Dealing with Problem Residents and Celebrities
Living in a co-op or condo building is a lot like living in a small town. When everyone abides by the rules, life flows along smoothly. If that stops, though, and one person disrupts the flow, those smooth waters turn rough and trouble can ensue, causing hardship for everyone involved.
That same kind of trouble can brew within a co-op or condo community. Beyond simple noise issues or late night parties, the problems caused by some residents can be far more serious, throwing building harmony into a tailspin, or even putting the physical or mental well being of other unit owners in jeopardy.
When these kinds of issues rear up, the board and management must step in to remedy the situation. How a “problem” resident is dealt with can make the difference between a happy building community and one in turmoil.
When is a Problem Really a Problem?
Dozens—sometimes hundreds—of different personalities rub shoulders with each other on a daily basis in co-op and condo buildings throughout the city. With that many variables, there are bound to be complaints or issues that arise from time to time. The real difficulty often lies in trying to sort out the serious problems and separate them from mere personality conflicts.
“It’s a question of degree,” says attorney John VanDerTuin of the firm Balber Pickard Battistoni Maldonado & VanDerTuin. A resident poses a potential problem if he or she “is acting in a way that presents a danger to the safety or well-being of other residents or seriously impairs other residents’ ability to enjoy their home.” Beyond that, since every co-op’s bylaws vary and the limits of what a community will tolerate is vastly different from building to building, “[The definition] of disruptive behavior is really what the majority of residents decide it to be,” VanDerTuin says.
It’s Not My Fault!
Sometimes, a resident’s behavior is so egregious and deliberate that calling it disruptive and unacceptable is a no-brainer. In other cases however, problems may be more subtle, or may arise unintentionally. An elderly shareholder might pose a risk, not because of what they might do to others, but because they might no longer be able to care for themselves. In other instances, an individual with mental health issues might pose a problem for themselves or others. In many cases, the manager may be the first person to confirm that a real problem exists.
According to Deborah Gordon of Kaled Management in Westbury, in the case of an emotionally or mentally challenged resident who may be unintentionally causing a disruption that nevertheless poses a threat to themselves or their neighbors, the solution to the problem most often lies in contacting protective services. “Or we look in their file to get a family member involved to preserve the person’s safety,” she says.
Boards and managers should beware of passing judgement on those residents who may just be difficult, versus those who potentially pose a real problem to the social stability and safety of the building. “There are certain rights that a resident has,” says attorney Al Pennisi of the Queens-based law firm of Pennisi Daniels & Norelli LLP. Some people might make repeated complaints, or make continual calls to the city building department to report real or imagined problems. These complaints might cause a headache for the management or board, “But a judge wouldn’t do anything, because what they’re doing is legal,” Pennisi says.
Another type of potentially disruptive resident is one that is unique to entertainment-industry centers like New York City and Los Angeles. The “problem” of having a big-name celebrity as a resident living in your building might seem like an enviable one—but not if the package includes unsavory public displays, unpaid bills, or visits from the police.
Though it may be an extreme illustration of celebrity residents run amuck, the case of perpetually troubled rock star Courtney Love might be why some boards get wary when a big-name personality expresses interest in an apartment. In January of 2005, Love sold her 4,100-square-foot condo loft on Crosby Street in Soho after having been very publicly carried out of the building on a stretcher, shouting at bystanders, handcuffed and wearing only a nightgown. Prior to that, according to the New York City Department of Finance, the building’s management placed an $18,000 lien on Love’s apartment because of delinquent maintenance payments.
After the apartment was put on the market, the broker handling the sale told a reporter that Love’s apartment was “[In] one of the best buildings downtown and perfect for a movie or rock star.”
At the end of the day however, according to Michele Kleier, president of Manhattan-based brokerage Gumley Haft Kleier, whether or not a celebrity is a good neighbor depends on the celebrity. “If they’re respected people, then absolutely it’s a plus [to have them as a neighbor.] If it’s someone controversial with a wild reputation, then it’s obviously a minus. If [they’re] a family type or single but respected in their industry…no problem. But if they have a reputation for wild parties or are always getting followed by photographers, then there could be issues.”
Sometimes it’s not the famous resident who’s the problem—more often, it’s the person’s fans and hangers-on who cause disturbances, says Patricia Warburg-Cliff, senior vice president of The Corcoran Group. Such disturbance has probably never been more starkly illustrated than by the shooting death of John Lennon outside his home in the Dakota on Central Park West. The aftermath of his murder lead to vigils and crowds outside the Dakota for weeks afterward, and the building is still a destination for tourists because of its grim association.
