False noise complaints and an eviction threat
January 9, 2014 12:44 PM   Subscribe

My 80-year-old grandparents live in subsidized housing in New Jersey. The neighbor in the apartment next door has been repeatedly making false noise complaints about them, saying that he can't sleep because they play the radio loudly all night (completely untrue). They were even visited by the property manager to tell them to stop. Now they've received a "notice to cease," saying that they'll be evicted if they don't stop. How can we deal with this without a lawyer? More details below.

The most recent accusation, which is outlined in the letter, is from January 7th, and it says that they were playing the radio at a loud volume all day and all night. In this case we can prove that they were not home for most of the day because they went to their adult daycare center. (The letter says that this has been going on in the middle of the night since April. My grandparents go to bed around nine or ten PM every night.)

My mother wants to write some kind of a letter to the county's Housing Authority (who sent this notice) telling them that this neighbor's harassment is causing a lot of distress to my elderly grandparents and that the property managers are complicit in this harassment. I don't think threatening to sue them would do any good, but there's no way it can be legal for them to do this without some kind of corroborating evidence. After all, if my grandparents genuinely were making that amount of noise, wouldn't everyone else in the apartments around them be complaining as well?

I intend to call the person at the Housing Authority who signed the letter, but we definitely need to send something in writing as well. My mother thinks there's no point in talking to the neighbor, and I agree, since he's either having hallucinations or hates my grandparents (or both). For the record, my grandparents have never had any dispute with any of their neighbors, and barely know them besides saying "hello" in the elevator.

You guys are not (my) lawyers, I know, but please give me any advice or suggestions that you can! My grandmother won't stop crying because she thinks her crazy neighbor is going to get them evicted.
posted by lolichka to Human Relations (21 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
This is what lawyers and courts are for -- settling disputes between people. Have them call an attorney before they do anything else. Don't talk to the neighbor, don't talk to the landlord, don't talk to anyone in the complex. Lawyer up, and follow that lawyer's advice.
posted by Etrigan at 12:50 PM on January 9, 2014 [16 favorites]

Best answer: Legal Aid. "We're low-income and we're about to lose our housing" is something they tend to know a lot about handling.
posted by Sequence at 12:52 PM on January 9, 2014 [21 favorites]

Are you 100% sure that there is no clock radio alarm that is going off that they can't hear or aren't around to hear?
posted by bottlebrushtree at 12:53 PM on January 9, 2014 [15 favorites]

it says that they were playing the radio at a loud volume all day and all night. In this case we can prove that they were not home for most of the day

This doesn't prove that their radio was off, unfortunately.
posted by soelo at 12:56 PM on January 9, 2014 [6 favorites]

Best answer: You need to be very detailed about this. Write it all as you wrote it here. If I were a landlord, I would feel very skeptical about this unless you showed real distress and were very specific about why it couldn't be true. I would tend to believe the complainer (sometimes old people can be noisy and forget they were, etc.) otherwise. I would also not threaten the complainer, but make it sound as If you are Just Baffled and it must be a mix up. Maybe they are hearing someone else in a different apartment. Write all of this down in depth, I would include the bit about your grandma crying. That will definitely get the management to think something is up. They at LEAST need to send someone out to interview both your grandparents and the neighbor before eviction.

Make copies of everything. I would probably send the same letter to both the management at the complex and the higher ups, and write in the letter that you are sending it to both. Don't say you think they are "complicit" as it could piss them off if they're not. Sound confused and sad and very cooperative, for the first letter at least.
posted by quincunx at 12:57 PM on January 9, 2014 [2 favorites]

Oops, I missed the part where this is low-income housing. Still, basically the same advice- do not make threats or call anyone complicit. Be nice, seem sad, seem confused, ask for help sorting it out, seem sane and polite and cooperative if you end up writing a letter. It will make you look better.
posted by quincunx at 1:09 PM on January 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

Are there other neighbors who could sign something saying they've never heard noise from the apartment? Or is this the only neighbor? My first question would be whether there are other neighbors who can very politely say, "I'm sure the neighbor is being kept awake by something and thinks this is what it is, but we're quite confident it's not noise from this apartment, because we've never heard a peep." I feel like that would be helpful if you're trying to resolve it informally? Although I also encourage you to consider the advice to get legal help if you really think they're in danger of losing their housing.
posted by Linda_Holmes at 1:15 PM on January 9, 2014 [14 favorites]

