Respecting Rules & Rights Strategies for Dealing With ‘Problem’ Residents

Respecting Rules & Rights

Everyone wants to be a good neighbor—at least that’s what we’d like to believe.  But, living in small spaces and sharing common areas can (and unfortunately does) lead to occasional conflict. That’s the unintended but inevitable consequence of shared interest community living. What one resident considers normal or acceptable may not be seen as such by their neighbors. The ensuing irritation can build up, and if not addressed and defused, can throw a community into turmoil, leading to acrimony, dysfunction, and other costs, both social and economic. 

When Good Neighbors Turn…

“The issues that can come up around problem residents are infinite,” says Pamela Jonah, a partner with Marcus, Errico, Emmer & Brooks, a law firm based in Braintree, Massachusetts. “They can range from simple violations of the rules concerning what may be stored in the common areas, or unapproved landscaping, or parking violations, to more serious issues such as excessive noise disturbances, harassment of other residents, hoarding and pest infestation, nuisance pets, and sometimes even criminal acts, such as assault and battery and threats.” Suffice to say, if there’s a rule that can be broken, there are multiple ways to break it, and probably somebody willing to try. The possibilities are as myriad as residents themselves. 

Avery Feldman, a senior account executive with New York City-based management company Maxwell-Kates, an Associa company, notes that there are a couple of ‘quality-of-life’ issues that often lead to problems with residents. “I would say the most common problem is the resident who has excessive noise emanating from their unit at all hours. There’s also the problem of smokers in buildings that permit smoking in apartments, but not common areas. The smell of smoke tends to work its way into neighboring units and infringes on the neighbors’ right to enjoyment of their space.”

“Unfortunately, in every association there are always going to be a couple of residents who cause issues,” says Carl A. Taylor, an associate with The Simone Law Firm, located in Cinnaminson, New Jersey. “They may be disruptive during board meetings, or distract association employees. They may cause issues with other homeowners. The key concern is to never escalate a conflict with a problem resident. When in doubt, always keep communications [with the resident] public. That helps demonstrate that the resident’s issues are not so much a problem with the association, but rather that the issue is the problem resident him- or herself. Also, try as best you can not to take things personally.” It’s best to be the adult in the room.

Path to Resolution, or Road to Perdition?

Regardless of the nature of the issue with a particular resident, the most important question for both managers and board members is how to resolve it decisively—ideally without involving attorneys or law enforcement, both of which often lead to costly, acrimonious outcomes. How one responds before things deteriorate to that point can make the difference between a healthy, cohesive community and one where everyone seems at each other’s throats and home sweet home is anything but. Peace is clearly the goal; the question is how to get there.

“Addressing ‘simple’ violations can often be handled with a demand letter from the property manager on behalf of the board, with the possibility of fines being issued,” says Jonah, but “sometimes a simple conversation between the resident and property manager bringing the resident’s attention to the proper procedure may be enough. Perhaps they need to be reminded to request permission from the board to do something in the common area. Alternatively, pointing out an existing rule may also be enough to take care of the issue. However, more complicated issues such as hoarding, or claims of harassment by other residents take more effort to resolve.”

In New Jersey, unlike other states, state law requires that disputes be submitted to alternative dispute resolution (ADR) before either party takes any further legal actions. “The governing documents of an association typically have a mediation or alternative dispute resolution provision,” says Taylor. “Again, communication is the key. Meeting with an impartial third party when an issue initially occurs is the key to avoiding its escalation. The more an issue festers, the more challenging it becomes to resolve. However, if ultimately mediation or alternative dispute resolution does not work (depending on the issue) one may need to file a police report or a civil lawsuit and have the court intervene.”

Resolving disputes with problem residents, who themselves are often frustrated and angry, may come down to interpersonal skills. “We view each building as its own micro-neighborhood,” says Feldman, “and the board and management work with that motto in mind. Treating your neighbors with respect, and spending time allowing them to voice their side before acting is always effective. It’s usually best to have a conversation before sending any threatening notices. The old saying that you catch more flies with honey than vinegar holds true in property management.”

