This makes me want to live in a boat, in international waters.
February 9, 2012 1:26 PM   Subscribe

How do we deal with our new neighbor, who seems to be having deteriorating mental issues.

We (myself, wife, 5 month old son, and dog) just moved into a 3 unit building just over a month ago. We signed a year-long lease, that seems rather legit. The gentleman, lets call him John, who lives on the top floor has some mental problems of unknown origin (and we're not in the business of diagnosing our neighbors). From what the property management company has told us, his mother owns the building and he lives here rent free.

At first, this just seemed weird. Examples:
-John told the property management company, without our consent, to change our locks because "this is a dangerous city" (and Really? Portland, Maine? Not really a hive of scum and villainy).
-John routinely monkeyed with our oil heater in the shared basement until the property management company told him to stop.
-He asked our other neighbors to give up their parking spot for us because we have a baby. An actual nice thought, but we don't pay for a parking spot, and now our upstairs neighbors think that we're assholes. Great.

We've mentally filed all this under "Really-Annoying-But-Harmless." I've contacted our property management company a couple times about his behavior, and they've seemed very dismissive of this whole scenario with comments like "Oh, well, that's just John!" This reaction is also shared by our maintenance dude, that when asked, just sort of shrugged and said, "Well. John has some problems..." and trailed off.

Very recently, things seem to be increasing in intensity and starting to feel a bit dangerous;
-John has started screaming fits in the building, and it has started to freak out my child (and the dog for that matter). This has happened at least once a day in shared sections of the building, or right outside our windows.
-He ran his car into the wrap around porch on one side of the building, shaking the house (no signs of real damage though).
-Last night, I found a pile of burned rags, or jeans or something, about a foot outside my sons window on the ground. This is kind of the last straw.

Today I contacted them about the pile of ash and burnt cloth, and told them that I'm going to call the police the next time something happens, because I'm concerned for my family's safety (and for John's quite frankly). Our property manager said that "John hasn't really been like this in a long time" and she said that they would contact his mother, THE OWNER OF THE BUILDING. This just seems like a couple of HUGE red flags here. We don't want there to be any weirdness or retaliation because we're calling the cops on our landlords son. Also, I don't know what to do living downstairs from someone who has a history of mental illness and is known to be unstable. I'm really frustrated that the property management company didn't inform us of this...but i'm not sure they legally could've, really.

So...what do we do? How do I make sure my family is safe from this dude, and this dude is safe from himself (and cops who don't know how to deal with mental health issues) and how do we deal with this?
posted by furnace.heart to Human Relations (40 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Move. If he has genuine mental health issues, the cops aren't going to be able to help the situation unless he's jailed, in which case his mother will be uber-pissed at you. Even if he's not deranged but just a jackass, the same result will ensue. There's no good outcome, really.
posted by desjardins at 1:30 PM on February 9, 2012 [6 favorites]

We've mentally filed all this under "Really-Annoying-But-Harmless"

If I had a five-year old and someone was messing with the oil heater and leaving burned stuff outside my child's window, I'd skip over property management and go directly to calling the police. That doesn't seem like harmless behavior, to me.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 1:31 PM on February 9, 2012 [10 favorites]

As far as breaking the lease, contact a lawyer, but think about what your family's safety is worth in monetary terms. Probably a lot.
posted by desjardins at 1:32 PM on February 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

Holy crap, he set a fire outside your baby's window. Move.
posted by amro at 1:33 PM on February 9, 2012 [30 favorites]

Document everything, and prepare to break your lease and move. If they try to enforce the lease - hire an attorney to tell them "see you in hell" on legal letterhead. Every "screaming fit" should result in the Police being called - give them a heads up that it may be someone with mental issues. Add this info to your documentation stack.

In the short term - I would buy a gun (checking with local laws and statutes, assuming you are not a felon, etc) and keep it in a safely locked container in the house. I believe in having all options open.
posted by machinecraig at 1:37 PM on February 9, 2012 [4 favorites]

Write a letter containing all the information in this post. Give it to the management company and have them forward it to the mother/owner so that she understands your experience.

She already knows he's crazy, so she will either have his caregivers get his meds adjusted or she'll let you break your lease.

