The everyday problems in homeowners associations are usually pretty cut-and-dried. Most of the time, disputes between neighbors, or between residents and the board, can be filed under a few headings. Noise, whether issued from refrigerator-sized subwoofers or pint-sized dogs, is a favorite complaint in high-rise and mid-rise buildings, while in suburban homeowners associations, property-line disputes sometimes approach the rancor of the Thirty Years War.
Sometimes, however, the problem is more serious—like a dangerous or unstable resident, a unit owner who constantly antagonizes his neighbors, or a tenant conducting illicit activities on the premises. Fortunately, such cases are rare. If you find yourself in such an unfortunate position, here are seven things you need to know:
We've all had oddball neighbors. Maybe they wear way too much aftershave. Maybe their apartments reek of strange food. Maybe they watch bad TV shows with the volume turned too loud. Maybe they're just not very nice. There's not much you can do about the oddballs. But you can take action against anyone who is a threat to the health and safety of your building.
"That would be somebody who interferes with the building operations," says J. David Ramsey, an attorney and partner at Ramsey Berman PC, a community association law firm in Wall. "Somebody who acts out at board meetings, who interferes with work being done, who keeps lodging frivolous complaints that waste time and money."
It's exceedingly difficult to remove owners, especially in condos, from their units—but it can be done.
In a country founded on—among other things—the right to private property, it's no piece of cake to remove an owner from his property, no matter what the circumstances.
"It has to be something that really violates people's safety," says Ramsey. "It can't be just that they're noisy."
Before any drastic action is taken, boards must offer ADR—alternative dispute resolution—to try and solve the problem. Thus it can take months and months to get to the impasse needed to go to civil court. But even court guarantees nothing.
"If you could articulate that they would cause harm," says David Byrne, an attorney with Stark & Stark in Lawrenceville, "you could get a court order, but in New Jersey, it's not easy to do. Judges tend to have a bias against HOAs. They'd rather wait until something happened than let the board act to prevent it."
The only surefire way to evict an objectionable tenant is for non-payment of maintenance or liens—sort of like busting Al Capone on tax evasion.
"You'd offer ADR, which would be ignored or just not successful," Byrne says. "You'd get a court order to compel the person to stop, which might allow the HOA to collect legal fees from the tenant. If he didn't pay, you could record a lien on the property, and it would eventually be sold at foreclosure."
All of this would take months, maybe years, to accomplish—and isn't something that happens often.
"It's pretty drastic for conduct that can be remedied," Byrne says. "But it's possible."
Professional arbitrators are generally used only in arguments about money. When trying to resolve conflict, it's often better to keep things simple.
"You don't need specially-trained people," Byrne says. "Just impartial, objective people from the community."
Such people can, in many cases, help placate both sides of the dispute, by virtue of having a fresh perspective. Since most internecine problems derive from issues rather than conduct, redressing the grievance often eliminates the problem.
A good place to find such an impartial person, incidentally, is on the board of another HOA in the area.
It's a misdemeanor in the state of New Jersey to disrupt a board meeting.
I once attended an annual board meeting where one disgruntled resident kept interrupting to object to something or other. One objection was that the board had spent money on legal fees—although the legal fees had been used to get a restraining order against the resident, who was something of a board stalker.
The board handled the potentially dangerous situation with aplomb, defusing the man's anger. But with a less patient board president, things could easily have gotten ugly. What no one in the room knew was that the disgruntled resident was violating the law.
"The chair is allowed to run the meeting, to recognize who's speaking and who's being spoken to," says Ramsey. "It's a misdemeanor not to respect the chair's instructions. If someone persisted in being disruptive, the chair could, in theory, call the police."
Ramsey has attended thousands of meetings over his 25 years on the job. Only twice has he seen the police called in. "It almost never comes to that," he says.
One way to avoid the problem is to tell a potential heckler in advance that if he is disruptive, the meeting will be adjourned. Another option, albeit a more expensive one, is to have an off-duty policeman attend. One look at a pistol and dangling handcuffs usually silences even the most hot-headed homeowners.
Communication is vital—and that means being a patient listener.
As two-year-olds throw temper tantrums to get noticed, residents might be disruptive because they feel it's the only way the board will listen to their concerns. "Someone who's acting up a lot of times just needs to be listened to," says Byrne.
Such people require kid gloves.
"You might need to just hold their hand more, chat longer on the phone," says Kerri Stimpson, vice president of operations for Ideal Management, in Farmingdale. "Let them know that their opinion is important, and explain to them that this is why the board does what it does."
Anger is often only temporary. "Calm the person down," Stimpson says, "and get them in a rationale frame of mind. Let them know you value what they have to say, but that you can't talk if they're screaming."
Board members can take on the aura of celebrities, especially in larger associations. A few minutes of face time with a disruptive resident can go a long way.
When to Call the Police
Then there are the felonious residents—or ones you suspect are felonious. Maybe there's always a steady flow of seedy-looking people parading to an apartment at all hours, and the word on the street is, the resident is a drug dealer. Maybe the steady flow of people are all male, and you suspect prostitution is going on. Or maybe one of your opportunistic neighbors is running a boarding house, in violation of terms of the proprietary lease - no one has that many friends and relatives staying for a few days, right?
"You have to be very, very careful before making accusations," Stimpson says. "Before the issue is broached, you have to have proof that you know what's going on."
It's one thing to relay your suspicions to the allegedly guilty resident; it's quite another to air them to the boys in blue.
"If there's criminal activity," Byrne says, "call the police. What's a board going to do? Get a civil court order to make them stop selling drugs? They wouldn't listen to it anyway."
Byrne advises judicious use of the cops. "If it's too noisy, call the police. If you suspect something, call the police. That's what they're there for."
The Pullman case of 2004-05, in which a resident, David Pullman, was eventually evicted because of disruptive behavior, granted New York co-op boards almost kingly powers over their buildings. Pullman claimed that an upstairs couple were playing their television set and stereo at high volumes late into the night, and alleged that they were running a loud and illegal bookbinding business in their apartment. Hostilities escalated into physical confrontation and the dispute continued for years with Pullman subsequently commencing as many as four lawsuits against the couple, the board and its directors. In a vote of 75 percent of the shareholders, the membership voted overwhelmingly to terminate his proprietary lease and cancel his shares in the building. An appeal failed and Pullman eventually left and moved into a condominium.
New Jersey has no similar result, and the precedent holds no water across the river.
"There's no reported case quite like that," Ramsey says.
This has no bearing on condominium associations, whose boards generally lack the ability to approve or reject potential buyers, but co-ops should be extra wary.
Fortunately, objectionable tenants are rare. Ramsey, Byrne and Stimpson all say that dealing with such people doesn't happen often. Now, you know what to do if you find yourself in the position.
Greg Olear is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The New Jersey Cooperator.