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Drumming footsteps, throbbing music, yapping dogs, bawling babies, and, yes, the symphonic sounds of sexual ecstasy – these are common sources of one of the most intractable problems co-op boards are called upon to face: the dreaded noise complaint.
Based on calls to the city’s 311 line, neighbor-to-neighbor noise complaints outnumber the distant runner-up, complaints about street noise, by a margin of four to one.
“Noise complaints are the bane of our existence,” says Maryann Caputo, president of Tribor Management, which manages some three dozen co-ops and condos, mostly in Queens. “I’d rather have any problem other than a noise complaint.”
They may be intractable, but noise complaints between neighbors are not insoluble – provided boards understand the nature of the quagmire they’re getting into. And how to get out of it.
“Neighbor-to-neighbor noise complaints are very, very difficult to deal with,” says Tara Snow, a partner in the law firm of Novitt, Sahr & Snow. “It frequently becomes a ‘he said/she said’ issue.” What steps should you take?
Enforce existing rules. To avoid this recipe for an impasse, Snow advises boards to deal with first things first. Enforce existing rules. Most co-ops have a rule that a certain percentage of floor space outside of kitchens, closets, and bathrooms – 80 percent is a common number – must be covered with rugs, carpets, or other materials that reduce noise. If one resident complains about a neighbor’s noisy footsteps, visit the offender’s apartment.
“If the co-op has a rule about carpets,” Snow says, “we try to enforce that first. That way you don’t get into a debate about whether there is or isn’t excessive noise. We have the property manager or super visit the apartment and, if the carpeting is inadequate, he writes a letter to the resident. If the problem persists, I send a 30-day notice to cure” – that is, to comply with the rules.
Turn to mediation first. Many professionals urge boards to pursue mediation before litigation. This can be done informally, by getting a board member, the property manager, and the aggrieved parties in a room together to hash out the problem. Landlord-tenant court also has a mediation division that can help settle disputes before they go to trial.
“There are always ways to mediate and settle in housing court because they’re so overwhelmed with cases,” says a veteran co-op and condo attorney. “There are court personnel who will sit down with you and try to work something out. It’s almost a requirement.”
Document it. If the offender fails to comply, or if the noise complaints persist despite compliance, the ball moves into the co-op board’s court. The board must notify the shareholder that the corporation intends to terminate his lease. The next stop is civil housing court (also known as landlord-tenant court), where the board can secure an “eviction for non-monetary reasons,” a drastic measure.
“We try to discourage going to court on a neighbor-to-neighbor noise complaint unless they’ve got documentation,” Snow says. “So my advice to people who have a noise complaint is to document it. Let the super into your apartment to hear it. Keep records of when it happens. If you’re going to go to court, you need to have more than one witness, plus documentation. The more you have, the better off you are. The complainant – or someone with knowledge of the noise – has to testify. Frequently, all of a sudden they don’t want to come to court and face the person.”
And remember: if you go to trial and lose, you can be liable not only for your own legal costs, but for the victor’s as well. Given the stakes, settling begins to look very appealing.
Condo boards have much less leeway than co-op boards when it comes to dealing with noise complaints between neighbors – because condo dwellers own their apartments while co-op dwellers own shares in a corporation, which gives the board the landlord-like power to cancel a lease and evict a shareholder.
When negotiation and mediation fail, the only way to arrive at a solution is to abandon convention. “Sometimes,” says Snow, “you have to work toward a creative, non-traditional solution. It does happen.”
That occurred recently in a Queens co-op Snow represents, when a shareholder complained about noise coming through the floor of the upstairs apartment. The two parties got together, discussed the problem, and agreed to install noise-abating materials between the floor of the upstairs apartment and the ceiling of the downstairs apartment. The two shareholders agreed to split the cost, and the co-op board contributed some money. Everyone, Snow says with a hint of disbelief, is now in the process of living happily ever after.
But sometimes a noise complaint will defy solution, and people need to realize that they have to agree to disagree – and move on. “Ultimately,” says Snow, “some people are going to be super-sensitive. At some point, you have to turn to them and say, ‘You’re in a multiple-dwelling building, a community. And part of the drawback of community living is that there is going to be noise.’”