I don't want to live "Shut Up, Little Man" over the long-term
July 31, 2012 10:56 AM   Subscribe

I live in a rent-controlled building and have a bad neighbor with violent tendencies, how can I best fix this?

tl;dr: Bad neighbor has to go. Difficulty: SF rent-control.

I've lived in an 8-unit rent-controlled building in San Francisco since 1995. It's in a nice part of town and aside from some building issues, I couldn't ask for anything more. However, there is a family directly below me who has caused much drama for the building, both within and without, and as the person who lives above them I have reached the end of my rope.

Up front disclosure: I am not completely innocent. I am a DJ and music lover who likes all kinds of music. However, the building is certainly below code as far as sound transmission through the walls go. For the past year or two I have kept the volume in my studio/office below the legal limit (55dB) of what it should be on the other side of the wall. I am also exploring sound mitigation solutions on my part, but that would be the case even if these neighbors didn't live there. However, the acts I describe below have occurred both with and without any music playing, and as someone who works at home being on edge is affecting my ability to earn a living for myself. As low as you think my rent might be, I've had trouble paying from time to time due to my mental state that is exacerbated by this situation. To put a finer point on it: I have extremely marketable skills that are very freelance-friendly, and I'm still having trouble. Yes, I'm seeing a therapist, though we haven't done much on this particular topic.

Currently living there are two parents and their son, who we estimate to be in his late 20s. They have raised three other children, another boy and two girls, in this apartment. My cousin lived here before I did and describes the parenting of the daughters as worse than what I've experienced with the sons (the daughters were married off before I moved in). They get into fights. Loud, aggressive, screaming fights (I have evidence, and witnesses). In years past there were things thrown against walls, but whether they were objects or people I could never tell. To this day I regret not calling the cops when this happened, since I chalked it up to cultural differences in child-rearing or whatever rationalization worked for me. This has been going on for at least 20 years (word is that they've lived here since the 70s).

The son has issues. About 10 years ago he started getting more and more aggressive, getting bullyish and calling people nasty names on more than one occasion, apropos of nothing, including family members and friends visiting, as well as walking toward the building outside. In 2004 he attacked two tenants, told the police I was stealing his mail, and had some kind of breakdown while being arrested for this. His father was there, and slapped his face while in handcuffs, telling him to "be a man" (cf. "Julien Donkey Boy"). We almost got the family evicted over the attack, but somehow they struck a deal and the son was banished for two years. When he moved back in he had as much attitude as ever, however, and while he hasn't physically attacked any of us, it never feels out of the question either.

This was not his last instance of bringing the police to the building, not to mention having people out on the streets follow him back to the house to settle things. The last time he brought the police here was a little over a year ago, when the police came to check on something (guessing probation, or for having seen his gaudy car in an inopportune location). He ran from them for some reason and, as we've all read is normal for police to do these days, he got his face ground into the sidewalk.

He ("M") seems to have something against my presence here, and will occasionally throw something at the ceiling when he knows I am home. Something like...a basketball? Not sure, but it's startling. He has a car, a behemoth, that he loves to spend extended periods warming up/parking, shaking the building, and roaring up and down the street. He's that guy, too, and his brother was a putative hot-rodder before him, both using their parking spots in the garage as transmission-repair-type zones, though not so much lately. Point being: the family is also good at owning loud cars. We share a light-shaft that provides windows to the bedrooms, and they live their lives with the windows open at all times, including going to the bathroom and enduring the father's smoking related afflictions, but particularly while on the phone, next to the open window, yacking about whatever. One time I was sitting here at the computer, quietly minding my own business while M was loudly on the phone when he said, "well, I better go, my neighbor likes to listen to my calls." WTF. They also slam windows and doors at every opportunity, which shakes the building. To make it perfect, he affects a nice-guy Eddie Haskell persona with the outside neighbors, though I think they're a bit wise to it balanced against his behavior when he's in his car.

After his running-from-the-cops episode, things have dialed down a bit. He bought another car that has mufflers on it. It's not the constant fighting and yelling from the moment he gets home to when he goes to bed anymore. However, he now harasses me outside the building. A few months back I was driving around town with a friend, when we pulled up to a stop sign while M was driving through the intersection crosswise. He slowed to a crawl and stared at me until he finished crossing, so I could then continue driving. I was backing out of the garage (single-car-width garage door) in reverse, just past the curb, getting reading to go forward when he sped right in front of me to the garage, which he had apparently reversed to open while I was putting on my seatbelt. Think about a parking spot that you're vacating, when someone zips into it just as you leave enough room backing out before you start forward. This shit is unnerving.

