What the East Village wacko next door taught me about handling bad neighbors

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My first New York City apartment came with a number of unique features. An East Village duplex, its two floors were separated by a steep spiral staircase, treacherous after nights out in the neighborhood. My bedroom was a stucco basement, the size of a shoebox, which I shared with a colony of mice; it connected through a heavy side door to a long, creepy cellar, and then to a dingy back courtyard. And then there was the man across the hall in apartment 1N.

My roommates and I knew his name but we called him by his apartment number, since he soon came to seem less like a person than an ominous entity. It was 2005, and the days of Avenue D standing for “you’re dead” were long past, but 1N was a holdover from an era of grit and grime.

Once when he left his front door ajar, we were granted a glimpse. Clutter would have been none of our business, but there were towering stacks of old newspapers, and upturned food and drink containers littering the floor; a strong animal stench emanated from within. We’d been contending with rodents on and off, and 1N’s accumulations of trash seemed a likely source of the invasion.

When he had visitors staying over—which incredibly, given the state of his home, he often did—we were awakened by screaming and cursing from within his apartment, or pounding on the front door to the building. The gossip was plentiful: Neighbors told us that 1N was a disbarred attorney who he drew up false legal papers for undocumented immigrants, his visitors sex workers and drug dealers. He allegedly cooked crack in his apartment.

Our landlord confirmed that 1N had indeed been a lawyer, which was why he’d been fighting for years to evict him: He knew how to defend his rights. We decided we had no choice but to tough it out. At the very least, sharing space with a person like 1N gave us some street cred.

The process for evicting a tenant, especially one who pays his rent, is a daunting and labyrinthine one—and rightly so, in a city where renters often feel at the mercy of their landlords’ whims as it is. A guide to the housing courts reveals that landlords and owners must serve a problem tenant with a written notice, and allow them ten days to correct their behavior. If the tenant is unresponsive, landlords have to serve them with a second, different notice before even beginning a case against them, known as a holdover proceeding—at which point there are more documents to be notarized, filing fees to be paid, and strict parameters for when to appear in court. No wonder, then, that our landlord struggled to get rid of 1N.

Or did he? I spoke with a real estate lawyer who pointed out that if 1N were a full market, rather than a rent regulated tenant, our landlord would have likely preferred to keep collecting rent from him than go to the trouble and expense of evicting him. Furthermore, as noted in a New York Times Ask Real Estate column, a smart tenant would know how to extend a legal battle for many frustrating, expensive months. As it turns out, we could have found out for ourselves what our landlord was up to, as can anyone with a problem neighbor: New York City housing courts allow you to search online for cases your building might be involved in.

If your landlord is trying to give the boot to a troublesome tenant, you can help. Stopping your landlord in the hallway with tales of woe does little good; building a written record is far more useful. Call the police any time your neighbor causes a disturbance, so that there is a record of their behavior. Write letters in support of the case against them to persuade the court that the tenant is a legitimate nuisance, and in violation of their lease.

If your landlord is uncooperative, you can take your complaint to 311 and file a code violation against your building, which will put significant pressure on management to remedy the situation. Finally, there’s the option perhaps most dreaded by New Yorkers: actually talk to your neighbor. Establishing a human connection through civil conversation might spare you the hassle of getting involved in a legal dispute.

And remember that out of conflict and stress occasionally comes outcomes you never anticipated. Thanks to 1N’s hoarding, and the vermin it attracted, my roommates and I decided to adopt two cats—both of whom became beloved pets, and most welcome tenants in our home.


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