And sometimes the answer is a fairly simple physical alteration or adjustment. With noise issues for example, “We find that a rule requiring floors to be 80% carpeted helps in most cases,” says Feldman. When the conflict is around cigarette or other smoke seeping into common areas or adjacent apartments from a smoker’s unit, “In that particular situation, a strong HEPA filter has been known to do the trick.”

More Challenging Situations

Sometimes, the circumstances underlying a problematic resident’s behavior are more complex than simple ignorance or presumptuousness. Hoarding behaviors are a good example—and a situation wherein the board and manager need to consider that a recognized mental disability is at the root of the issue, explains Jonah. “The resident often cannot simply act on their own to dispose of what an average person sees as trash—despite items being covered in mold and insects, for example. A simple demand letter with threats of fines will often go ignored. In situations such as this, we often advise the board to seek out the help of agencies like the board of health, elder services, if applicable, and/or hoarding task forces that exist across the state. When all else fails, it may be necessary to file a lawsuit seeking an order of the court allowing the association to hire professionals to assist, charging the legal fees and costs back to the unit owner’s account. To their credit, I have seen property managers assist residents in such a situation, again working with the help of outside family members, elder services, and the like.”

When a resident refuses to stop or change their behaviors despite warnings, fines, and other efforts to resolve the issue, Taylor says utilizing the court system is the final option. “If it’s a criminal matter, filing a police report is an option,” he says. “If it’s a civil issue, filing a lawsuit with the local court may be necessary. Lastly, for some matters, contacting the local municipality may be another option. The problem is the board only has limited ways to help two disputing neighbors. When warranted, and depending on the infraction, the local municipality does at times have other ways to handle a situation.”

“If there is no reciprocated respect when dealing with a neighbor,’ says Feldman, “it’s important to send them a notice as a reminder of each resident’s right to peaceful enjoyment within their home or apartment, and attach a fine to the notice.  Fines would be in accordance with a schedule found in the buildings house rules or rules and regulations, which we make sure all buildings have. We do our best to avoid attorney involvement, but failing all other attempts at resolution, would certainly lean on building counsel.”

Animal House

Pet policy is a big issue today, and the presence of pets can cause conflict between residents. Not everyone loves your dog, cat, or six-foot iguana—but like parents, pet owners can become quite defensive about their beloved companions. And as most of us know, defensiveness pretty much always leads to conflict.

In New York City, for example, recently adopted rules relative to emotional support animals have made virtually all restrictive pet policies moot. The same is true in many New Jersey municipalities. Dogs, and potentially other animals, are a fact of life in most situations.

“Boards have the right to maintain a pet policy with requirements related to animals in their building,” explains Feldman. “Buildings need to make reasonable accommodations for allowing emotional support animals (ESAs) or service animals (SAs) into the building. Buildings also have a right to be informed of an ESA or SA and ask questions about their training, need, etc.—but this is such a hot-button topic with differing views, I would recommend having your attorney opine.”

In Massachusetts, says Jonah, “The regulations promulgated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and guidance offered by the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD) do state that an assistance animal may be subject to reasonable rules and regulations; the animal may not be a nuisance, for example. However, there is an expectation that the board will attempt to work with the owner of the assistance animal so that the animal may stay on the property.”

Tread Carefully, But Tread Firmly

What the issue of ‘problem’ residents in multifamily buildings and associations often boils down to is peoples’ ability—and willingness—to understand and respect the fact that they’re living on top of, underneath, and immediately adjacent to other people who have just as much right to the peaceful enjoyment of their homes as they do. When that understanding or willingness breaks down, or is absent altogether, boards and managers need to act promptly and prudently to address the issue before it escalates into a much bigger problem. Clear, unequivocal communication of rules and expectations is almost always the best place to start.

Cooper Smith is a staff writer/reporter for New England Condominium.

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