One of the consequences of living in a densely populated city like New York is that even if you don’t know your neighbors, you can probably hear them—either in the hallways or through an adjoining wall—and sometimes even smell what they’re cooking for dinner.
Tensions between neighbors have been on the rise as a result of so many New Yorkers working from home during the pandemic. Noise complaints, for example, have jumped.
“Neighbors are getting annoyed at other neighbors—people are home more so they hear that noise,” says Michele Kirschbaum, director of programs at New York Peace Institute, who points out the pandemic increased the need for the types of mediation services offered by NYPI.
The rules about usual nuisances like weird sounds and smelly trash are typically spelled out in your lease or bylaws and can often be fairly easy to tackle (or ultimately endure—with the requisite complaining and kvetching that is every New Yorker’s right). But what can you do when someone’s behavior is beyond obnoxious and borders on harassment?
New York State law defines harassment as any conduct intended to annoy, threaten, intimidate, or alarm another person. If that sounds like your situation, you should know there are steps you can take to resolve the situation—including calling the police if you are ever physically in danger. Here's what you can do.
[Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this post was published in September 2020. We are presenting it again with updated information for September 2021.]
1. Talk it out
Dealing directly with your neighbor is probably the last thing you want to do and concerns about Covid might make you even more reluctant.
Dean M. Roberts, a real estate lawyer at Norris McLaughlin, points out that while safety should be your first priority, talking the issue out with your neighbor is still the first step you should take. It’s important to have some direct communication before taking a more formal route, such as mediation.
Roberts recommends reaching out to your neighbor either in an email or a handwritten note. “Before Covid, I would have suggested a tray of cookies as a way of introducing yourself to your problematic neighbor, however that may have to be done virtually now,” he says.
You don’t want to create a situation where your harasser can say, “If only she had told me, I would have stopped.” Not only do you come off as the unreasonable party, you may miss an opportunity to straighten out the conflict early.
If you’ve made an earnest attempt to have a meeting of the minds but failed to get resolution, don’t continue to force the issue—that can only escalate the situation. Move on to step 2.
2. Enlist the landlord or board
Landlords and co-op boards have an obligation to provide you with a habitable apartment, but what that actually means isn’t always clear cut.
When it’s cigarette smoke or kids running in the hallways, the management company can step in to help sort it out—filling gaps in walls between apartments in the former case, or even bringing in sound equipment to measure decibel levels in the latter.
Landlords face an uphill battle in evicting tenants who are paying their rent and not doing anything illegal per se; this is especially true for rent-stabilized buildings.
What’s more, condo and co-op boards and landlords are loath to do anything about these intra-neighbor scenarios. “There is little or no upside,” Roberts says. “It puts them in the difficult position of making judgment calls they don’t want to make with information they don’t have.” Plus they’ll have to contend with either one or both owners or tenants being on the warpath.
That said, you do have every right to register a complaint; the key is to be persistent. Roberts advises putting your issue in writing for the board or landlord, and be sure to include the dates of the incident. “It’s stronger evidence than saying, ‘I called last year but I can’t remember when,’” he says.
You should state the problem and then say something along the lines of, “Please let me know how you think it should be dealt with/how you can help me.”
If you do not hear back, Roberts recommends sending a second letter in which you put them on notice that X consequence is set to occur if you don’t have a response by Y date. These are not idle threats but justifiable actions, including withholding maintenance and bringing a lawsuit against the neighbor as well as the board or landlord and the managing agent for breaching their duty to protect you. (See step 4 for more about taking the legal route.)
Or, as in one infamous case, the harassment could be so egregious (among other things, the defendant condo owner was taking pictures of other owners while they were working out) that the board itself will want to bring suit.
“This case reached a tipping point, where in the beginning we said that’s between the unit owners, let them deal with it however they want,” says Robert J. Braverman, managing partner of Braverman Greenspun, a law firm that specializes in condo and co-op law. “But when it becomes a pattern and extends to the staff and to many unit owners, at some point the board said: Enough is enough.”
In addition to creating a record of complaints, you should document all incidents in a log of some fashion, being sure to register dates and times, says attorney Sam Himmelstein, a partner at Himmelstein, McConnell, Gribben, Donoghue & Joseph (a Brick sponsor, FYI). Establishing a paper trail will help you build your case if you wind up pursuing legal action—or breaking your lease and getting sued by your landlord.
