Managing conflict between neighbors is one of the primary roles of property managers; whether tenants are fighting over parking spots or complaining about noisy neighbors, it’s our job to address the issue and find a solution that meets everyone’s needs. But what happens when disability is at the heart of a dispute between neighbors? This can be a serious issue, and it’s an increasingly common one.
One complaint that a growing number of landlords and property managers have encountered lately centers on autism – what happens when an autistic neighbor causes a lot of noise due to meltdowns or other common behaviors? While it would obviously be inappropriate to punish a tenant for their disability, as a property manager, you still need to find a way to keep the peace.
Autism At Home
According to the CDC, 1 in 59 children are on the autism spectrum, and while the numbers are lower amongst adults, the condition affects people of all ages. Of this group, a significant number will not have a noticeable disability, particularly to outsiders, but others require more support. These individuals are the ones who are most likely to disturb their neighbors, and as a manager, you need to mediate these interactions.
Families across the country have been targeted in their apartment complexes because of their children’s normal behaviors. In Florida, for example, a mother received a cruel letter demanding that she and her 16-year-old autistic daughter move out of their apartment. Among a variety of insults, the letter read, “The choice is yours. Either you move out of the building on your own volition, or the residents of this building will take action and you will be forced to move.” They are far from alone in experiencing this sort of discrimination.
There are certain complaints that are especially common among those who live alongside autistic neighbors. In particular, managers are likely to hear that tenants find their autistic neighbors to be excessively noisy, as many autistic individuals experience meltdowns when overwhelmed and, for various reasons, may not have a clear ability to modulate their own volume. In other cases, neighbors have been known to complain about autistic residents’ therapy or emotional support animals, which they are legally entitled to have, particularly in otherwise pet-free housing.
As a property manager, you need to expect such complaints and find ways to manage them that don’t infringe on anyone’s rights. Noise complaints, for example, are a common issue among neighbors, no matter who lives in a property, and taking simple steps like maintaining at least 80% carpet cover can help keep noise from carrying between apartments. Other changes, like installing white noise machines throughout the property can also help insulate apartments from each other, as can double-paned windows.
Another complaint you might receive from tenants who live close to an autistic resident is that there is a lot of movement or activity at night. Many people with autism have sleep disorders and disturbances and may keep strange hours. If at all possible, consider housing autistic residents on the first floor of your units to minimize the sounds of footsteps at night.
Tenants have the right to what lawyers term “the implied covenant of quiet enjoyment,” but as Fair Housing Manager Dan Singer explains, “You have the neighbor who has the right to enjoy a quiet home environment… But you also have this individual with a disability.” When the two intersect, property managers have to address the issue in a fair and balanced manner. If a non-disabled individual wouldn’t immediately receive an eviction notice for being noisy, managers need to be sure that they don’t act too abruptly with disabled tenants. It’s possible to manage these competing demands without infringing on either’s rights if you act compassionately and proactively.
In addition to making beneficial renovations, as mentioned above, property managers can foster inclusion by ensuring, first, that other tenants aren’t taken by surprise by their disabled neighbor’s behavior. People are more likely to act out aggressively or with anger when they are disrupted in an unexpected way – but before you begin your awareness campaign, start by speaking to the tenant or their family. While it’s inappropriate to reveal another tenant’s medical condition without their permission, most are more than happy to use community as a means of raising awareness.
Once you’ve obtained permission from the affected tenants, it’s time to begin your awareness campaign. While your goal isn’t to act as a non-profit or educational institute, as a property manager, you do need to act as a liaison between tenants so that everyone can get along. To get started, consider consulting the Autism Housing Network. This group has many valuable resources about autism as a condition as well as how everyone can live in community and act as good neighbors to each other.
Another way you can help your tenants live together with minimal conflict is by addressing any communication issues between residents. Autism is, at its core, a disorder of social communication and while it may be possible, especially with children, for tenants only to speak to the parents, this isn’t ideal. Creating opportunities for tenants to interact directly with autistic tenants can help create greater empathy and even friendship if done correctly.
If, for example, your autistic tenant communicates using AAC or PECS (alternative communication tools), let their neighbors know so that they can engage appropriately. You might also ask if there are particular topics that new tenants can engage autistic residents on, often referred to as special interests, that can help bridge initial communication gaps.
Treating Everyone Fairly
As families and advocates will tell you, autistic people can be excellent neighbors, but they can also be at the center of conflicts – just like any other tenant. As a property manager, then, your role is to treat everyone fairly, and that’s why you need professional support.
At Green Residential, we understand the importance of maintaining positive relationships between neighbors and how community shapes tenants’ experiences. If you’re struggling with managing tenant relationships, contact Green Residential today. After all, this isn’t just about property – it’s about people.