I used to try to set a good neighborly example. I would say hi to them in the hallways (they never say hi back) and pay attention to how heavily I take the stairs, quietly closing my door and windows, cleaning out the window tracks so that they didn't grind and howl when opening and closing, etc., all to no avail. A couple of years ago I gave up. Though I do pay more attention to the volume of my music, I have given up considering their presence at all when it does no good. Yet it continues, and I'm ready to bring out the big guns. The Rent Board tells me to note things to the landlord, which if I do will be a transcription of my "event log," but it's time for me to cast about for the possibilities and techniques for dealing with this once and for all. A bonus (and possible compromise) would be much-needed upgrades to the building that would alleviate inter-unit sound problems, as even walking down my hallway and cooking food in my kitchen has appeared to be a source of aggravation to them.

I am exploring any and all social and legal means to deal with this. The management company is ineffectual, though I don't really know how I can approach them effectively when the nowadays incidents are somewhat infrequent and momentary. I have been keeping a log of everything since April. The problem is that each incident is a reminder that he is a violent person, and that he is using violence to communicate with neighbors, which is unacceptable. I also hate bullies. I am considering hiring a lawyer who has either/both of: experience extracting rent-controlled tenants for cause, and/or going after landlords for not doing anything about a harassing tenant. I am also trying to make enough money to move, even though I shouldn't have to. Since we've both been here for a long time (we have the only two 2BRs in the building), the landlord would most certainly like to see us both gone, so I'm not counting on a lot of help from them. Couple that with what is apparently a social connection between the family and the landlord (there is a small, close-knit Palestinian immigrant community in SF), the parents barely speaking a word of English, and I despair.
posted by rhizome to Law & Government (14 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Each time the son does something to harass you, make a record of it and report it to the police. If he's on probation, so much the better. If he confronts you, make a point of calling the police immediately and telling them his name, physical description, and location.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 11:29 AM on July 31, 2012

San Francisco Tenants' Union. Stat.
posted by liketitanic at 11:30 AM on July 31, 2012

I think you need to move.

The building sucks, your neighbors suck, you want to throw money you don't have into this crazy situation and it is not worth it.

Move and get your life back.
posted by jaimystery at 11:31 AM on July 31, 2012 [2 favorites]

I wouldn't move, not with that optimal real estate. Make them move.

You can't do much about noise, the occasional basketball against the ceiling, etc. If that's not a big deal, chalk it up to communal living.

As for fights and arguments. I'd call the cops every time I hear them fighting. Don't add a bunch of editorial content, just, "There appears to be a fight downstairs, it's really loud and I'm concerned that someone is getting hurt." You don't have to give your name, or file a complaint, but the cops have to come out. If they come out often enough, it will get tiring for the family and for the police.

Who cares what they think about your noise? If you're not having drum circles in your living room at midnight, regular use of your unit is fine, be thoughtful, but don't go nuts. If the landlord passes on a compliant, tell him to bring the building up to code, you're not doing anything wrong.

The bully, ignore him. So he eyefucks you, so what? Eyefuck him right back. If he says anything to you, if he threatens you, make a police report, and tell them he may be on probation.

Keep the log, and put the landlord on notice that these guys are a liability.

Draft a letter to the landlord saying that X occupant does the following, menacing things. Then list them. Do this weekly or monthly or at whatever interval makes sense.

The perfect solution would be to get a restraining order against the bully, hence your log, and police reports are important.

posted by Ruthless Bunny at 11:32 AM on July 31, 2012 [4 favorites]

Move, as soon as you are able. Set a schedule and stick to it.

Your living situation sounds pretty toxic, which is not what you want when you're working from home. It also sounds like you've got a lot of good intent in "fixing" this problem for not just you but your neighbors, but honestly I think you're going to quickly find you're out of your depth and this is going to drag out while your day-to-day living situation doesn't improve.

That family was there before you moved in, and they'll be there after you're gone. They're not going anywhere.
posted by mkultra at 11:44 AM on July 31, 2012

Each time you hear a fight call the cops. Like the Ruthless Bunny says, don't get personal about it just state the facts "There's a fight going on in my building and I'm afraid someone is going to get hurt".

Bullies do what they do, ignore them and if he touches you call the cops.

