Since 1982, Tom Soter has been an editor at Habitat magazine, the definitive publication for boards of cooperatives and condominiums in New York City.
From HABITAT, February 2010
From the Editor 16: Noise
It was the first time I had heard this particular theory of behavior. “In a co-op,” said the articulate board president, “it’s an 80/20 situation.” Initially, I thought he was talking about the (in)famous IRS requirement that 80 percent of a cooperative’s income had to come from the residents and only 20 percent could come from its commercial space. But no – that now-defunct rule was nowhere in sight. He continued: “Eighty percent of the shareholders are good neighbors; the other 20 percent are looking to cause trouble.”
I thought about this novel theory. Could it be true? Were some people in a co-op just variations of the impish Mr. Mxyzptlk, the bizarre character in the Superman comic books of the 1950s who seemed to exist solely to play practical jokes on Superman? (He could only be stopped by being tricked into saying or spelling his own name backwards.)
Later, attorney Bruce Cholst called me with a story. It seems a client of his – a co-op building in Manhattan – sat next door to a nightclub. The nightclub did what nightclubs do: created noise into the wee, small hours (and not Sinatra-style tunes, I’ll wager). The loud music kept a shareholder awake nights. But rather than call her precinct, she called her board.
Now, noise complaints are among the most difficult issues to resolve; the noise is sometimes hard to detect, it can involve bringing in outside experts with noise-measuring equipment (but would you really want to do that at two o’clock in the morning?), and it is often an issue between two neighbors, not involving the whole property.
In my own small building, I’ve made noise complaints myself, usually in vain – once, to my next-door neighbors, who must all be hard-of-hearing because they always seem to shout at each other, not in anger but just by way of conversation (I imagine them sometimes as comic book characters, who often talk with exclamation points as their principal punctuation, i.e.: “Good morning, my dear! Do you want some toast with that?!” “Thank you, darling!”) But I’ve never gone to the board about the problem.
Bruce Cholst’s co-op board members received the noise complaint and dealt with it as best they could – after making a request to the police and local politicians to come down on the nightclub, they put it aside. “After all,” said Bruce, by way of explanation, the nightclub had existed there before the woman had bought into the co-op. What did she think went on there? The board couldn’t be responsible for the sounds of the city, could it?[[wysiwyg_imageupload:126:]]
Some might say the board should have been more active (perhaps hiring someone like The Equalizer, the Edward Woodward TV character who took on villains the law could not touch, usually by speaking softly with a big gun). For this sleepless-in-Manhattan woman, however, the board had not done enough and the only answer was to sue the co-op, claiming that the directors had not fulfilled their fiduciary duty to let her get a good night’s sleep.
Needless to say, the case didn’t even get to full trial stage, as a judge threw it out as patently ridiculous (my phrase, not the court’s). Yes, I thought later, here was a clear example of the “80/20” rule of troublemakers that the articulate board member had been talking about.
Could there be others? I thought then of the couple who had frequently complained about their drain clogging up. After the third or fourth incident, the super came to the board and put in a complaint himself: the drain was clogging regularly because someone (and I’m guessing it was the tenants) was throwing vegetables in the drain!!! The same couple also refused to change their 20-year-old shower-body when they renovated the shower – and were surprised when it started leaking on the unit below!!!
I thought of other incidents by other tenants – of noise, odors, and crazy accusations. The “80/20” rule seemed more and more real. Was there some Superman-style way to combat it, like making the shareholders say their names backwards?
“No,” said the wise co-op owner who had devised this theory. “It’s what I love about co-op living. You have a microcosm of the human condition.”
Ah. That makes it alright, does it? Sigh. Maybe if I say my own name backwards?
from HABITAT, FEBRUARY 2010