If there are witnesses to any incidents, try to get their written statements too. Even better if you or they capture any incidents on video.
3. Seek mediation
When the steps above don’t alleviate—or have the opposite effect and exacerbate—the problem, you can pursue mediation in lieu of filing a full-fledged legal case.
Besides being quicker and cheaper (or even free), “mediation is inherently less adversarial because the parties are choosing to participate,” says Lauren Axelrod, senior legal counsel for the New York City Bar Association. The parties can work together cooperatively and on their own schedule to form their own solution rather than leaving the decision to a judge, and end up with something that is (ideally) mutually agreeable.
The proceeding is private and confidential. Plus there’s another important reason to go for a more cooperative solution: You’re likely going to be neighbors for a while, and see each other at least occasionally coming and going, or in the building’s common areas.
The New York City Bar Association's Co-op and Condo Mediation Project supplies trained mediators with capped hourly fees. You should probably plan on at least two hours.
“The hardest part is getting both parties to agree on mediation,” Kirschbaum says. All New York Peace Institute services have gone remote as a result of the pandemic and given the concerns of having a face to face conversation these days, she says her organization can easily set up mediation via video conferencing and no one has to leave their home. “In many ways it is more convenient,” she says.
Mediation can be challenging but also hugely rewarding. “Conflicts are emotional and deep but having an opportunity to talk things out is very very helpful. Even if you don’t actually come to a full agreement, the parties can come to a better understanding,” Kirschbaum says.
Know that a mediation agreement is not enforceable by law. As a legally binding contract, however, you could sue the other person for breach in civil court.
“I can assure you that if you have both taken the time to come in and hash it out, there is usually some benefit and it eases the tension,” Kirschbaum says.
Roberts adds that the police will clearly side with you in any future incidents and, if the harasser defaults, the mediation agreement will help build your case in a legal claim.
And if you simply cannot convince the other person to mediate, the New York Peace Institute offers one-on-one conflict coaching where you alone can at least talk through the situation and the strategies you are or are not using. The coach can role play what a successful interaction would look like.
4. Go the legal route
If you want to take legal action, you have some options here, including filing a complaint with the New York State Division of Human Rights or initiating a suit with New York City’s Department of Housing, Preservation, and Development, which protects low-income and senior tenants from building code violations like failure to provide heat or address a vermin infestation. “More nuanced issues like noise complaints, while technically in violation of the code, aren’t as clear-cut,” Roberts says.
As to what constitutes harassment under the law, “You know it when you see it,” Roberts says, adding there is no bright line but it is rather based on the totality of the timeline and events.
“It also boils down to intent,” Roberts says. So a professional pianist who plays classical music for 12 hours a day would not be considered a nuisance (true story), while a neighbor who is blaring opera music because she knows it drives you nuts arguably could be.
If the harassment is really out of hand, you may ultimately have to get the police involved. Even one visit from the cops can be enough to stop the behavior. All the better (sad to say) if the perpetrator has a reputation for harassing other people in the building. Axelrod points out that you can get legal assistance through the New York City Bar Association’s legal referral service, which can connect you with a qualified, vetted lawyer.
Should you file a criminal complaint that leads to an arrest, you as the plaintiff can eventually go to your local police precinct and request a criminal court order of protection, compelling the defendant to stay away from you and your apartment for a stated period of time (generally one year).
“People think this order is an immediate solution but it takes some time and effort to reach that point,” Roberts says.
Assuming the District Attorney’s office decides to pursue the case in trial (it’s not a given), the case can take months to wind through the system, and there's no guarantee that the order will be granted.
In the meantime the person might be living right next to you or in the same building, and there’s nothing you can do about that. “At least the order gives you a shield in case there’s a violation,” Roberts says. Meaning if you call the police, they will clearly take your side rather than chalk it up to just another neighbor dispute. That’s saying something.
Only you can gauge whether it’s worth all the effort of pursuing a criminal case, especially in light of the unpredictable outcome.
Instead, if you are open to the idea of moving, why not channel all that time, energy, and cost to finding a new home with (fingers crossed) friendlier neighbors? That, for sure, brings its own stress level, but may lead to a happier ending.
—Earlier versions of this article contained reporting and writing by V. L. Hendrickson.
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