Meanwhile, the next time something weird does happen, call the police. This is not because you think they can do anything, but because it's documentation you will need to give to your lawyer should the mother/owner turn out to be an inhuman monster who doesn't respond in any way to your letter.
posted by goblinbox at 1:37 PM on February 9, 2012 [8 favorites]

Amro has it, I think -- this guy isn't worth the argument. Get a new place to live.
posted by ellF at 1:39 PM on February 9, 2012

John's mother obviously knows that he has serious mental health issues. My concern would be that John may have gone off his meds, which is a common occurrence in those with serious mental health issues.

Your property management company's lukewarm response leads me to believe that this is all typical behavior in their eyes. Like they have probably been through this in the past, and will again in the future. Hopefully they will contact John's mother, who can pressure him to go back on his meds. And hopefully this happens before anyone gets hurt (including John).

That's not your problem, obviously. But I think it's a likely explanation for what is happening, the escalation that you are seeing.

This is a classic "find a lawyer" situation. You may think that a lawyer is too expensive, but the legal fees will be cheaper than just breaking the lease, which can impact your credit rating.

Document everything, call the cops if you feel unsafe for any reason, and GTFO ASAP.
posted by ErikaB at 1:44 PM on February 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

Is there any chance that the charred rags/jeans came from somewhere else - eg, he dropped them out of his window and they landed outside your son's, or something like that? Because if he's setting fires outside your son's window, then yes, police is warranted, immediately. But if he lit something on fire somewhere else and the remains ended up there, still uncomfortable but not Get Out Immediately level.

Honestly, if John's mother owns the building, you are unlikely to 'win' this in any way that's going to be good for you. I know it's a royal pain, but I would probably move. And soon.

What a nightmare.
posted by widdershins at 1:45 PM on February 9, 2012

God, (as a new parent) that's terrifying. I would start looking for a new place to live now - as in, plan to leave in less than a month. I think you're getting good advice on breaking the lease etc. Something no one has addressed yet - if this were me I would move my son into my room, make sure all smoke detectors etc are working, and I had a fire extinguisher working and handy, and think about escape routes and other security concerns. I'm glad this dude lives above you and not below.
posted by crabintheocean at 1:47 PM on February 9, 2012 [5 favorites]

I put up with a difficult living situation (for less serious reasons than you have) and in hindsight I should have moved as soon as the problems started. Instead, I was stressed out for a year and never felt safe in my apartment. It was exhausting. The landlord didn't do one thing to fix it and brushed me off as a difficult tenant. That didn't make me feel secure, either. I later found out that an attorney could have helped me break the lease due to past complaints about the management company. If you can, I would look for someplace else to live.
posted by lucysparrow at 1:48 PM on February 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I appreciate all of the responses so far, and I would love to move, honestly we can't...we're, well, we're incredibly broke (combination of just having moved across the country, and medical bills from bringing furnace.heart Jr into the world) so moving isn't an option for several months at least. We're running at a small deficit month to month right now.

Would there be any sort of legal aid out there for a situation like this?
posted by furnace.heart at 1:51 PM on February 9, 2012

If you talk to an attorney, ask what your options are in terms of being released from the lease as opposed to breaking it. A number of years ago, my ex and I were in an unsafe living situation (cars were shot up and 911 was called, plus his car was broken into on a different occasion) and we were released from the lease because of the circumstances. Being released from the lease means two things: you don't owe an arm and a leg in fees and damages for breaking the lease and you don't have to say on future applications that you broke a lease.

This was in Texas and may not apply in your state, but you should look into the possibility, nonetheless.
posted by immlass at 1:55 PM on February 9, 2012 [3 favorites]

This is the first result for "legal aid portland" but there are many other results. Definitely worth a call. Today. Like I said, how much is your family's safety worth?
posted by desjardins at 1:57 PM on February 9, 2012

crap, that's an Oregon link.
posted by desjardins at 1:57 PM on February 9, 2012

Here is a link for landlord- tenant issues in Portlad, including a legal aid hotline.

I understand the lack of funds, but if you can borrow, scrape, sell items, part-time job, etc. to cover moving costs (after talking to a lawyer), I would do so. Crazy John tinkering with the oil furnace would freak me the hell out. No amount of money or discomfort is worth your family's safety and hope you find a safer home soon.
posted by murrey at 2:03 PM on February 9, 2012

I would consider talking to the management company again- specifically about the fire issue. Sometimes there are honest-to-god human beings that will help you find a solution- like moving to another property that they manage without breaking the lease, or just letting you out of it and sending you merrily on your way.

if they are dicks and don't offer any solutions- start talking to a lawyer.

