Noise Complaints: Co-op and Condo Boards’ Worst Headache
“Noise and odors are among the most difficult complaints for boards to deal with,” says attorney Steve Wagner, a partner in the firm Wagner Berkow. “First, because they’re subjective. Second, because they’re transient – they come and go. And they’re very difficult to reproduce in a courtroom. Noise, in particular, can be life-changing.”
Wagner should know. Last year, while serving as board president of his 420-unit co-op in Manhattan, the attorney had to deal with complaints from a shareholder living with constant noise from the apartment above. When other shareholders corroborated the complaints, the board asked management to investigate. The complaints were legitimate. “At this point the board should try to resolve it,” Wagner says. “What can they do, without spending a fortune, that would allow the parties to come to an agreement?”
Unfortunately, the noisy neighbor was uncooperative, forcing the board to take drastic action. Wagner had consulted with a sound expert for a previous situation; based on that experience, the board drew up a list of specific measures the offender would have to take, including the types of flooring materials to be installed. The board even recommended contractors and vendors. The offender was then given a deadline to complete the work. If he failed to comply, the board would start eviction proceedings – a cudgel available to co-op boards. Faced with loss of his apartment, the loud shareholder grudgingly complied – at a personal cost of more than $15,000. Not cheap, but better than losing his home.
Attorney Steven Sladkus, a partner in the firm of Schwartz Sladkus Reich Greenberg Atlas, believes boards should get directly involved in noise complaints. “I’m a big fan of asking board members to investigate the complaint for themselves,” Sladkus says. “If the noise is bad, the average board member will agree. Hopefully, if the board gets involved, you can avoid litigation.”
While condo boards don’t have the power to evict, they’re not powerless when a unit-owner violates the bylaws or house rules on noise. Under the Condominium Act, condo boards have the power to seek an injunction – requiring the offender to take specific steps to abate the noise, which the courts then have the power to enforce.
One condo board in the East Village got so fed up with noisy subletters – college students who threw boisterous parties – that the board decided to take pre-emptive action. After the noisy subletters moved out, the three-member board made significant changes in how the eight-unit building operates.
“Now a majority of the board has to approve new buyers,” says president Viet Nguyen. “We also made it so that the managing agent has to approve new subletters. I used to think that background checks were just a way for management companies to make money, but that $200 fee weeds out less desirable people. People who’ve had issues in the past are not going to want to pay that fee or undergo a background check.”
One option boards don’t have with noise complaints is to ignore them. “If rules are clearly being violated and enough people complain and the board does nothing,” Wagner says, “a shareholder or unit-owner or other resident can bring a lawsuit against the board.”
In other words, if you hear something, do something.