Neighbor vs. Neighbor

Handling Conflict in Your Building

By Greg Olear

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Disagreement and conflict between neighbors is something people have had to contend with since the first two Paleolithic human families decided to set up house in adjacent caves. While serious problems may be rarities in the suburbs and exurbs where there’s ample space between houses, New York City’s vertically stacked living quarters can give rise to points of contention that would be non-issues in other communities. And if those points aren’t handled quickly and fairly by building administration, they can fester into serious problems. Intra-building feuds can create big headaches for boards, managers, and anyone living around the warring parties.  

What kind of disagreements are the most common in high-density apartments?  What can building managers and board members do to help mitigate the problems—and what, if anything, can they do to prevent disagreements from boiling over to begin with?

What’s that Noise…and What’s that Smell?

The most common sources of conflict between neighbors in New York apartments should come as no surprise to anyone who’s ever occupied an apartment: “It’s noise and odors,” says Josh Prottas, president of Working Realty in Manhattan.  

Odors are usually of two varieties: cooking and smoke.  The pungent waft of frying garlic is well and good when you’re hungry, but when you’re not, it can turn your stomach quick. And as one of the last indoor places in New York where you’re still allowed to fire up a cigarette, pipe, or cigar, apartments are logical places to smoke. But what is heaven scent for one party might make another ill; otherwise, the smoking ban in bars and restaurants wouldn’t have gone through to begin with.

Noise complaints include a vast array of irritants, from stereos playing too loudly (especially subwoofers, which emit low-frequency sound and can cause the entire building to rumble) to instruments being played—especially pianos and guitars, but sometimes brass instruments or, heaven help us, operatic tenors in training. Other sure-fire noisemakers include children behaving boisterously; dogs and cats running amok across hardwood floors; dogs barking at all hours, nonstop; and, of course, the too-frequent late-night party, with its attendant door slams, loud music, random crash sounds, and cacophonous voices in the hallways.

Workmens’ power tools also make a lot of noise, as do hammers, sledgehammers, and the sound of walls coming down.  Renovations are a third common cause of neighbor disputes—and not just because of the noise.

“Alleged damage from renovations is a big source of complaint,” says C. Jaye Berger, a Manhattan attorney specializing in building construction, real estate, and co-op and condo law.  “People will claim that demolition caused this and that.”

Indeed, conflicts concerning renovations are probably the most likely to become litigious.  For one thing, there’s money involved—boards sometimes have alteration agreements whereby they hold money as a security deposit to cover any damages—and thus more to be gained by going to court.  For another, these sorts of conflicts are more cut-and-dried, and less he-said-she-said, than ones involving disputes involving noise or odors, which are more subjective.

Avoiding Courtroom Drama

Any dispute that winds up in court can not only disturb the peace of a building—it can also adversely impact the value of its apartments.

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“Once you get in an escalating conflict, that can happen,” Berger says.  “I know of one case where an owner claimed that the renovations were faulty and caused water damage.  They filed a lawsuit against the other owner and the building.  This made it a matter of public record.  That might affect both apartments involved—how do you put either one on the market?”

Lawsuits against the building board are usually defended by the building’s directors and officers (D&O) insurance, and any awards won usually covered by them to some degree.  That doesn’t change the fact that a lawsuit is a lawsuit, and as such, brings stress, anxiety, and fear of the unknown into the life of everyone involved.

Fortunately, neighbor disputes rarely get to the point where attorneys are called in.

“They may threaten to call a lawyer,” Prottas says, “but only seldom do they do so.  People know it will run $5,000 to $25,000 dollars up-front to have a case in court—and most people will not want that to happen. Once a lawyer gets involved, the situation solves itself pretty quickly.  There’s too much to lose—the proprietary lease, going to court.  It’s not worth the risk.”

Lawsuits are more common in high-end buildings, where the owners have money to spare.  “If it’s a battle of egos,” Prottas says, “there’s not much you can do.”

But most conflicts don’t ever take the turn into Rosie O’Donnell versus Donald Trump territory.

“It’s usually just a low-grade thing, where the two people are just annoying each other,” says Marolyn Davenport, senior vice president of the Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY), and the president of her co-op.

In these cases, the board and especially the managing agent can help smooth the problems over.

