Fighting noise with noise doesn’t work

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by Arline L. Bronzaft, Ph.D., Board of Directors, GrowNYC, and Co-founder, The Quiet Coalition

As the member of the GrowNYC Board with a knowledge of the impacts of noise on health and well-being, I am the one who individuals, especially New Yorkers, turn to for assistance with noise complaints, especially noises emanating from neighbors’ apartments. Thus, when I read Victoria Kim’s Los Angelos Times article on the responses of residents in South Korea who are subjected to neighbor noise, I noted how similar the complaints and responses of the South Korea residents were to those of the New Yorkers with whom I have interacted. Now with people working out of their homes because of COVID, the neighbor noise complaints in South Korea, as in New York City, have increased.

In Kim’s article, she describes that after being exposed to upstairs noise, neighbors have retaliated by imposing noise on these neighbors by thumping the ceiling with a rubber mallet or putting a loud speaker near the ceiling. Some people I have assisted initially responded similarly, especially after talks with the neighbors or managing agents do not reduce the noise. Of course, sometimes neighbor chats and managing agents’ interventions work. The manager of the noise-dispute center cited in the article states that once a neighbor understands the circumstances surrounding the complaint there is a chance that the problem can be resolved. But not always.

The article also recognizes that many people are subjected to neighbor noise and they too often feel powerless to correct the problem. The article adds, however, that when people realize others are suffering from noise in a similar fashion, there seems to be some comfort in that. Yet, as a psychologist, I know this comfort cannot in the long run protect you from the pain and discomfort of the noise to which you are exposed. Furthermore, in the long run, the noise can harm you physically or at the very least diminish your quality of life. Health is not simply living – it is living a decent quality of life.

As I mentioned above, some people who call me have already imposed similar noises on their neighbors or plan to do so. I always respond that “two wrongs do not make a right.” and then I offer my assistance. In New York City, apartment renters and cooperative apartment dwellers, but not condominium residents, are protected by the “warranty of habitability” clause of their leases. This clause gives these residents the right to a livable apartment. I follow up noise complaints by calling and discussing these complaints with the appropriate landlords and managing agents. I have been successful in reducing the noise in many cases but not all of them. In those instances, callers are told to seek help from local public officials and their community boards.

While it is true that respectful neighbors understand they should be quieter in their apartments because their sounds may adversely affect their neighbors, we cannot always “depend on the kindness of strangers,” as Blanche DuBois did in the film “A Streetcar Named Desire.” That is why I strongly advocate for city and state laws and regulations to curb neighbor noise.

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