Settle Disputes Between Residents Before They Escalate
Residents of multiunit housing sites can find that loving thy neighbor isn't always that easy. Every site owner or manager has had to deal with residents’ complaints about their neighbors at some point. Loud music, unruly kids, noisy pets, cooking odors—no matter what the issue, friction between households can quickly escalate into disruptive behavior if it is not dealt with directly.
Although site staff may be reluctant to get in the middle of a dispute between neighbors who just can't seem to get along, management is obligated to honor its lease terms to provide residents with a peaceful place to live. And if the conflict has reached the point where one or both residents are exhibiting harassing, retaliatory, or discriminatory behavior, the owner or manager could be accused of housing discrimination if he doesn't take action to investigate or resolve the problem.
Set House Rules for Considerate Behavior
Making sure that your residents clearly understand which activities are allowed and which are prohibited is a good practice, and one which HUD recommends. For instance, house rules that plainly spell out your policies on excessive noise, pets, visitors, parking, etc., will provide residents with guidelines to determine whether a neighbor's activities are simply irritating them, or if a complaint is justified.
It's also important to make residents aware of the types of behavior that are unlawful and which will not be tolerated, says Robin Hein, senior counsel at Fowler, Hein, Cheatwood, and Williams, P.A., and author of the Georgia Apartment Law Book. Those include threatening, intimidating, or interfering with another resident's enjoyment of a dwelling because of his or her race, color, religion, sex, disability, familial status, or national origin, or of visitors or associates of the resident.
“Management should remind all residents that discriminatory behavior or words are never appropriate and will result in termination of the offending resident's lease,” Hein says. “This is one area of conduct in which a resident acting abusively or aggressively toward another resident during a dispute could be in violation of the fair housing laws. The resident could be prosecuted for committing housing discrimination. Likewise, a site owner or manager who stood by without taking any action to investigate or resolve discriminatory acts could be accused of housing discrimination,” he warns.
In addition to incorporating rules of behavior into your house rules or lease provisions, you should also clearly outline all of the administrative steps involved in the eviction process, the resident's right to discuss the proposed eviction with the owner or manager, as well as how management goes about that process and a time frame for doing so, according to Greg Landry, senior attorney and litigation unit leader for Acadiana Legal Service Corporation in Lafayette, La. Although the IRS does not require tax credit sites to have a formal grievance process, if the household receives other federal assistance, such as Section 8, the lease has to include HUD's requirements for lease termination notices, which is outlined in its model leases.
Having a formal grievance process can be beneficial for the resident, says Landry. “Very few of the residents who choose to go through that process are unable to resolve their problems, whether it's with another resident or with the management.” Those who don't take advantage of it often get evicted because they wait until it's too late to resolve the problem, he adds.
PRACTICAL POINTER: Encourage residents to bring their complaint about other residents to management for resolution, instead of trying to handle it themselves, says Hein, adding that: “If the resident's complaint involves an allegation that the neighbor is acting in a discriminatory manner, then management should insist that the complaint be brought to its attention.”
Establish Clear Procedures for Site Staff
Residents aren't the only ones who need standard guidelines for handling disputes. It's important to come up with a policy on how your site staff should deal with resident-to-resident disputes, as well. “The absence of a written policy will lead to problems,” Landry points out. “If you leave too much discretion in the hands of first-level managers—with no guidance whatsoever—it invites inconsistent application of the rules, which will open the owner to claims of discrimination or disparate treatment.”
The following are a few practices that Hein and Landry recommend including in your policy for handling disputes between residents.
Document everything. Ask each party to make a written statement, and keep the statements, along with any letters, photos, other documents, and the resolution in the household's file. “Don't rely on your manager's or maintenance technician's memory if a resident mentions in passing that another resident is causing a problem,” Landry says. Site staff should direct residents who bring them oral complaints about other households to come into the office and fill out a written statement.
“If the resident with the complaint does not want to be identified or put her statement in writing, then you might not be able to take any action,” he adds. “You would not be able to go to court to try to evict a resident on the basis of a complaint that did not identify the person who was complaining. You should not have a policy guaranteeing absolute privacy unless you're willing to forgo the eviction and ever using that evidence.”
Investigate complaint. “When neighboring residents complain about each other, management should take steps to investigate the complaint. Part of the investigative process involves listening, seeing, or even smelling what the resident is experiencing,” says Hein.