“The manager is the first line of defense,” Prottas says.  As such, he or she should be aware of what’s happening in the building.  “If it becomes an ongoing problem, the manager should have intervened.”

Communication is critical to mediation.  Often, disputes arise because of a disconnect in communication between the two parties.

“Sometimes people complain to the board before they’ve even said anything to the offending party,” Davenport says.  “If you say to your neighbor, ‘You know, your dog barks all the time and it really bothers me,’ most neighbors would be mortified and happy to cooperate.’”

This is especially true of buildings that have a higher percentage of owner-occupied units.

“There are fewer issues that arise under ownership,” Prottas says, “because people do care—there’s some semblance of caring, so problems get resolved.  Also, people are more willing to spend some money to maybe lay down carpet or add more insulation than they would in a rental.”

When to Intervene

That said, there is a gray area as to when and how a board should get involved in a feud between neighbors.

“I don’t know about ‘should,’” Berger says.  “If it’s just between neighbors, the board has no cause to intervene.”

Many times, however, they do.  Disputes tend to arise because one party is in violation of a rule, either a city ordinance or a house rule, that makes the matter quite objective and, therefore, easier for management and the board to get involved.

For example, the city permits a certain amount of noise between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m.  If your neighbor is playing his Rachmaninov concerto during those hours, there’s not much you can do; if the mini-concert is not over till midnight, however, he is in violation of the rules.

“You should encourage as much resolution between the parties as possible, unless there are rules being broken,” Davenport says.  “Usually it’s some egregious behavior that’s in violation of the rules that brings a matter to the board’s attention.”

When Things Get Ugly

It is well and good to encourage two warring parties to work it out, or even to go before a neutral party for mediation.  When conflicts continue for long periods of time, however, it may be because one of both of the sides are not operating rationally. “If the two parties are calm enough to do mediation,” Berger says, “the problem probably wouldn’t be escalating in the first place.”

On some occasions—not many, thankfully, but some; this is New York, after all—things can get ugly.  Berger tells a story in which a neighbor made noise, was asked to stop, and threatened violence on the complainer.  He would do things like crank up the stereo until the police showed up, then turn it down and pretend he was innocent.  Eventually the complaining party got tired of the aggravation and moved, dumping the problem into the next person’s lap.  Later, they received a minimal settlement.

At one building in Astoria, one of the unit owners was paranoid, believing that certain members of the board were out to get him.  He harassed the board secretary to such a degree a restraining order was issued; the police threw him out of the building’s holiday party because he was physically too close to the woman.  Eventually, the paranoid owner moved, and is likely causing problems for his new neighbors.

But these are extreme examples.  Most of the time, noise is made at parties that happen once or twice a year.  Neighbors turn down their stereos when asked, barking dogs are sent to live with family upstate, crying babies start sleeping through the night at around six months old.  Noise is a part of the fabric of the city; the only way to enjoy silence is to leave (and even that’s no sure thing, as this author can attest). Any time you have so many people in such a small amount of space, tempers will flare from time to time.  Unlike those Paleolithic ancestors in their caves, we have house rules and city codes and, more importantly, managing agents and board members to enforce them.

Greg Olear is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The Cooperator.

Comments

marpat

I live at this same private house for a little over 8yrs. If I am correct the neighbour which I refers to here occupies her property for 3yrs +, eversince it is like a living nightmare. First the neighbour saw papers in her driveway pickup papers threw them over the fence onto my property and accused my twenty odd yr old son of throwing the papers there and them her husband came out and threaten my son that he will shot him so I called the police. Second one wednesday morning after rain fell either Tuesday night or early the wednesday while I was putting out my garbage for sanitation pick, the lady(neighbour) open her front door and halla at me saying "Woman stop from wetting my car and slam her door.I had was to replace the mesh fence to the PVC privacy fence (with cost me dollars).Second whenever my landscaper finish his job(cutting the grass etc,) the neighbour calls police on me saying the landscapers were in their yard, then they acused me of blocking their driveway with garbage cans - they call sanitation police.This woman and man neverever been in my house, yet they call Housing / Building Dept. on me saying I have illegal construction in my basement.I DO NOT rent basment. It is for our family use. Someone from Housing/ Building Dept.came paste a bunch of violation papers on my front door. If you ever see my House very very pretty. My family and myself lives here. I made my Home very comfortable, They can do the same. People in and around my neighourwood says I uplift the block and others property value will go up.I would like to let the know God is my refuge and strength and I shall not be move

some dude

marpat, your neighbor is crazy. Ignore her as best you can.