I know you're broke- but seriously- what are you going to do if he lights the house on fire next time? Also- no more fooling around- finding little fire-areas around the house is a direct call to the police next time.
posted by Blisterlips at 2:04 PM on February 9, 2012 [4 favorites]

Sorry to hear about your current living situation!! I'm not from the US, but have dealt with legal aid before to deal with breaking a lease early for safetly issues (hopefully these will be helpful for you!!). From some googling, Pine Tree Legal Aid provides legal aid assistance to low income people in Maine, including tentant and housing issues, and has an office in Portland. Would definitely be worth giving them a call, the clinic I worked with had a sliding scale based on income and free assistance below a certain income level. Other resources to check out are the Cumberland Legal Aid Clinic. They have a list of helpful resources on the link above.
posted by snowysoul at 2:06 PM on February 9, 2012

To give you some perspective, the first three examples sound to me like things that could happen anywhere, with or without a mental diagnosis. I've definitely had some weird apartment neighbors doing weird things and saying weird things. Community apartment living is usually a bit out there. The last three examples are beyond normal, though. The yelling would disturb me the most, honestly. What I would do (and I don't know if this is the best legal recourse, it's just what I, as a single person with no kids, would do), is keep in touch with the management people and see what is going on with the problem. I would ask questions like, "So what happened last time John was 'like this'? What did his mother say? What can I expect now?" And I would keep in touch frequently. I'd also try to calm myself by not jumping to the assumption that John's mom won't be helpful. Many parents with kids like this have called the police on the kids themselves and she won't necessarily blame you or do nothing.
posted by amodelcitizen at 2:09 PM on February 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

Could you try approaching the management company and saying delicately, "It's great the John has a stable living situation, but it seems like sharing a building with a baby and a dog is aggravating his medical problems." Pause for effect. "We think it would be best if we moved, and we would like you to credit our rent for the last month (or two months, whatever gives you enough to get out of there). I'm sure you can find a tenant John is more comfortable with, and our attorney agrees." Even money it works, especially if you mention the whole "burning shit in the yard" debacle.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 2:09 PM on February 9, 2012 [20 favorites]

IANAL, but there's usually protection for tenants' "quiet enjoyment" of a property that could mean the landlord's violated her side of the lease by failing to protect you from her son's behavior.
posted by gingerest at 2:19 PM on February 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

Do you have contract information for his mother? If this is part of a cycle he goes through, she may know how to get things sorted out quickly. The screaming is scary but not harmful. A fire, on the other hand, completely justifies a call to the police.
posted by Mavri at 2:22 PM on February 9, 2012

The fire is definitely over the line. It does not take much for a small fire to get out of hand. I know you say you can't move, but I would be looking hard at every option that gets you out of that house ASAP.

Also, do you have working smoke alarms, including in the baby's room?
posted by LobsterMitten at 2:35 PM on February 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

Also, it's nothing compared to your physical safety, but do you have renter's insurance? I would get it, now. It's usually not very expensive and will help you recover if he causes damage to your stuff.
posted by LobsterMitten at 2:38 PM on February 9, 2012 [9 favorites]

I am sympathetic to your plight and understand why you're afraid, but you have to tread even more lightly in this situation than you would in any other landlord/tenant situation because the circumstances are very, very personal. The owner of the building has a huge personal investment in their son staying where he is. They have zero investment in you staying in the building while their son has to find another home. If you force them to evict their son, you, too, will likely lose your home and your security deposit. Then you'll be really broke and completely up the creek without the proverbial paddle.

I must gently remind you that you don't have any proof that John set the fire. Unless you saw him do it, you only have a suspicion. A reasonable suspicion, yes, but one that, from a legal standpoint, amounts to nothing. If I were you, I would not accuse John of things you have not personally witnessed him doing, or can reasonably conclude he is doing, such as screaming in his apartment, which stands to reason because he alone lives in the apartment upstairs, it is a male voice, it is coming from upstairs, etc. I would focus on the screaming and the known fact that he drove his car into the side of the building. Those two things, along with the monkeying with the boiler, are sufficient to warrant going to the management company to break your lease and get your full security deposit back. I also have to ask, were the police called when he drove his car into the building? Did you call the management company right then? What did they say?

