their complaints heard and fixed.
Lisa Iannucci is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The South Florida Cooperator. Editorial Assistant Maggie Puniewska contributed to this article.