cat

My neighbor got very upset with us because we xeriscape our front yard. she started screaming, crying and called the HOA and many other neibhbors to opposed against our investment. The HOA ok our improvement and she still hell mad. So you are not the only one with crazy people around you, that is your property and you have your right to be happy and do what ever you want with it.

anonymous

My apartment was destroyed by a flood caused by a renovation in the apartment above. I have not been able to collect any money to repair the damage (which has made the apartment uninhabitable). The glitch that I did not carry homeowner's insurance (I know I know what an idiot) would not seem to be such a big problem. After all I am not liable. The reality is that without that insurance company to back me up with their attorney etc. I cannot seem to muscle the contractor's insurance company or the building into paying up. This is a nightmare which is veering toward a costly and contentious court battle and meanwhile I have no where to live. Any advise?

ali

ithink good neighbeor is gift because they can discuse abour their problems and so on but bad neighbor is trouble and headech enyway if God love person give him/her a good neighbor

anonymous

On July 4, 2009,a year ago, another cooperater sneak attacked me in front of witnesses, lobby camera on my head with an instrument and causing me to go to the emergency room and other medicial specialists. I could have died. Because I didn't die, the person was released from jail and prolonged court hearings are still in effect. I fear this person will not get any reprimand from the co op or the system. I have been living on egg shells watching out for this individual who lives in the same building. Management knows about this situation. It has caused my entire family stress , discord in my maririage and upset the peace among other tenents. Where is the justice??

anonymous

there was a demestic dispute at my neighbors between husband and wife, they were yelling and swearing and throughing things so hard that the fridge in my place wash shaking. and they woke my son from a deep sleep. Out of feer for the safty of the people in that complex my bf and i called rcmp to break up the fighting. since then we have had threats from them and the people in the complex beside them. not long ago the couple living in the complex a few doors down from us called the ministry of child services on our neighbors. they assumed it was us and the threats escaladed and they are now aproching us and yelling. I do not want to move out of my home because of these people and because they havent broken tresspassing or hostility laws we cant get a restraining order either. and even though we live in the same building we have difrent landlords. Oh God i wish we had better neighbors. what should I do?

Elizabeth Espinoza

I moved in 5 days ago...signed a 1 year lease ..in a studio apartment with my 4 year old...not knowing that...my super...who lives underneath my apartment is a smoker...he smoker outdoors...but the smoke was going through my window...so now he smokes indoor and it is sipping through the wood floor....help what can I do ...don't want second hand smoke...my mom who is a senior citizen who takes care of my daughter is also in danger....please help...

an unknown user

My downstairs neighbors accuse me of having air conditioners that are too loud! The air conditioner are new, have been evaluated, by a professional and still I get the complaint! I am also accused of violating a noise policy for quietly walking around my apartment at 3:00 a.m. My neighbors seem to want to upset me for some sort of sick pleasure or power. The Board of directors is on my side but in spite of the instructions from the Board to put their complaints about me in writing to the Board, they insist on complaining to me about normal sounds. It's enough to drive one mad! The Board is on my side. At least one of the pair is an alcoholic which makes things alot worse!

MW

I have been living in my Apartment for three years with my husband and my two kids. We have just recently recived complaints about us. The first one was just about our dog. (We have had our dog for three years and we are just starting to recive complaints). The second complaint was that our kids run back and forth the dog barks and there is yelling. My husband and I are working hard to control the dog barking. My kids do not really run around, and when they do I tell them to stop. My husband, and I have had arguments but none have been as bad as what the complaints are making them to be. I do have two children one is my daughter who is twelve years old, and the other being my step-son, who lives with us every other week. I do not know who in our building is complaining about us. Who ever is complaing about us talked to there managment people. The propety manager did knock on our door, and my husband I were not home at the time but my mother answered the door, because she was watching my kids. The property manager told my mother that they had recived a complaint about our dog barking to much. My mother relaid the message to me. I did not recive a letter, and my landlord did not contact me about any complaint. this happend several months ago. Just reacently my husband and I did have a get togather for the Redskins/Ravens game, my kids were not with us at the time(my daughter was with her grandmother, and my step-son was with his mother) The very next day I received a phone call that we had complaints. I still have not recived any letter, and do not know who is complaing. That night my husband and I knocked on every door in the building and applogized for any disturbance that we may have caused, I also told everybody, that if you have any problems with us please do not hesitate to knock on our door. Everybody that we have talked to said "o no you are not a problem, we don't hear your dog, some have even said I did not even now you had a dog. I would like to know who it is, and who is coplaining on us. I was told by someone that I could request a hearing with the apartment bord, because I have a rite to face my acuser. I want to know if this is true, and I want to know what I could or should do. Please help me..

