Handling noise disputes and avoiding larger problems down the road

When there is acrimony over excessive noise, it has to be dealt with before tenants take matters into their own hands.

During the long, dark winter of COVID, we were asked what a law firm was up to when there were eviction bans across the board and the courts were largely closed.

Aside from empathizing with our clients and effectuating voluntary move-outs, we were addressing instances of threats and violence in rental units. During the pandemic, the courts were still open to hearing egregious cases when public health and safety were at risk, and there was, unfortunately, a lot of dysfunction and fighting between neighboring tenants cooped up in close quarters with nowhere to go.

It stands to reason that with so many tenants sheltering in place, there was more noise generated throughout buildings, and sometimes this resulted in physical altercations. In one case, a sleepless tenant who couldn’t get peace and quiet used a hammer to smash out a boisterous neighbor’s window and we were able to remove him despite the larger eviction moratorium because he posed a threat.


A recent story we came across shows that noise isn’t just a minor complaint; conflicts over noise can quickly escalate into violence. 

This chilling video captures the moment when a crazed neighbor executed a father and his stepson in an East Flatbush housing complex in the neighborhood where screen and stage icon Barbra Streisand grew up. The inconsolable wife of the adult victim reported that the household has had years-long disputes with their downstairs neighbor over noise.



Some of our takeaways

Clearly, the landlord must be proactive even when there is tenant-on-tenant disputes; they should not be allowed to fester and reach the boiling point. Our hard-won experience has taught us that many landlords are conflict avoiders and would rather kick the can down the road with the hope that the problem will resolve itself.

This inaction can lead to much bigger problems when the noise dispute leads to property damage and/or violence to individuals.


What, exactly is “excessive noise?”

This is a tricky balancing act. On the one hand, tenants have the right to “quiet enjoyment” of the premises. On the other, neighbors will inevitably make some noise in their units and tenants have varying tolerances for the decimals.

Ideally, housing providers can rely on the terms of the lease; an ironclad lease can spell out certain things like quiet times and guest policies. Our strong preference is to require a culture of respect and lay out behavioral guidelines at the inception of the tenancy.

The frequency of noise disturbances should be taken into account. Did the tenant throw a one-off raucous party, or are these loud gatherings occurring repeatedly? Also, consider the nature of the noise disturbance. Is it walking around on a creaky floor, kids playing, or a resident using power tools at all hours of the night?

When there are multiple units, it’s also helpful to know how widespread the problem is. Is it one resident who simply doesn’t get along with a neighbor or has a low tolerance for noise, or is the loud offender wreaking havoc on others?

We recall that when eviction moratoriums were in place, this became a vexing issue because problematic tenants could not be transitioned out for noise violations - tenants could crank up their music 24/7. As a result, many responsible, paying tenants worth their weight in gold decided to move out because of noise and other nuisances.


Some tenants get hit with a feather. Others with a freight train. Are we getting involved in a larger dispute?

When kindly asked to turn down the decimals, there are two types of tenants. One is that the tenant politely acknowledges the noise complaint, perhaps states that they were unaware of it, apologizes, and promises to be more mindful in the future. Matter done.

Other tenants are not so cooperative. They are unapologetic, disagree that they are loud, and become defiant. This is more troublesome and if there is evidence of a nuisance and the noise persists, the landlord or their agent might need to address and deal with the matter.


How many noise complaints before using more stern communication? 

We’ll have to look at the severity and the individual circumstances of the noise complaints. When a recalcitrant tenant continues to ratchet up the noise despite friendly entreaties and warnings, housing providers can begin ratcheting up their response.

Having practiced landlord-tenant law for the better part of three decades, we have a good gut feeling about behavior issues that can be corrected and those that cannot. Hiring an attorney to effectuate an unlawful detainer (eviction) action is costly and should be used as a last resort.

If ultimately the decision is made to issue a formal 3-day notice to correct the nuisance, one can be prepared and if the noise continues unabated, our office can file the eviction action, mindful of any local rules. In San Francisco and Oakland, for example, service of a warning letter is required before a 3-day notice is used.


Consider mediation

There are wonderful nonprofit conflict resolution centers that can help iron out differences between tenants living in the building. The one we recommend is communityboards.org. This will hopefully lower the temperature of the dispute and if not, a failure to participate will help us build an eviction case.

In fact, there can be a clause embedded in the lease that requires tenants to use services like this. Take a look at some verbiage we’ll borrow from one of the leases our office uses:


Building occupants are expected to cooperate with each other in resolution of any disputes between them and shall be required to use the services of a local dispute resolution service if they are having difficulty at dispute resolution on their own. The failure or refusal of an occupant to use a resolution service shall be an admission that the occupant failing or refusing to use a resolution service is the wrongdoer in the dispute with the other Building occupant. Landlord's participation with a resolution service or attendance at any meeting or mediation at a resolution service shall be voluntary and not compulsory...


Parting thoughts

Housing providers cannot eliminate noise altogether, but we can distinguish between everyday noise that takes place in a rental unit like walking or talking, and excessive noise that is recurring and not part of normal living.

Bornstein Law can assess the level of a nuisance, facilitate communication, and, as a last resort, use the courts to remove the source of noise.