Meet with each resident separately. Meeting with both residents will resolve about 75 percent of the problems, says Landry. Meet with them separately, and then together. Listen to each person's side, and try to figure out what happened. Then see if you can mediate the dispute.
Offer voluntary relocation. Sometimes people just can't get along. If the mediation meetings don't work and neither resident is violating the lease, Landry advises offering to physically separate the parties through a voluntary relocation when another tax credit unit of the same size opens up elsewhere in the building or on the site.
Remove household member who is the root of the problem. If there is one household member who is causing the conflict—say, for instance, an adult son who constantly plays loud music or who is a suspected drug user—give the household the opportunity to remove that person from the lease rather than evicting the entire household.
To avoid having to go through the eviction process to remove the individual, Landry suggests having the other household members terminate their lease voluntarily, and then immediately offer a new lease to those household members who are not part of the problem.
Issue warning letters. If, after investigating the complaint and meeting with both residents, you still cannot determine exactly what has occurred, Hein recommends sending a warning letter to both residents reminding them that disruption of other residents’ quiet enjoyment is a violation of the lease. “Remind them that any further investigation that reveals a violation can result in termination of the offending resident's lease or right to continue occupying the unit,” he says.
Terminate lease. Eviction should be a last resort. “Deciding whether to issue a warning or to take a more drastic action to terminate the lease depends on a number of factors, including the severity of the conduct, the past history of the residents, the credibility of the witnesses who observed or know about the events, and the strength of evidence and documentation developed during the course of the investigation,” says Hein.
“If either or both residents fail to heed a warning regarding further inappropriate conduct or lease violations and a subsequent investigation reveals a violation that can be substantiated, terminate the lease of the offending person. In some instances, management may have to terminate both leases if there is evidence of mutually abusive conduct or retaliation in order to avoid claims of an improper preference or favoritism of one resident over another,” he says. (See the sidebar, “Be Aware of VAWA Protection,” for critical information on residents who may be protected from eviction.)
Make Sure Staff Knows When to Escalate Complaint
To manage disputes effectively, site staff should be trained in communication techniques (such as active listening, asking questions, and using “I” rather than “you” statements), and conflict management (which includes dealing with difficult people, diffusing anger, focusing on the issue and not the person, and reaching consensus on resolutions). If your training budget is limited, consider training one staff member who has good basic “people management” skills to handle resident disputes.
At a minimum, all site staff should be coached on how to make preliminary inquiries, treat the complaint and the resident with sensitivity, and to recognize the need to act upon it—and to know when to escalate a complaint to a higher-level manager or to seek outside assistance, such as a mediation service or legal counsel.
Robin Hein, Esq.: Senior Counsel, Fowler, Hein, Cheatwood, and Williams, P.A.; (404) 633-5114; RobinHein@apartmentlaw.com.
Greg Landry: Senior Attorney, Litigation Unit Leader, Acadiana Legal Service Corp.; (337) 237-4320; email@example.com.
Be Aware of VAWA Protection
The Violence Against Women and Justice Department Reauthorization Act of 2005 (VAWA) protects qualified residents and families who are victims of domestic violence or stalking from being evicted from their units.
VAWA's eviction and antidiscrimination protection applies to public housing and Section 8 programs. Under VAWA, owners and managers of government-assisted housing cannot evict residents solely because they were victims of domestic violence, in that being a victim of domestic violence does not qualify as a “serious or repeated violation of the lease” or “other good cause” for eviction. For example, if a resident/wife has filed in court for a restraining order and the domestic violence recurs, the owner may evict the resident/husband, but not the wife.
In 2009, HUD reissued Notice H08-07, which stated that VAWA is not gender specific and also applies to men. HUD warns site owners and managers that the eviction or termination of any household member, even an abusive individual, must be in accordance with federal, state, and local law.
Although VAWA also says that criminal activity directly related to domestic or dating violence or stalking is not considered grounds for terminating the victim's tenancy, owners or managers may bifurcate (divide) a lease in order to evict, remove, or terminate the assistance of the offender while allowing the victim, who is a resident or lawful occupant, to remain in the unit.
Search Our Web Site by Key Words: dealing with households; resident disputes; quiet enjoyment; discrimination; fair housing; VAWA