Living with a Difficult Neighbor?

Lisa Iannucci

It’s not necessarily to the degree of the Hatfields vs. the McCoys, the famous mountain clan involved in a decades-long blood feud, but living side-by-side in a co-op or a condo can, needless to say, get pretty heated on occasion.

Can’t We All Just Get Along? 

While most cooperative and condominiums will, at one time or another, have to deal with situations involving a difficult resident—be it a noisy neighbor, a complaining shareholder, or perhaps a tenant who habitually breaks house rules—residents and others do not just have to ‘get used to it.’

Steps usually found in the board’s or association’s bylaws can provide guidance to residents, managers and the board to deal with the problem of objectionable tenants and create a more positive atmosphere within the overall building community.

What’s Your Problem?

Neighbors can complain about many things but most common complaints are: excessive noise; smoking; leaving belongings out; stealing laundry; and not locking doors after exiting or entering.

However, what is considered ‘disruptive’ is subjective at best. 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.”

The best definition of what is considered appropriate and reasonable tenant behavior will be the bylaws or regulations of the community.

In the proprietary lease, there is typically a section entitled “Odors and Noise,” and another section defines “General Objectionable Conduct.”  If a neighbor repeatedly violates the house rules after notice, then it becomes objectionable conduct per se and would allow the board to terminate the propriety lease.

A common example, reads like the following: “No lessee shall make or permit any disturbing noises in the building or do or permit anything to be done on their end to which will interfere with the rights, comforts or convenience of other lessees. No lessee shall play or suffer to be played upon any musical instrument or permit to be operated a phonograph or radio or television loudspeaker in such lessee’s apartment between the hours of 11 p.m. and the following 8 a.m. If the same shall disturb or annoy other occupants of the building, no construction or repair work or other instillation involving noise shall be conducted in any apartment except on weekdays, not including legal holidays, and only between the hours of 8:30 a.m. and 5 p.m.”

Today that wording would probably be subject to an amendment referencing the technologies of the day rather than that of a record player—so it’s wise to make sure your bylaws and house rules are up-to-date.

However the case may be, and in any setting, no matter how restrictive, it is likely that violations will still occur. It is therefore important to address the problem swiftly and in an effective manner, trying not to further exacerbate residential resentment.

Reaching a Resolution

There are many approaches to solving conflict, depending on the nature of the problem. Solving neighbor-to-neighbor problems should simply start between the neighbors themselves. Getting the parties to talk to one another is probably the best first step, and straighten everything out in a friendly manner.  If that doesn’t work, the shareholder should start documenting the problem and then send a certified letter to the board and management.

In cases where moving is not an option, it’s the primary responsibility of the board and management to look into and resolve all problems, 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 first step is that the resident informs management in writing and management investigates and tries to determine if there is a violation of the building’s house rules.  The board and management should conduct their own internal investigations to determine the depth and legitimacy of the problem.

The last resort should be litigation.  Litigation is expensive, and while neighbors may sue neighbors, all conflicts should try to settle before going to court.  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.”

It’s the Last Straw

If your board has tried everything from negotiating to mediating to a firm directive to get a problem resident or tenant to change their ways, voting them out of the building may be the next, and final, step in solving the problem.  Ejecting a tenant is the most serious thing a board can do.  In the court system, the courts will defer to what the board did, as long as the board followed the rules and maintained its fiduciary duties. This typically includes sending the resident or tenant a notice of the board’s intention to evict them, and giving them the opportunity and right to be heard.  The notice must be detailed and tell the shareholder what they have done.  The letter should also outline how long the shareholder has to fix the problem.

In the end, dealing with a disruptive or problem resident is hard on everybody. That said, neighbors, boards and management need to work together to resolve problems efficiently and effectively. The bottom line is that most residents really do not want to be troublemakers—they just want to have their complaints heard and acknowledged.

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