In NYC, quality-of-life complaints soaring, along with litigation

Shoddy construction and the economy is a recipe for unhappy neighbors.

How long should New Yorkers be forced to suffer a particularly loud (or uniquely odorous) neighbor?

For co-op and condo dwellers, the answer increasingly seems to be “not very long.” Over the past several years, attorneys and building managers say they’ve seen a noticeable uptick in the number of disputes between neighbors in New York City buildings, especially when it comes to noise and smell. As a result, condo and co-op boards are turning to attorneys with greater frequency, leading to higher legal fees and spikes in maintenance and common charges.

Aaron Shmulewitz, an attorney at Manhattan law firm Belkin Burden Wenig & Goldman, says the number of neighbor-versus-neighbor, quality-of-life complaints he’s dealing with at co-ops and condos has doubled over the past several years.

Experts point to a number of reasons for the increase in disputes. The first is financial; people who purchased or refinanced at the peak of the market are sitting on assets that are not worth what they originally paid, Shmulewitz notes. That, combined with layoffs or financial pressures, sometimes causes frustration to spill over into neighborly disputes.

Some credence to that argument can be found in the city’s 311 data: Both noise and odor complaints peaked in 2009, at the height of the economic downturn in Manhattan, according to data from the New York City Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications. In 2009, some 251,000 311 calls were complaints about noise, compared to 203,000 in 2011.

Another factor is shoddy or rushed work by developers during the real estate boom, leading to ill-conceived floor plans and units that allow noise and smell to travel easily from one apartment to another.

Ron Bielinski is a principal at Manhattan-based forensic architectural and engineering firm Erwin & Bielinski, which deals with noise and odor migration. He says he has seen a steady increase in work over the last five years.

Noise troubleshooter Alan Fierstein, founder and president of Acoustilog, says his workload has steadily increased since 2006, when new developments were constructed quickly — often at the expense of proper structural design. “I don’t know if people are getting more sensitive,” Fierstein says. “But they have more things to complain about.”

The true cost of noisy neighbors

Beyond the intangibles of tension between neighbors, disputes can also result in higher maintenance and common charges for a building’s tenants. Sound testing, for example, usually costs between $5,000 and $10,000 — an expense usually shouldered by the co-op or condo board. If a case goes to litigation, legal fees typically start at around $50,000 and can easily run into the six figures. Buildings often budget around $10,000 to $20,000 per year for legal fees — and if those fees suddenly jump to $100,000, the money usually comes from residents’ pocketbooks.


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