Problematic residents

Home is the place where you come to escape all the sounds, smells and people that you may encounter outside of your own closed doors. Home is a refuge—at least until that day when you can’t escape the sound of a dog barking next door, the noxious smell of cigarette smoke seeps under the crack of your door, or when not-so-quiet toddlers are heard through your paper-thin walls.


That’s when apartment living becomes tedious, and when your neighbors can feel more like adversaries.

The vast majority of apartment residents are decent folks who wouldn’t dream of disrupting life in their buildings by being verbally abusive to neighbors, by blowing up property manager’s phones and email inboxes with endless complaints and threats, or by filing lawsuits at the drop of a hat for every slight (real or perceived) that they suffer.

Unfortunately, there are residents who seem to thrive on these very things and they can make life miserable for neighbors and managers alike. But, never fear, there are ways to deal with them effectively, and civilly.

Bad apples

According to Alex Kuffel, president of Manhattan-based Pride Property Management Corp., which provides building management services for apartment buildings throughout the New York metropolitan area, there are two classic disruptive types he and his colleagues tend to see in the building communities they manage.

“There are those who innocently break the rules due to their lifestyle without knowing they’re disturbing their neighbors,” he says. “And there are those blatant, arrogant types who have no regard for their neighbors.”

Disruptive behavior can be anything ranging from a blaring entertainment system—television, radio, video gaming—to noise from visitors, to the incessant barking of an excitable dog.

“It always amazing to me about how many people do disruptive things from 12 to 5 a.m.,” says Peter Lehr, director of property management for Westbury-based Kaled Management. Lehr says he typically opens his emails daily in the morning to a flood of angry messages from residents. Noise and odors seem to top the list of complaints, but residents can be disturbing in all sorts of creative ways, Lehr says.

Without question, noise and odors top the list of complaints that managers field on a daily basis, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Some resident get angry about all the junk mail they get—but instead of walking those ad flyers and credit card offers over to the recycling box, they simply drop the mail on the ground, right there in the communal mail room. Others think nothing of dragging their smelly garbage bag to the trash container or compactor, leaving a trail of debris or food waste along the way. Or they don’t recycle properly, making more work for maintenance or subjecting the community to fines from the local or municipal sanitation department. Then, there’s the dog owner that works all day, and then decides to go out after work rather than come home and walk their pet, who consequently spends hours a day pacing, whining, and barking.

But there’s a difference between a mostly-okay resident who’s just an occasional pain in the neck versus someone who is truly, chronically problematic and needs to be dealt with more decisively. In Kuffel’s experience, usually a truly difficult resident is someone who does not care about the multifamily, apartment lifestyle, and feels him- or herself to be above its rules. “They might even retain legal support in their fight to the death to continue to do as they so please,” Kuffel says. “Whereas someone who is out of order might not be really aware, and simply needs to be informed and asked to cooperate.”

Talk it out

If a resident is being bothered—by noise, smoke, junk mail or some other relatively benign annoyance—then the easiest thing to do, as long as it’s not a major situation, is to gently have a talk with his neighbor, Lehr says.

Noise in a multiple dwelling is simply part and parcel of the living situation—but it doesn’t mean that you have to put up with noise that’s excessive or continuous. Many times, a neighbor may not even realize that their heels are as loud as they sound one floor below. Once you gently ask them to remove their shoes when they’re walking on a bare wood floor, for example, it may ease the situation immediately.

If a friendly word or reminder doesn’t do the trick, next it’s time to alert the management company, says John Piastra, vice president of Associa New York.

Since most managing agents don’t live in the buildings they handle, they’re good for dealing with any issues like these because they’re completely objective, Piastra says.

“We’re given the playbook of rules and regulations, and we’re very objective and consistent in the enforcement,” says Fred Rodriguez, Associa New York’s president. “The minute the resident gets involved, it becomes ‘me versus the neighbor,’ so generally our advice is, ‘Don’t get involved; allow management to handle it.’”

Make a paper trail

Residents do need to do their share to help  management gather the facts, though. If someone is having a problem, Lehr asks them to create a log with the date, time, the type of problem and the duration of the issue.

Sometimes that record-keeping is enough to restore some perspective and deflate the rising tension. “One time, a resident was complaining about a noise issue, and they put together a log—but there were no problems between the hours of 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.—and I said that there was no moratorium on sound during the hours that the person was making noise,” Lehr says. The resident may not have liked the noise, but the noisemaker wasn’t breaking any rules.

Regardless of how an issue is resolved, Lehr explains that keeping a log of disturbances or incidents provides crucial evidence and documentation, should management have to take the neighbor to court. “If you can’t do that or are unwilling to do that, then there’s not much that I can do to help you,” he says.

The court system may be the last word when it comes to putting a stop to disruptive behavior, says Lehr, but litigation should hardly be the first resort. He always starts by speaking with the person of interest, then sending a formal letter, and then fining them if they refuse to remedy the problematic behavior or situation. If all those measures fail to correct the issue, only then is it time to call the attorney and take the issue to court.

“We fine, but if no one pays the fine, then the end game is the litigation option,” Lehr says. “But that’s a pain in the neck for everybody.”

Other issues to consider

Along with innocently and not-so-innocently obnoxious neighbors, there is a much smaller, third type of problem resident: folks who are suffering from mental illness, dementia, or other medical issue. These residents need to be viewed in a different light than the other two groups, even if they’re disturbing others, Piastra says.

While these residents may be noisy, quarrelsome, or erratic, says Piastra, their behavior is at least partially beyond their control, and as such they require a gentler hand than someone who’s clueless or just rude. “What we’ve done when someone has some kind of a disability, is we’ve tried to intervene with a government agency or family members, if we can find them,” he says. “Sometimes it’s a situation where the person is being disruptive—shouting in the hallway, for example—but other than shouting, they’re not really doing anything wrong. You’re not going to fine them, because it’s a circumstance that’s beyond their control. You’re walking a fine line, and it’s a delicate situation.”

Regardless of the reason for someone’s less-than-stellar behavior, good managers must learn how to deal with all residents in an efficient, effective, and above-all, fair manner.

“I know only from personal experience that everyone has rights, no matter how demanding or annoying they might be,” Kuffel says. “We must be patient, understanding and fair—no matter how unreasonable or absurd someone might be.”

Often, he says, it’s just a matter of being logical when dealing with people—and 99 percent of the time, most people are understanding and appreciative that you took the time to listen to them and partner with them to find a reasonable solution.

“For the one percent who rebel because they feel slighted, we must take them on a case-by-case basis, and decide what options are open for consideration, and, hopefully, a successful resolution.”

Newbies to the art of negotiations and conflict resolution within a community can always get help via training on this topic. And then everyone will live happily ever after.

Author: Danielle Braff