“A lot of the problem has to do with security,” says Warburg-Cliff. “[With very famous residents], there are always people waiting outside the building, waiting for autographs. I saw a very popular singer the other day trying to get to her car and people were shielding her, holding up cardboard to keep the photographers and fans away.”
What to Do—and When to Do it
Whether the problem is a misbehaving rock star or an elderly resident who habitually leaves empty pans to melt on the stove, when complaints begin to mount against an individual resident, it is time for management to step into the fray. The best way to approach the problem initially is to avoid antagonism and simply open up a dialogue between the affected parties and management. Discussions should never, ever start with a letter from an attorney.
“I always tell boards, before they go to any drastic remedies, call the person and have a meeting with them,” Pennisi says. “Tell them what the concerns or complaints are, because they may not be aware of what they’re doing. They might not be aware of what their responsibilities are as shareholders, or even know that people are complaining about them.”
Many people may not believe that their late night parties are against the by-laws, or they may not believe that they will receive any punishments if they do indeed break the rules. “You’ll find a lot of people who don’t read their bylaws,” Pennisi says. “They think they can’t get kicked out of their co-ops—but they can, and they do.”
Gordon agrees that conversations are imperative when it comes to settling issues sensibly. “The manager really has to sit down with these people, one at a time, and try to resolve the problem,” she says. “You’ve got to step in and make nice—and most importantly, you have to believe it. You have to want to solve the problem. Sit down and take the time with people. Be warm, honest and personable.”
Having these conversations will pay off if things escalate, too. “The first question a judge will ask is always, ‘Have you talked about this?’” Pennisi says. If a board is serious about removing the resident from the building, they will want to be able to truthfully tell that judge, “Yes.”
After talks, if the resident does not agree to end his or her disruptive behavior and the problem either continues or escalates, then it may be time to take a closer look at the proprietary lease and make sure that it allows for lease termination for objectionable conduct. If it does, then sending a letter from the co-op’s attorney demanding an end to the disruptive behavior may be the next step.
If the notice does not work, then it may be time to call a vote on evicting that resident. Depending on the bylaws—and each building will differ—a vote can be taken among shareholders or just among the board. The deciding votes can be comprised of a unanimous board vote, 75 percent of the shareholders, a simple majority of the shareholders, or numerous other combinations — again, dependent on the detailed course of action laid out in the bylaws.
Once the vote has been taken, a notice must then be sent to the resident informing them of the decision. When a resident is evicted, he or she will have two choices. He or she has the option of either selling the shares themselves and keeping the profit—minus anything due to the co-op—or the co-op itself will sell the residence, keep what is owed to them, and return the rest of the proceeds to the resident. Either way, the evicted resident will not lose their investment.
Once the co-op makes the decision to evict the shareholder, it is extremely difficult to overturn that decision—it can only be done via a judge’s ruling, and judges are historically loathe to second-guess co-op boards. According to Pennisi, the New York Court of Appeals has referred to co-op boards as “quasi governments.” The court has described co-ops as “a little democratic sub-society of necessity wherein the proprietary lessees consent to be governed, in certain respects, by the decisions of the board.”
Which means, Pennisi says, that “once a board makes that decision, the court can’t overturn that decision,” if in fact the board acted in good faith and followed the rules and regulations laid out for them under state law.
Now for the Hard Part…
For condominium boards and managers, removing a disruptive resident is substantially more difficult than in a co-op, where bylaws provide for such events. Because a condo owner has actually purchased the property in which he or she lives and does not simply own shares under a proprietary lease, solving an issue with a problem owner usually involves a lawsuit. If a problem arises between two people, it is up to the other resident to get the authorities involved. “In a condo, the judge cannot terminate your right to live there,” Pennisi says. “A condo owner has more rights.”
Judgments against a condo resident can only be enforced via an order from the New York Supreme Court. Even then, though, all the judge can do is issue a cease-and-desist order. If that order does not work and the resident continues to misbehave, that behavior could then be considered contempt of court and the person in question could face actual jail time. In that sense, the punishment is potentially more severe than in the case of co-op disputes.
The timetable for condo conflicts also can drag on longer, going on for months versus weeks in a co-op. That added time means significant legal costs, inflicting hardships on both sides. As in co-ops, it is recommended that conversations or perhaps mediation sessions take place in an effort to settle disputes. Taking the time to talk with one another to come to an agreement is certainly preferably to spending thousands of dollars and enduring hours in court.
As Bad As it Sounds
The truth of the matter is that the vast majority of complaints never get to the courtroom or come before a vote of shareholders. Most people have to work fairly hard to get themselves evicted or end up in court with their fellow owners. No one wants to disrupt their home life over differences with neighbors, so the motivation factor is high when it comes to settling things sensibly. In the end, it pays to just try and get along.
Liz Lent is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The Cooperator.