Definitely check into legal aid. It differs by where you live. For instance, where I live now (France), and when I lived in Oregon, for noise complaints to be valid/actionable, the complaints have to be verified by police visits, and the noise has to qualify as a nuisance (some of that is subjective, volume, for instance, but there are also specific hours; these also depend on state/country). Say my upstairs neighbors start banging on their walls at 1am. I phone the police, they send a car, they check that the noise is indeed happening. After three such police verifications, I would have the right to request a fine be levied. So on and so forth.

IANAL, but it would really surprise me if the eviction had a legal basis without any official third-party verification.

I just checked for New Jersey, out of curiosity. According to this page on noise complaints, you're supposed to contact your municipality (this can mean the city police) or county health agency. Maybe, to get a first idea of how things are supposed to happen, you could try calling your grandparents' county health agency and ask them how noise complaints are supposed to be handled for them to be enforceable. As information, not as legal advice. Advice to get legal aid is still a very good idea.

After all, if my grandparents genuinely were making that amount of noise, wouldn't everyone else in the apartments around them be complaining as well?

I hate to say it, but no. I used to have an upstairs neighbor who beat his mother and threatened to kill her. Loudly. With their front door open. She would scream for someone to phone the police. There were over a dozen apartments in our building, and the hallway echoed very clearly. I was the only person ever to phone. Sometimes people take "mind your own business" to heart a wee bit too much.
posted by fraula at 1:31 PM on January 9, 2014 [3 favorites]

As an addition to the measures outlines above, would it be possible to install some sort of low budget home surveillance system/recording device that could be kept on in the house all day to prove that there is no such noise? I suppose just audio would work, but I'm thinking of a video with a time/date stamp, which could be brought up and compared to the time and date of the neighbor complaints. I'd bet anything that you'd only have to show the offending neighbor/management this kind of proof once to shut them up permanently.
posted by theweasel at 1:38 PM on January 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

I agree with the advice where your mother (or better yet, your grandparents) respond to the Housing Authority and express complete, and honest, bafflement at this notice.

Depending on where they are in NJ, it could be a hassle to actually get to speak to a person, but in speaking with them, if they are rational and calm, yet confused as to the source of this complaint, it will speak volumes about their character.

If prompted, perhaps they can even volunteer to unplug their radio/TV when they're not home or sleeping and do anything else within reason to negate the chance that the noise is emanating from their unit.

It could be this person has some weird resentment, is mentally ill, and/or is actually being bothered by noise, but just not from your grandparent's unit.

Years ago I lived in a 50 story high rise in Flatbush, and I was dealing with a confusing and unfounded loud radio noise complaint from a neighbor, until I discovered quite by accident that someone from another floor apparently was using the stairwell as a workout area, and the complaining neighbor thought it was bass from my radio.
posted by Debaser626 at 1:51 PM on January 9, 2014

Definitely send a rebuttal to the property management in writing! However, while I think it's good to mention how upsetting this situation is, don't make any threats or accusations. It's possible that the neighbor is not completely insane, just mistaken. Sound can travel and get amplified in buildings in very funny ways.

When I lived in a large old apartment building, a neighbor filed noise complaints claiming loud music and/or stomping during times that we were out of the apartment or asleep. One evening, the downstairs neighbor (who we didn't know) pounded on our door freaking out, demanding that we shut the music off or else. We answered the door of our completely quiet apartment -- I think my roommate was studying and I was reading -- and the woman actually accused us of having suddenly turned off the music to trick her. My roommate and I found the building super and told him about this craziness. Property management should've just told him about the complaint/rebuttals in the first place -- he was able to figure out which apartment the noise was really coming from. (Happy ending: the neighbor brought us a little flower arrangement with a note apologizing for the deranged accusations, and all was forgiven.)
posted by desuetude at 1:54 PM on January 9, 2014

Something worth ruling out: Do your grandparents, by any chance, use hearing aids / are they hearing impaired? Have you turned on their radio to see how loud they typically play it? Is there a clock radio set to turn on automatically at some preset time that corresponds with the complaints?
posted by jon1270 at 2:04 PM on January 9, 2014 [6 favorites]

google "mediator mediation" for their location.
posted by at at 2:36 PM on January 9, 2014

Response by poster: Thank you all so much for your answers. I've been looking at legal aid organizations in their county that I can call tomorrow.

