Ask an Expert: How do I handle a smelly neighbor?

The first step is to put a complaint to your landlord in writing, experts say.
The first step is to put a complaint to your landlord in writing, experts say. Photo Credit: TripAdvisor

One of my neighbors doesn’t seem to take out the trash from their apartment, and has created a terrible smell that wafts through the rest of our three-story building. What recourse do tenants have? And the owner?

Your neighbor isn’t within their rights to subject you to their garbage stench (not to mention the likelihood of pests and other hazards that’ll come along with it), say our experts, and your landlord or managing agent should be working to resolve the problem.

As with most building and landlord disputes, the best first step (if you haven’t done this already) is to make your complaint in writing to the landlord. And if you can, encourage your neighbors to do so as well.

Dean Roberts, a real estate attorney specializing in co-op and condo law at Norris McLaughlin & Marcus, recommends writing a letter or email detailing the issue, as well as how long it’s been going on, and requesting that management address it.

“It is normally very useful to set a deadline for action and to request some type of confirmation, a letter or email, as to what management will do,” he adds. If the smell or nuisance is so bad that it interferes with your normal use of your apartment — for instance, you can no longer have guests over — the landlord is legally obligated to deal with the problem.

And from the sounds of it, your building may actually have a bona fide hoarder on its hands. In this case, your landlord should be notifying the offending neighbor that their behavior could result in eviction. Calling Adult Protective Services might also be a wise move, if the tenant in question seems unstable or otherwise unable to take care of themselves.

(Also, if they actually let the landlord into their apartment, notes real estate attorney Steve Wagner of Wagner Berkow LLP, the landlord should do their best to take pictures and document the problem, should the case go to court.)

In the meantime, you can also call 311 (as we’ve recommended previously), though if your neighbor refuses to let them into the apartment, it may be difficult for them to issue a violation. And if your landlord refuses to act, says Wagner, you may want to consider filing an HP action against them for failing to maintain the building, and even withholding rent (though the latter could land you a spot on the tenant blacklist).

In any case, you may want to prepare yourself for the matter to go to court, in which you and your neighbors will all likely have to testify to paint an effective picture of the problem. “The question is whether or not [your neighbor] will cooperate,” says Wagner, “and often, they don’t until they’re in front of a judge” and faced with a choice: clear out the apartment, or get the boot.

Virginia K. Smith is the senior editor at BrickUnderground.com, the online survival guide to finding a NYC apartment and living happily ever after. To see more expert answers or to ask a real estate question, click here.

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