condogirl

Do I have a right to complain to my Board about domestic violence next door?

an unknown user

i have a close friend helping me fix my apt.'s bathroom wall, the superintendent goes berserk and yells at us. is it okay to fix my own wall without telling the superintendent?

Highly annoyed

I have lived in an apartment building in Brooklyn for four years. Ever since I've moved in the lady next door has done everything to annoy me. Things like inviting gangs of young adults and young men to hang out in front of my doorway. I live at the end of the hallway next to stairwell leading to the roof. She has thrown a bucket of dirty water at my door because I cleaned up after her gang one day. They left sticky candy and candy wrappers even spit right in front of my door. I did notify the super before I cleaned up but he seems tired of my complaints regarding her spiteful antics. However the most annoying thing she is constantly and continually doing is running a subwoofer 24 hours a day seven days a week as long as I am inside the apartment. This is an ego issue because I am sharing my apartment with no one, whereas she is living with several adolescents and young adults both male and female in a two bedroom apartment. They have nothing to do but annoy me every chance they get. I wish someone would help her get a bigger place away from here. this entire has nothing but one and two bedroom apartments; they are not designed for many persons to occupy.

Scott Goodell

My neighbor is a troublemaker, who seems to mean well, but I've known him since he was a young teenager. Back then, he said he was a fan of my published work. Since then, he has made my life hell for unknown reasons, and refuses to answer the door when the police arrive. Holding my friends back, Mediation Court may be a good option. No records, no evidence and no judgement. These cases usually end up with only the filer appearing, and getting paper credit for attempting to make peace. Mine is a situation where I have been deliberately sleep-deprived, stalked, slandered, threatened, assaulted and intimidated short of witnessed harassment, but this individual has apparently decided he will continue to put out all the lights and not make a sound when the police ring his bell, tell everyone I have imagined this from he and his family for 30 years, and never try a direct assault unless he can get away with it. Whatever the case may be with him, his uncle or grandmother over the 3 decades, I don't feel like the published artist he admired, and I have been told I've made 2 errors. 1) I stood up to them 2) I didn't pull the trigger on a lawsuit right away While the damage to my career and reputation has been severe, I agree with this posting, that it only bothers everyone in the building to sue, and perhaps mediation is a quiet way to finally have some justice. I don't want compensation, I hold peace more valuable than what I've lost.

toxic in charge

I live in a coop where the board, house attorney and building management recently pre-meditated and executed cheating at an annual board meeting - I have evidence/ballot to prove this. Various attorneys have reviewed the paper trail and acknowledge they committed fraud. Other unit owners acknowledge that they cheated as well. This board/attorney and management also did nothing to help me with daily wood stove smoke entering my apartment from the apartment below, having no ceiling/ fire insulation/protection. My daughter has acute asthma. Nightmare. Luckily that owner moved and the new owner repaired the holes in the ceiling and the wood stove has been removed... One of the three board members lives above me and has a teenage child with attention/emotional issues. Her son pounds on the floor when he is off his medication. It all started when she put a drum set above our bedrooms. She has no regard for us and refuses to follow the house rules with regard to noise issues etc. When I nicely asked her to pad/carpet his room and the long hallway leading into his room - I even offered to pay for the carpet. She fought me and refused. She owns a german art gallery and not a US citizen. She also actively participated in the cheating and has told numerous lies about me. Every time she sees me - she says mean things and corners me. I have asked her not to speak to me - however she continues to harrass me. I have called the Police on numerous occations and they advise me to speak to management. However, our management is corrupt and works for her. When I attempted to discuss the current problems at a board meeting - they ignored me - mean art dealer went into a rage and called me a drunk etc. I am afraid of this woman and am not sure what she is capable of. Should I report her to the police? File a formal police complaint? What do you recommend?


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