By Marianne Delorey, Ph.D.
“Good fences make good neighbors.” -Robert Frost
“Love thy neighbor as yourself but choose your neighborhood.” -Louise Beal
Stanley moved in below Lucy about a month ago. He heard fairly regular noises from above, but he gave her the benefit of the doubt as long as he could. The banging grew more frequent; Stanley started thinking she was intentionally making noise to upset him. The last time it woke him up in the middle of the night. Having lost sleep, he snapped at her when he saw her near the mailboxes the next day. At this point, Lucy had no idea that Stanley was bothered, but Stanley was at his wits’ end.
This is often how it starts. Another variant of the same problem is when Stanley goes directly to management without having spoken to the neighbor. If a conversation between neighbors can be had calmly, more details often help them figure out the problem noises together. Getting a landlord involved from the get-go often feels aggressive and puts people on the defense.
However, at the end of the day, sometimes landlords have to get involved. Often, a simple solution exists – put a rug under that chair, oil a squeaky hinge, or limit a problematic activity to non-sleeping hours. Landlords often can and do help mediate noise issues very successfully. But what happens when a noise problem is repeated, prolonged, and not easily solved?
Let’s look at two scenarios. In the first, Stanley lived in his own home for 50 years. He liked to read but could not concentrate if there was noise. But Stanley’s expectations were not reasonable. The person above him was allowed to live their life. She could talk on the phone, watch tv, and take a shower just like he would. So long as the “quiet hours” were observed with more care, the daytime noise complaints were not actionable. Yes, Stanley might be bothered, but the onus was on him to learn coping strategies for living in a community – use a white noise machine, read at the library, meditate, etc.
In the second scenario, Lucy is the problem. Stanley’s right to peaceful enjoyment is seriously altered when he cannot sleep because she is awake all night on the phone or singing along with her favorite music. When approached, Lucy cannot see reason and will not even talk to the landlord about ways she can reduce the noise level.
There is good and bad news for people looking for help from their landlord. The good news is that most leases contain a paragraph that outlines expectations: Your behavior is problematic when it interferes with the quiet enjoyment of the facility by other residents or when it interferes with the management of the property.
The bad news is that landlords are only given one tool – the lease. When a lease is broken, the landlord can try to talk to the tenant, but sometimes they have to go to court to resolve the issue. And court takes time. Often a lot of time. Sometimes, it is 6 months or longer between the first report of problematic behavior and a court date. Many neighbors, at this point, get very frustrated with us.
Robert Frost was right that good fences make good neighbors. However, in multifamily housing, families are closer than the property lines of country homes. In our case, I would revise the quote to say, “Respecting boundaries makes good neighbors.” If you can’t have the neighbor you want, be the neighbor you want and the landlord will straighten out the rest.