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Is your neighbor harassing you? 4 steps to handle the problem

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How much total do you plan to tip the building staff this year?

More than 8 million people inhabit this city of just 305 square miles. That makes for some pretty dense living. While New Yorkers sometimes get a bad rap for their rudeness (more often than not, you're just being honest and direct, and likely in a hurry), most people get along without any problems. However, there are times when a neighbor can become annoying—or even unbearable.

We've covered the best ways to deal with the usual problems, but when a dispute escalates, how should you handle it? Start with the fine print.

The most common issues tend to be addressed in your lease, with noise and smells being common complaints. Harassment—such as physical threats, calling the police to report false fires or other emergencies, or purposefully making the environment unlivable—is a different situation, and should be referred to the police.

[An earlier version of this post was published in 2015 and has been updated with new information in August 2018.]

Be aware that whether you are confronting a nuisance or deliberate harassment, you may have to be very persistent to get your concerns addressed. That's because landlords, management companies, and boards are “loath to do anything” about most complaints, says Dean Roberts, a real estate lawyer at Norris McLaughlin & Marcus. It’s very hard to determine who’s at fault in these cases, and most hope the residents will just work it out themselves.

If the behavior affects more than one neighbor, or a substantial portion of the building, then intervention is more likely, says real estate attorney Robert Braverman of Braverman Greenspun.  

Here are some suggested tactics:

1. Talk it out 

Assuming you don't feel physically endangered by your neighbor, consider having a conversation with him or her first, says Michael Wolfe of Midboro Management. 

“Knock on your neighbor’s door. Invite him for coffee," Wolfe says. "Find some segue into a conversation that is not threatening. The keys are communication and compassion.”

2. Document the problem 

"Write a letter to the shareholders or management company," Roberts says, adding that "you can’t just say you ‘called several times.’ You need some kind of evidence.”

"Also, keep a log of incidents with dates and times," suggests Sam Himmelstein of Himmelstein, McConnell, Gribben, Donoghue & Joseph, a law frim that represents renters (and a Brick sponsor). A paper trail of complaints and a log of incidents will help you build your case if you wind up breaking your lease and your landlord sues you for it.

When it’s cigarette smoke or kids stomping in the hallways, the management company can step in to help sort it out—plugging holes between apartments in the former case, or even bringing in sound equipment to measure decibel levels in the latter.

If the tenant is actually in compliance with the building’s rules, management may just forget about the complaint.

“If a person is overly sensitive, we shut the door on it, so to speak," Wolfe says.

3.  Seek mediation

The city offers mediation for neighbors who can’t work things out between themselves or with the help of the management company.

As a Habitat magazine story explains, “Mediation can be extremely useful and cost-effective, and is particularly appropriate for co-op and condo disputes because residents are likely to have continuing relationships with one another in the elevator, gym, laundry room, and other common areas. By providing an opportunity for parties to speak in a controlled environment, such as in the managing agent's office, mediation can lessen the hostility when parties inevitably interact in the future.”

Bonus: Mediation costs a lot less than litigation. The New York City Bar Association's Co-op and Condo Mediation Project supplies trained mediators for a $100 non-refundable administrative fee per party, plus an hourly fee (between $350-$500 an hour). The New York Peace Institute will provide mediators for free in Manhattan and Brooklyn.

4. Go the legal route

If the matter is really out of hand and a neighbor is truly harassing you, you may just have to get the police involved. Even one visit from the police can frequently be enough to stop the harassment. And if the person harassing you has a reputation for harassing people in the building, you’ll probably have a better case, Roberts says. 

After an arrest, a judge can issue an order of protection, which can require that someone stay away from you and your apartment. These are usually given in domestic abuse cases, Roberts says, but any sort of harassment is a crime for which an order of protection could be issued by a criminal court.

“To obtain an order of protection in criminal court, the person must be arrested and there must be a criminal court case pending against him," according to the Manhattan District Attorney’s website. "The district attorney’s office will request an order of protection from the court on your behalf.” 

When matters are in the hands of the district attorney's office, you become the complaining witness. While you might be called to testify about your neighbor's behavior, the case will proceed based on what the prosecutor thinks is best. Depending on how long the case takes to wind through the system, it can take up to a few months for an order to be issued. But there's no guarantee that the order will be granted.

If it is granted, among other things, a protection order should compel your harassing neighbor not to menace or harass you, to stay away from you, and not to contact you in any way. A judge can also make your harasser pay a fine or other restitution, and can have him or her arrested, if the order of protection is not observed.

Protection orders generally last about a year. Generally speaking, though, they are a last resort for most people, many of whom choose to move instead.