And yeah.... move. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't still call the cops.
posted by zombieApoc at 11:46 AM on July 31, 2012

I feel for you as I've had my share of terrible neighbors, but I do want to point out that you might underestimate how irritating other people's music can be in communal living environments. It's not so much the music as it is the bass - even when the volume is turned down, it's hard to block out that vibration, especially if the soundproofing in the building isn't up to code.

It would probably make no difference in this situation, given that your neighbors are nutjobs, but your efforts to keep the volume down might not be as effective as you imagine.
posted by easy, lucky, free at 11:47 AM on July 31, 2012 [7 favorites]

I realize rent control is not easy to walk away from but it may be your only option. Do everything you can to develop the restraining order angle, but look for possible landing spots at the same time. Consider it a business expense - if you're not dealing with crazy neighbors you won't just be happier in an intangible way, you'll be able to do your job better and will (hopefully) be able to recoup some of the extra rent in salary.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 11:51 AM on July 31, 2012

Have you considered that Son is trying to harass you into moving out? Because that occurred to me. Though I don't know how easily he could snag your place if he did so maybe that's moot.

You can stay and fight (if you could get Son only removed, would that make it bearable, or do you think the parents are equally a problem? Because that will be much harder) or you can decide it's not worth it, and go. Only you can know which one works.

If All the Neighbors Know, have they been complaining too? It's odd for your landlord to allow such troublemaking people to stay in a valuable apartment. It's not like he/she would have trouble filling it with new people.
posted by emjaybee at 12:23 PM on July 31, 2012

Have you considered that Son is trying to harass you into moving out?

posted by rhizome at 12:28 PM on July 31, 2012

Are they harassing/annoying other neighbors as well? Can you send a joint letter of complaint to the landlord?
posted by Meep! Eek! at 12:36 PM on July 31, 2012

It's odd for your landlord to allow such troublemaking people to stay in a valuable apartment.

It may sound strange, but I know of other people who had problem neighbors, who learned that the neighbors were intentionally problematic at the behest of the landlord. An empty building can be easier to sell. That was in San Francisco too.

That being said, SF tenants union as mentioned above, and the cops whenever they fight. Your landlord may or may not care. Is your landlord an individual or a company?

Can you tolerate headphones? A good pair will let you enjoy your music as you like, and also shield you from the assholes downstairs.
posted by ambrosia at 12:49 PM on July 31, 2012 [1 favorite]

I use headphones all the time, especially after 10pm. This does not insulate me from his yelling and pounding (which he also does just in his normal day-to-day, since he lives his life as a bull in a china shop).

For the record, SFTU is what I meant by "Rent Board" in my question. Their advice is (to start by) telling the landlord about the harassment every time it happens, and the Building Inspector about the sound issue. I'm going to be sending a list of my records with my rent check tomorrow, so we'll see if that starts anything. If the harassment is at the behest of the landlord, then I'm not sure what next steps might be in that case.

There is a guy who lives downstairs, who is the other person who shares walls with them, and he's been the one to spearhead complaints about the building before, to little avail. He did get some renovation to his apartment, but he says it was all on his dime when before he talked a big game about building violations, so I'm only partially convinced of his effectiveness here. He is one of the people attacked in 2004, FWIW.

I don't think he bullies anybody that he doesn't share walls with. Though speaking of neighbors, one of the parents is a HUGE SNORER FOR HOURS AT A TIME, and for some reason the spouse doesn't know about rolling them over or anything, and so I've heard the guy who has the apartment that shares a wall at the back bedroom pounding on the wall while it's occurring. Now that I think about it, this seems something that is allowed to persist by the family, since who likes listening to snoring?
posted by rhizome at 1:28 PM on July 31, 2012

I had a rent controlled apartment in the Marina in SF for 10 years. It was awesome, my landlords were jerks. The other tenants were mostly fine, but there were lots of issues over the years, lots of broken stuff I couldn't get repaired, PIA parking issues, no laundry in the building etc. etc. But I hung onto it because I was self-employed and worked from home and loved being able to walk a block to the Palace of Fine Arts and Crissy field with my dog (oh yeah, they allowed dogs!) and the rent was cheap, cheap, cheap.

But finally it all got to be too much. I was making a little more money and I moved out. I doubled my rent payment. IT WAS THE BEST THING I EVER DID. I didn't realize how much stress I was feeling. I got a place outside the City with a parking space and laundry, walking distance to shops, etc. Everything worked and when it didn't it got fixed right away.

At some point the negatives out weigh the low rent. You have to decide when that is.
posted by agatha_magatha at 4:33 PM on July 31, 2012 [3 favorites]

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