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Like burglaries and roof leaks, every co-op has one sooner or later: A mentally unstable resident whose behavior is anywhere from annoying, to scary, to downright dangerous.
The fix is rarely quick. Police take little interest in nuisance matters, and eviction of a mentally unstable resident is usually not the first solution embraced by a housing court judge.
With diligence and patience, however, it’s usually to get unstable residents the support they need.
Here’s what to do—and what not to:
1. Don’t wait until a little problem becomes a big one: Long before a change in medication transforms a slightly eccentric neighbor into a knife-wielding bully, make sure your building has updated emergency contact information for each resident. Send out a request for updated emergency contact information every few years. Also, your board should articulate a policy for managing problems with unstable residents, such as a series of steps along the lines outlined in this post.
2. Document the problem: A clear paper trail is priceless in convincing a family member, housing court judge or Adult Protective Services (APS) to step in. Are there written security reports by building staff--or better yet, police reports--confirming that Mr. 9B was indeed escorted from the lobby unclothed and belligerent three weeks in a row?
3. Communicate with affected neighbors Explain that a solution won’t arrive overnight. Their cooperation is essential to create a paper trail, and they may need to overcome feelings of pity, compassion or fear and call the police or testify in court.
4. Family first About 50 percent of the time, co-ops successfully locate a family member willing or able to intervene and bring resources to find a solution, whether it be a home health aide, a change in medication, or a thorough and ongoing apartment decluttering. If the problem is truly severe, oftentimes family is the only expeditious way to relocate the tenant to more appropriate supportive housing.
5. Don’t shy away from housing court: If a family solution is elusive, help can often be obtained from APS. Typically, however, APS will act only when the resident is facing eviction, so housing court is a necessary stop, with an action for eviction based on nuisance or, if appropriate, non-payment of maintenance charges.
An eviction action can also do wonders in eliciting action by the resident or reluctant family members. (Note to condo boards: Housing court jurisdiction does not extend to condos; they must fend for themselves in the more expensive, slow, and condo-unfriendly State Supreme Court.)
Housing court is also a useful tool for ongoing monitoring and control of a problem: The shareholder enters into a probationary stipulation, agreeing not to engage in the problematic behavior for some period of time--usually one or two years--and if the problem returns, the matter can be immediately brought to court. This gives the co-op a prompt means of dealing with the problem without starting an entirely new case.
6. Understand the limits of government help In theory, if the situation warrants it, APS can petition the court to appoint a guardian who can literally come in and take charge of an unstable resident’s affairs—hiring help, surrendering the apartment, and requesting services.
Two types of guardians can be appointed.
A 'guardian ad litem' is typically appointed in housing court matters. This type of guardian represents the interest of the tenant-shareholder only in the specific housing court case. A guardian at litem is usually instrumental in resolving the problem and tends to be successful in securing APS services.
The second type of guardian--an 'Article 81' guardian--has much broader authority and can handle all the legal, financial and personal affairs of an incapacitated person. Because this guardianship more substantially interferes with personal rights, it can take months or years to appoint an Article 81 guardian--an unviable option in most housing court cases.
Rather than appoint a guardian at all, many times courts order specific services, such as a full apartment-clean out in a hoarding situation. This is where probationary measures (see #5 above) can be helpful.
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