The vast majority of co-op and condo residents are normal folks who wouldn't dream of disrupting life in their building by being verbally abusive to neighbors, blowing up board members' phones and e-mail inboxes with endless complaints and threats, or filing lawsuits at the drop of a hat for every slight (real or perceived) they suffer.
Unfortunately, there are exceptions: people who seem to thrive on conflict—and they can make life miserable for neighbors, board members, and managers alike. Dealing with them is both a challenge and an art form for boards, managers, and neighbors alike.
A Matter of Degree
As property managers know, in the context of a building community, “disruptive” is a broad term that can describe quite a range of hassles. So what constitutes “disruptive” behavior?
“A disruptive resident is someone whose behavior causes a situation in which the quiet and peaceful enjoyment of other residents’ homes is disturbed on such a frequent or regular basis, or to such an extent, that quality of life in the building is negatively impacted,” says Michael Berenson, president of AKAM Associates, Inc., and AKAM On-Site – New York, Inc.
Disruptive residents fall into four general categories. First are what Steven Greenbaum, director of management with Mark Greenberg Real Estate in Lake Success calls the “mundane,” the noisemakers and smelly-food-cookers, the high-heel walkers and the hangers of laundry on the fire escape. “They're the typical noisy neighbor,” he says. “TV blasting, stereo blaring. There’s the ultra-heavy smoker. There’s people with kids running around the halls. There’s the woman with high heels clacking around above your apartment. That’s your mundane stuff.”
Second are the mentally ill: the streakers, the hoarders, the paranoid. “There’s the people who are noisy,” says Enid Hamelin of Lawrence Properties, a management company, “and there’s the people who run naked in the halls.”
Third are those who, by no fault of their own, are either too old or too ill to take care of themselves and thus constitute a danger to themselves and their neighbors. And last is the criminal—everything from spousal or child abuse to drug dealing.
In other words, disruptive residents are those who, whether they are aware of it or not, behave in a way that demands intervention of one degree or another.
The lion’s share of disruptive residents fall into this category, with noise being by far the most common complaint in multifamily buildings where people are literally stacked on top of one another. Steve has a certain volume level that he enjoys when he plays his favorite hip hop music; Sue, in the apartment below Steve’s, has sensitive hearing and goes ballistic whenever the pulsating bass rumbles through the floorboards.
Sometimes, Sue will talk to Steve directly; he will use headphones, and the problem will go away.
“Conflicts between residents occur all the time,” says Berenson. “In many cases, the parties are able to work things out themselves and neither the board nor management is aware that anything was ever amiss.”
But not always, of course. Because people tend to shy away from confrontation, what often happens is, Sue will call the super, or the board president, or the managing agent to complain. Steve will find out about the complaint through a third party, which automatically puts him on the defensive.
“If it’s a noise issue, nip it in the bud immediately,” advises Greenbaum. “Have the people directly involved work it out.”
More often than not, a simple sit-down with the two parties resolves the problem. After all, residents have chosen to live in a co-op or condo, among neighbors; everyone wants to live happily ever after. “At its most benign,” says Hamelin, “you try to reason with the person.” The woman takes off her heels when she walks into her apartment; the people who cook with pungent spices put a fan in the window.
“Management should bring the parties together in a neutral environment to hear their sides of the story and attempt to reach common ground and document a mutual agreement,” Berenson says. “Should this fail, in certain cases the board may be asked to intervene, but there is really little more that the board can do that management isn’t already empowered to do. In such cases, the board and management may seek assistance from the building’s corporate counsel to perform or arrange for binding mediation that both parties must abide by.”
Even in situations where the mundane gets interesting—such as the time Greenbaum had to deal with a resident who smeared dog poop on her neighbor’s door knob—most people will come to their senses, if they’re in their right mind. If they’re not…
The Mentally Ill
Not everyone is mentally capable of recognizing a breach of civility.
The red flags go up when “you find that one is not able to deal rationally with that person,” Hamelin says.