Now. When you go to the people at the management company again to break your lease and get back your full deposit, don't threaten or throw your weight around or make accusations about John. You can't, because their jobs with this management company depend, in some part, on the owner of the building who, as we know, is most greatly invested in making sure her mentally ill (or alcoholic, or both) child has a safe place to live out his life. You must focus not on John and what they're going to do about him, but on you, your infant son and what you need. They are most likely reasonable people who can very well understand that a father with an infant child is not going to feel safe living in a building with someone who randomly fiddles with the boiler, or gets drunk and drives his car into the building, or screams all day in his apartment. Tell them that you are very sorry but you simply must break your lease. Tell them that had you known of this situation beforehand, you simply would not have wasted anyone's time in moving into this building, as it is simply not a situation you can deal with as a new father. Ask them, perhaps, what they would do in a similar situation and then politely listen to their answer. Then, simply say, "I am very sorry. I have no wish to make life anymore difficult for John than it already is. But this is not a safe situation for my infant son. I must break the lease immediately and will need my full security deposit back. I really have no wish to turn this into a legal issue. I simply must protect my child as the landlord needs to protect her child, and I would ask for your help to accomplish that." It also sounds like you live on the ground floor. If that's the case, please remind them that you cannot take the chance that the next time he drives his car into the building it's into your child's bedroom.

If they refuse or try to talk you out of it, reiterate one more time what you want, by when, and reiterate that you don't wish to involve either the authorities or a lawyer. If they still balk, then I'm afraid you need to start calling the police every time John starts screaming, you need to talk to a lawyer, and you need to start saving your pennies for a security deposit elsewhere, because you will ultimately have to find a new place to live anyway. I'm sorry you're going through this.
posted by TryTheTilapia at 2:46 PM on February 9, 2012 [14 favorites]

You need to call the police.
posted by KokuRyu at 2:54 PM on February 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

Pine Tree Legal (phone number: 774-8211) is a good suggestion -- here's their guide, Rights of Tenants in Maine.

Also, I would call the police (their non-emergency line is 874-8575). I live in Portland, and I have to say, our police department is pretty progressive and is oriented toward community policing. The Portland P.D. also has been recognized for how well it responds to reports involving people with mental illness, so you should be able to reach someone who knows what you're dealing with.

Good luck. If I can think of any other local resources, I will post them here.
posted by virago at 3:03 PM on February 9, 2012 [3 favorites]

Move. Anything else is not worth it. Many years ago we were renting half a house from a woman who seemed fine, even friendly at first, but developed mental issues including paranoia. At the time I had two small children and was newly pregnant. She started screaming at me that I was stealing her clothes off the line and other things, when I wore 4 sizes smaller than her, and harassing me and saying insane things and threatening things whenever she saw me. I ended up having an early miscarriage and often wondered if the stress she caused contributed to it. We just found a place in the next town and moved out.
You can't deal with crazy people, and yes they can be very dangerous, whether that is politically correct to say or not. Kokoryu's suggestions on how to get out of the lease are good ones. Yes, call the police. You need to protect your family, not worry about John or how the cops might treat him.
posted by mermayd at 3:05 PM on February 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

I appreciate all of the responses so far, and I would love to move, honestly we can't...we're, well, we're incredibly broke...

I'm not sure I understand this part, unless you're suggesting that you wouldn't be able to find another apartment with rent that low? Because otherwise, consider moving out, stopping payment (explaining in writing what section of the lease you think has been violated), and making the landlord come after you. Granted there's some risk in moving, but there's a much more significant risk staying put.
posted by pardonyou? at 3:05 PM on February 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

P.S. Re: the oil heater: According to the Rights of Tenants: Unsafe or Unfit Housing section of Pine Tree Legal's guide: (emphasis added)

Does my landlord have to keep my home safe and in decent condition?

Yes. Maine law gives tenants an "implied warranty of habitability." This means that your landlord must promise that your home is safe and fit to live in.

Examples of landlord violations:

* undrinkable water
* no heat or too little heat in the winter
* a combination of problems, such as leaking ceilings, unsafe heating system, broken windows, and roaches

The heating system should be able to heat your living space to at least 68°.

(Here's more information on heat issues and what to do about them.)
posted by virago at 3:12 PM on February 9, 2012

furnace.heart, check your MeMail.
posted by virago at 4:08 PM on February 9, 2012

Breaking the lease is a slam dunk in this instance. The landlord will almost certainly refund your deposit, since she is unable to provide a safe space for you to live in. The landlord is unlikely to be forced to evict her son. Pine Tree Legal, linked above, will give you good advice. You may have paid for an oil delivery, and you may be able to ask the owner for reimbursement of remaining oil, as well as a refund of any fees to the rental mgmt. co. You are clearly compassionate about John, and I'd make that clear in your dealings.

