The vast majority of co-op and condo residents are decent folks who wouldn’t dream of disrupting life in their buildings by being verbally abusive to neighbors, by blowing up board members’ 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 shareholders and unit owners who seem to thrive on these very things—and they can make life miserable for neighbors, board members and managers alike. But, never fear, there are ways to deal with them effectively, and civilly.
According to Alex Kuffel, president of Manhattan-based Pride Property Management Corp., which provides building management services for co-op and condo buildings throughout the 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. “They might not be really aware, and simply need to be informed and asked to cooperate And there are those blatant, arrogant types who have no regard for their neighbors, who might even retain legal support in their fight to the death to continue to do as they so please.”
Disruptive behavior can range 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 one manager, adding that when he opens his email in the morning, it typically includes a flood of angry messages from residents.
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 across the floor. Or they don’t recycle properly, making more work for the super 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.
On the management side, the headaches typically come from individuals who bombard their manager's office with a steady stream of complaints and grievances, says Tony Nardone, MBA, CMCA, AMS, the managing partner of Corner Property Management in Springfield. “They e-mail every little thing,” he says. “They're very needy people. Any little thing that they can latch onto, they'll complain about time and time again.”
Talk It Out
If a resident is being bothered—by noise, smoke, junk mail or some other relatively benign annoyance—the management professionals we spoke to say the easiest thing to do is for the bothered resident to have a friendly, non-confrontational talk with his or her neighbor who's causing the issue. 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, if your building has one. Since most managers don't live in the buildings they handle, they’re good for dealing with any issues like these because they’re more objective than a board member or resident committee.
“We’re given the playbook of rules and regulations, and we’re very objective and consistent in the enforcement,” says one management pro. “The minute the owner or board member gets involved, it becomes ‘Me versus the neighbor down the hall,’ so generally our advice is, ‘Don’t get involved; allow management to handle it.’”
The Board's Role
As long as a board does everything they can to remedy a situation that's brought to their attention— which in many cases may mean just informing management—then they generally avoid liability, say the pros.
“It’s like any other legal question,” says Fred Rodriguez, president of Associa New York. Did the board have any knowledge of what was happening, and did they have the ability to control what was happening?” he says. “If they knew about it and didn’t do anything, it might give them some liability.”
But that’s also why boards and management carry insurance. Once the board has knowledge of an unruly resident or problem situation and passes this knowledge along to the management agency, Rodriguez says, then the management company essentially becomes the sheriff and the fact finders, and it’s their job to enforce the rules and regulations. They’re not the judge and the jury, however. “We can gather the information to have it reviewed by the board, and the board is the one that makes the final decision,” he says.
Make a Paper Trail
Residents do need to their share to help the management company gather the facts, though. Most management firms advise complainants 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. For example, if it turns out that a noisy upstairs neighbor is actually confining their stomping or singing to the hours between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. they may be annoying—but they're not breaking any rules.
Regardless, management pros agree that that keeping a log of disturbances or incidents provides crucial evidence and documentation, should the management company have to take more assertive measures. Without solid documentation of infractions or problem behavior as it's happening, there's not much even the best manager or lawyer can do to help.
The courts may be the last word when it comes to putting a stop to disruptive behavior—but New Jersey law mandates that it also be the last resort. According to attorney Hubert C. Cutolo, founding partner of Cutolo Mandel, LLC in Newark, before a dispute can be litigated, New Jersey’s Condominium Act and the Planned Real Estate Development Full Disclosure Act (PREDFDA) both provide that a procedure called alternate dispute resolution (ADR) be applied to any housing-related disputes before litigation is even allowed on the table.
Under the Act, a person other than an officer of the association, a member of the governing board or a unit owner involved in the dispute shall be made available to resolve the dispute. Similarly, PREDFDA provides that “[T]he association shall provide a fair and efficient procedure of the resolution of disputes between individual unit owners, which shall be readily available as an alternative to litigation.” ADR is less costly and less acrimonious than suing—and programs like the one offered by the New Jersey chapter of the Community Associations Institute (CAI-NJ) can help HOA administrators find a mediator to help them navigate the process.
If all less-litigious measures fail to correct an issue, only then is it time to call the attorney and take the issue to court.
“At one point, we had a resident that was continuously creating a disturbance and lacked respect for anyone,” says one manager. “He felt that the rules simply did not apply to him. To address this we created a file and eventually took him to court in order to have him evicted. The documents in his file included incident and police reports in order to illustrate the problems he was creating.”
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 issues that impact their behavior. Management pros say that these shareholders and owners need to be viewed in a different light than the other two groups, even if they’re disturbing others.
“We do have people who are mentally unstable,” says Elaine Warga-Murray. president of Regency Management Group LLC in Howell. “If you're managing a hundred communities and several thousand homes, that's inevitable. We have people who call us weekly—sometimes daily—saying that people are coming into their home, or looking in their windows. One person called up every day and said that the [local utility] was intentionally leaking gas into her house.”
While these residents may be noisy, quarrelsome, or erratic, 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,” says one management exec. Warga-Murray agrees. In the case of someone who's not well, and whose illness is impairing their ability to function rationally, “That's much more difficult,” she says. “You call the police and the utilities, but after a while there's not a whole lot they can do. In those cases, we've been fortunate that we've been able to get social workers through the county to visit them, but it's still a very lengthy process.”
Regardless of the reason for someone's less-than-stellar behavior, good boards and managers must learn how to deal with all residents in an efficient, effective, and above-all, fair manner.
I Got Rights
“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 allow the board to decide what options are open for consideration, and, hopefully, a successful resolution.”
Newbies to the art of negotiations and conflict resolution within a building can always get help via classes and seminars on this topic through organizations like CAI-NJ or the Institute of Real Estate Management (IREM), or via publications like The New Jersey Cooperator. And then you’ll live happily ever after in your Garden State dream home.
Danielle Braff is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The New Jersey Cooperator.