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Self Help Justice

Every Sunday I read those Q & A in the Real Estate Section of The New York Times in which a clear-eyed, coldly rational lawyer tells co-op and condo owners how to vindicate their legal rights in court.  Don’t get me wrong, they’re right. But that doesn’t mean that’s how complaints get resolved in real life. Do you think most owners are going to spend the time and money necessary to slog through the judicial system without any guarantee that their dispute will be resolved?  No, that’s why a variety of self help techniques, effective though sometimes extra-legal, have developed to solve their problems.

Here are a few of the latest culled from buildings round the city :

Make a Citizen’s Arrest: In most buildings, including my own, certain acts of wrongdoing are so prevalent that no one says anything because they don’t want to get caught. Smoke a joint in your apartment, you’re OK. Take your habit outside to the hallway or the stairwell, it’s a whole different story.

Sure, it probably should be handled like other episodes of secondhand smoke or nuisance, but it’s not – at least not in one Downtown co-op where residents have been known to collar the offenders, snuff out the joint, make them empty out their pockets, all under threat of reporting them on the spot to the cops and sending them away for a long time. Effective – yes.  Judicious – no.

Use a Spy: I know I told you that cleaning women make the best Secret Agents, and they do, but potentially even better are supers because their words have authority by virtue of their position, even more so if sent by board members to investigate a claim.  If there’s really a serious threat, like a gas grill that could detonate the building, spying is fair game.  But if it’s used to carry out a personal vendetta, than the spyer is worse than the spyee, and could expose herself to consequences.

Try Facebook: We all know that enterprising boards are using Facebook to route out potential troublemakers before they get in.  But now it’s being used to reform lawbreakers after they’re in – without going near a court.

That’s what happened at one Upper East Side condo where a would-be Paris Hilton was holding 24-hour parties, depriving everyone within hearing distance of sleep and driving them nuts.  They were ready to bring an action for nuisance – which can be long and drawn out, till the board found out that that the party girl’s guests had posted pictures of their wasted selves on Facebook, creating a smoking gun that forced them to settle pronto.

Document the Offender: I’ve already told you about the enforcer who snaps pictures of his neighbor’s dogs caught momentarily leashless as they entered the apartment in order to paper his dossier and make a case for eviction. (See, Gotcha.) Now residents are on the warpath about newspapers left in front of apartment doors for more than 24 hours. They’re taking snapshots with the headline – to show the time and date like a hostage in Iraq – in order to bring their neighbors to justice even though hardly anyone reads newspapers anymore so there’s scarcely any paper to trip over which is what’s got them riled up to begin with.

In case you haven’t figured it out, sometimes it’s hard to tell who really needs to be brought to justice — the pursued or the pursuer.

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