Jon1270-- they are not hearing impaired, and both my mother and I visit them regularly and we know for certain that they don't watch TV or listen to the radio at any unusual volume. They don't use any kind of preset alarm clocks, either. They would definitely notice if something was left on by accident. I totally understand the assumption that they're unintentionally making more noise than they realize, but we've ruled that out...

Debaser626-- my grandparents don't speak English well enough to do this themselves, but even if they did, they're not in any shape to deal with this kind of bureaucracy. My mother and I wrangle all the Medicaid/foodstamps/etc problems that come up.
posted by lolichka at 3:11 PM on January 9, 2014

Best answer: In the UK, noise complaints normally result in the complainer being asked to make recordings of the noise. Could you challenge the housing provider to show evidence of the alleged noise being made?
posted by Dorothea_in_Rome at 3:40 PM on January 9, 2014 [4 favorites]

One tip: my grandmother had extraordinary auditory hallucinations in her final years. (Very loud choirs singing from the garden...fortunately a lovely noise to hallucinate.) She had vascular dementia but wasn't too obviously suffering from it, to the casual observer, just frail .

Is it possible the neighbour is also suffering from such a thing? I suggest you pursue this line with the housing folk.
posted by taff at 4:14 PM on January 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

another possibility is that if your grandparents one a of a few subsidized renters in the building, the landlord and other tenants just want them out, so "better" people can move in. this is one of the ways to achieve that. this is currently happening in my building, but with "hoarding" complaints instead of noise complaints. when these old folks get gone, they'll do a shitty refurb, and quadruple the rent. there may be literally no noise problem at all.
posted by misanthropicsarah at 5:13 PM on January 9, 2014 [3 favorites]

Couldn't you request that any further complaints be accompanied by a police report? If the neighbour and the managers are colluding about noise that doesn't exist, a neutral officer stating that there is no noise could help.
posted by CKmtl at 7:32 PM on January 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Seconding misanthropicsarah based on my own experiences. Yes, there is always the possibility that your parents' hearing has declined so they turn their radio volume up too much, but that would also mean that your parents need to turn the radio off to be able to sleep. I've read and re-read your question and to me, the facts add up to landlord harassment.

(For what it's worth, my parents had two very similar situations. The first time it was a false noise complaint that included accusations that my 80-year old mother would run around the apartment in high heels. The second time it was a false flood complaint against my parents and a simultaneous false noise complaint against the one other subsidized tenant).

Here are few practical things I would do right now.

1. Per this excellent suggestion, write very nice letters to their other neighbors and ask them to email you or write you their honest opinions about the noise.

2. Contact their social worker and ask for advice to defend against landlord harassment.

3. Contact housing conseling agencies, here is a list of HUD approved agencies for New Jersey.

4. Figure out the specific government agency that administers their housing subsidy and contact them; there may, or may not, exist additional protections against eviction.

5. Call (888) 576-5529. This is the NJ state legal hotline that provides brief advice and referrals to low-income residents of New Jersey with civil legal problems including housing.

Good luck!
posted by rada at 10:01 AM on January 10, 2014

I would consider getting a signed note from their doctors stating, as of their last checkup, that they don't have impaired hearing.

If I were some legal/governmental type I'd find this much more compelling and persuasive than a verbal statement from their grandkid.

And it's very little work for you and the doctor to do.
posted by sebastienbailard at 11:27 AM on January 10, 2014

Response by poster: My grandparents live in an apartment building that is composed entirely of subsidized apartments for seniors (though it's not assisted living), and the management has nothing to gain from kicking them out. It's just this one neighbor complaining about them.

We're getting some outside help with this, but please do add anything else you think might help. Thank you all again.
posted by lolichka at 1:47 PM on January 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

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