For example: this reporter's family had a resident in our co-op who was convinced the board was a) a bunch of crooks, and b) literally out to get him. He wound up stalking one of the board members, who had to get a restraining order against him. He also sued the board for a number of imagined infractions, which cost the entire co-op money, because the board had to hire an attorney to handle the suit. At the annual meeting, this man questioned the additional legal expense, calling it a breach of fiduciary duty. And the only reason the expense was there was because of his own irrational, illegal harassment campaign against the board.
This sort of thing happens all the time. “We live in a mightily litigious age, where anyone can sue anyone for anything,” Berenson says. “It is not unusual for an owner to sue the building, the board, the management, and anyone else they can think of when a fellow resident isn’t being dealt with as quickly or decisively as the plaintiff would like.”
Then there are the compulsive hoarders—a group that popular cable TV shows such as Hoarders and Hoarders: Buried Alive have thrown a spotlight on in the last year or two.
“They have a ton of stuff in their apartment that brings in roaches and rodents,” Greenbaum explains. Sometimes this gets so bad that the door of the apartment cannot be opened, which of course could be cataclysmic in the event of a fire or other emergency situation. These folks need help, and need to be dealt with through legal channels, up to and including eviction if the behavior doesn’t stop.
“In general, good boards and managers first approach the offending resident to bring the subject behavior to his/her attention,” says Berenson. “If that doesn’t change the situation, the board and management may then take legal action, move to cancel the proprietary lease (sometimes an effective threat by itself), and ultimately move to eviction, all the while behaving professionally and documenting activities and correspondence so that an impeccable paper trail supports the position of the property, board, and management.”
It is human nature to feel empathy for these people. “One must always strive to interact with others humanely,” says Berenson. “That said, it is the fiduciary obligation of the board and management to ensure quality of life and investment value for the majority of owners. A person of diminished mental capacity can pose a real danger to everyone in the building.”
In a condo this reporter once owned, my downstairs neighbor was an older gentleman—he really was a gentleman, with antique furniture and fine art on his walls—who became so infirm that if he fell over, he could not get up. This problem was exacerbated by the fact that he drank copious amounts of alcohol. A pattern emerged wherein he’d drink himself into a stupor, fall down, not be able to get up, and lie on the floor until a neighbor smelled something amiss in the hallway and went to check on him. On another occasion, he passed out while smoking his pipe and almost burned the building down.
This is an extreme case, but there are, sadly, many older residents whose inability to care for themselves threatens the safety of everyone in the building. “A senior citizen who is unfortunately failing” can be a disruption, says Hamelin. “They don’t want anyone helping them.”
Stubborn independence is one thing—but diminished capacity can put everyone at risk. “Individuals who demonstrate symptoms of advanced dementia or Alzheimer’s can present the risk of starting a flood, or worse, a fire, or of leaving their door open or unlocked and inviting harm upon themselves,” says Berenson. “In this case, the individual is putting many other people in jeopardy, and the board and management would act properly to pursue removing that individual from the building and into the care of an entity that can attend to the person’s best interests.”
Contacting family members is a good first step. There are also resources in the city, if the resident has no close family. The New York City Department for the Aging has a good, good outreach department, says Greenbaum.
Naked, noisy neighbors and corrosive cooking odors are one thing—annoying as they can be, they're things you may ultimately be able to laugh about. Criminal behavior is something else entirely. If someone is verbally or physically abusive; if you suspect they may be dealing drugs, or running an escort service, or engaging in mail fraud; if they fit the profile for a serial killer or rapist or terrorist; what you need to do is call the police. Period. New Yorkers are big fans of minding their own business, but activities such as the aforementioned pose a serious threat to the safety of everyone in the building and need to be dealt with quickly and decisively by the proper authorities.
Talk it Out
New York property managers have seen it all. “Nothing strikes me as crazy anymore,” says Greenbaum. “I’m jaded.”
And as long as people are living in close proximity, there will be conflicts. The best way to handle is by communicating. “Communication is key, and it’s a vital tool,” says Greenbaum. “Staff to residents, management to residents, board to residents.”
Because at the end of the day, the people you deal with will be people you’ll deal with again. “They are your neighbors,” says Hamelin, “and you’ll likely be living with them for a long time.”
Greg Olear is a freelance writer, a novelist and a frequent contributor to The Cooperator.