You can also call Human Services - a mentally ill person who is acting erratically and creating dangerous situations (furnace, fire) may be admitted for emergency care and stabilization. This is not unkind, and it doesn't have the same legal evidence requirements as a criminal case, and John would benefit from some professional care.

Portland has a good social service network. Get food stamps, emergency help, food pantry, etc. help. We're a community; you need help, that's how it works. John may be unsettled by new tenants, or the baby, or some show he saw on tv, but it seems like a bad idea to stay.
posted by theora55 at 4:31 PM on February 9, 2012 [6 favorites]

I, too, live in Portland, ME. I came to say what virago said - Pine Tree Legal will help you, as will the PD. Contact Ed at the Portland Tenant's Union as well.

I suspect the issue with moving is coming up with the new security deposit, correct?

Have you looked into low income housing in Portland? There is a ton of it. The much-maligned Maine State Housing Authority might be able to help.
posted by anastasiav at 5:47 PM on February 9, 2012

As a former property manager and owner, I want you to know your management company is being THOROUGHLY negligent.

I hope you have pictures of the fire. I would be moving out, at least temporarily. I would have dragged my entire family into their office and DEMANDED to be let out of my lease, to be and put up in a hotel until new housing was secured. (I don't think they legally owe you a hotel, but morally they sure do.)

A fucking FIRE. What are you still doing there??

The owner and the management company have put you in harm's way. Make sure they mitigate any hassle or expense you incur keeping your family safe.

Please document everything, and DO call the police whenever necessary. Should your actions get this poor man the help he needs, GREAT. But you must take steps to keep your family and the other tenants safe.

Best of luck to you all.
posted by jbenben at 7:48 PM on February 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

Also, I had a mentally ill tenant that enjoyed heaps of contact with the police.

The police are usually VERY well trained in dealing with mentally unstable people, IMHO. In our case, they were wonderful.

Writing to tell you that the local police likely already know John. Really! But it's good to advise about his condition in any 911 call.

Since he's setting fires in the building, if you went down to your local precinct to discuss it tomorrow morning, they might immediately come out and bring John to a hospital for evaluation. This is that serious.

I know your management company is downplaying this, but setting fires is no joke.

I think you need to step up and be the squeaky wheel that saves the day.
posted by jbenben at 10:56 PM on February 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

You are in the right. But, again, you have no proof that John set this fire. A reasonable supposition, a perfectly sound belief, but ZERO proof. Proof matters when you involve the authorities. Proof matters when you start demanding that a landlord take action against a tenant. And, in this instance, the tenant is the son of the landlord.
posted by TryTheTilapia at 4:11 AM on February 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

If there's a pile of burned rags that is arson. Call the police and fire dept asap.

I'm a property manager and any time I have had issues with fire safety in my buildings the fire dept has been helpful, including making follow up visits, speaking to social workers and child protective services. They made sure the problem was resolved.

In my area they have the power to shut down buildings for serious violations and for furnace issues, in which case displaced tenants are given housing assistance by the county. So you may be eligible for some type of assistance to relocate to a safe place.
posted by Melsky at 4:30 AM on February 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

I've never had Melsky's experience as a building owner or manager, thank god, but I agree that the police and fire department take arson very very seriously. I know because I lived next door to a building that experienced arson in NYC.

And not to be too dramatic, but I have close family that perished in a house fire intentionally set.


posted by jbenben at 11:50 PM on February 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Hey all, thanks for all the advice.

We've contacted the fire department and the police department, and unfortunately there is not much they're able to do, since we did not find the rags actually on fire, and we did not see who set them on fire. We've tested all our smoke alarms, and even set one up outside just to be safe in the meantime.

We're currently working the the property management company to see what can be done (us moving to another property, or being released from the lease), but the owner of the building is apparently getting a social worker involved, and John might be removed from the building; we're just waiting for information right now. Everything is up in the air right now, but this thread has helped quite a bit giving us some resources to explore.

Again, thanks metafilter; you've never steered me wrong.
posted by furnace.heart at 10:52 AM on February 14, 2012

Any update? I kept thinking about your situation after you posted, then came upon this thread again looking through some of my posting history. Hope you're all ok.
posted by crabintheocean at 9:20 AM on June 9, 2012

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