With over 8 million people living on top of one another in our fine city, there’s bound to be some quibbling between neighbors. But when a dispute escalates, what can be done to deal with the problem?
“The most common complaints are always addressed in the scope of a property’s lease,” says Paul Gottsegen, president of Halstead Management. Noise issues and offensive odors top the list of complaints.
Generally, those are manageable grievances, either between the parties or with intervention from the management or by compromising between the parties, says Gottsegen.
Harassment--such as physical threats, calling the police to report false fires or other emergencies, or purposefully making the environment unlivable--is a different situation.
“If one neighbor is truly harassing someone--ignoring the rules, waking them up in the middle of the night or making noise on purpose--we have to refer those matters to the police,” says Gottsegen.
Be aware that whether you are confronting a nuisance or deliberate harassment, you may have to be very persistent to get your concerns addressed.
Landlords, management companies, and boards are “loath to do anything” about most complaints, says Dean Roberts, a real estate lawyer at Norris McLaughlin & Marcus. It’s very hard to determine who’s at fault in these cases, and most hope the residents will just work it out themselves.
If the behavior affects more than one neighbor--or a substantial portion of the building--then intervention is more likely, says real estate attorney Robert Braverman of Braverman & Associates.
Here are some suggested tactics:
1. Talk to your neighbor
Assuming you don't feel physically endangered by your neighbor, consider talking to him or her first, says Michael Wolfe of Midboro Management.
“Knock on your neighbor’s door. Invite him for coffee," says Wolfe. "Find some segue into a conversation that is not threatening. The keys are communication and compassion.”
2. Document the problem
"Write a letter to the shareholders or management company," says Roberts, noting "you can’t just say you ‘called several times.’ You need some kind of evidence.”
When it’s cigarette smoke or kids stomping in the hallways, the management company can step in to help sort it out--plugging up holes between apartments in the former case, or even bringing in sound equipment to measure decible levels in the latter.
If the tenant is actually in compliance with the building’s rules, management may just forget about the complaint: “If a person is overly sensitive, we shut the door on it, so to speak," says Wolfe.
Intentional harassment is harder to address--skip down to #4 below.
The city offers mediation for neighbors who can’t work things out between themselves or with the help of the management company.
As a recent HabitatMag story explains, “Mediation can be extremely useful and cost-effective, and is particularly appropriate for co-op and condo disputes because residents are likely to have continuing relationships with one another in the elevator, gym, laundry room and other common areas. By providing an opportunity for parties to speak in a controlled environment, such as in the managing agent's office, mediation can lessen the hostility when parties inevitably interact in the future.”
Bonus: Mediation costs a lot less than litigation. The New York City Bar Association's Co-op and Condo Mediation Project supplies trained mediators for a $100 non-refundable administrative fee per party. The New York Peace Institute will provide mediators for free in Manhattan and Brooklyn.
4. Legal alternatives
If the matter is really out of hand and a neighbor is truly harassing you Gottsegen says you may just have to get the police involved (as in the case of calling 911 more than 150 times to report false fires and break-ins at your apartment).
Even one visit from the police can make a statement that frequently stops the harassment.
If the person harassing you is known as the “annoying lunatic” of the building, you’ll probably have a better case, says Roberts.
After an arrest, an Order of Protection can be issued by the courts. These are usually given in domestic abuse cases, says Roberts, but any sort of harassment is a crime for which an Order of Protection could be issued by a criminal court.
“In order to obtain an order of protection in Criminal Court, the person must be arrested and there must be a Criminal Court case pending against him. The District Attorney’s Office will request an Order of Protection from the court on your behalf,” according to the New York County’s District Attorney’s website.
You will be represented by the state and called to testify about your neighbor's behavior. Depending on how long the case takes to wind through the system, it can take up to a few months for an order to be issued.
Among other things, a protection order should order your harassing neighbor not to menace or harass you, to stay away from you, and not to contact you in any way. A judge can also make your harasser pay a fine or make other restitution, and can have him or her arrested if the Order of Protection is not observed.
Protection orders generally last about a year. Generally speaking, though, they are a last resort for most people, many of whom choose to move instead.