47

Apologies for the large amount of run-up; the context feels very relevant:


My wife and I live in a 1930s block of flats in London. We are on the ground floor, of a staircase of 8 flats, so we're at least slightly familiar with (almost) everyone in the block. We own our flat, but I believe several of the flats are owned (effectively) by the council and are rented out as council flats. This block and the others on the rest of the estate around us are run by "BarnetHomes" on behalf of the council.

In the flat directly above ours, lives a lady whom we have never seen (in the 2 years we've lived there). We suspect that she is physically and/or mentally disabled, for a handful of reasons (some of which relate to other parts of question, hence listing them here):

  • Never having seen her leave the flat.
  • She's never answered her door when we've knocked (3-4 random times over the 2 years)
  • She has a friend ("Ray") who visits her very regularly (I probably notice him come past 4+ times a week so it seems likely that he's visiting 5-6 times a week) and appears to bring her groceries with him each time.
  • She has some sort of small yappie dog, which never leaves the flat either (we can hear his skittering on the floor above and barking, but never see it taken outside)
  • In a previous (non-confrontational) conversation with Ray in which I was asking to come into the flat above, he responded with "Oh no, you can't do that; she doesn't like to have other people come into the flat".
  • Comments from other flat-owners on the staircase that they think she's disabled in some way.

None of the above are conclusive, and some aspects are VERY circumstancial, but that's the context I'm working in.


As mentioned above, she has a small dog, and about a month ago, our fuse cupboard (basically a 50 cm deep closet) started to smell incredibly strongly of wet dog. It varies from day to day but at a minimum it's always strong enough that you can smell it if you sniff at the closed cupboard door, and at worst it's frequently strong enough that it actively bothers me 3-4 metres away from the (closed) cupboard.

The flats in the block are all laid out identically, so the main power lines running up to the flat above, with their fuse boxes, all lined up in a vertical column. We believe that there is an air channel running between her fuse cupboard and ours, and that the smell is coming down from her flat. We've previously had an issue with a leak from 3 flats above coming down through all of the fuse cabinets down the stair (yeah, I know ... leaks in the space running the electrics. Fun Times.)


A couple of weeks ago, I saw Ray passing and mentioned this smell and asked if I could come up to take a look to try to confirm the issue and see what options we (he and I) might have to resolve it.

As noted he refused the concept of me coming to take a look. He also refuted that there were any smells in her flat and said that maybe it was coming from the hall (it wasn't). I invited him to come in and smell the fuse cupboard to see if he had any advice. He came in and said he couldn't smell anything in the fuse cupboard. I think I believe that he couldn't smell anything, but he was wrong - it smelt bad.

Over Christmas I had asked 3 different people at different times to take a look in the fuse cupboard and give me their thoughts (with no other prompt). All 3 asked whether I was talking about the smell, so it's definitely not just me.

It's probably worth noting at this point that Ray appears to have terrible health. He's severely obese, has several missing teeth and awful looking gums and needs to rest for a bit before walking up the stairs whilst carrying his friend's groceries. I don't know whether he couldn't detect the smell because he'd just come down from the flat and had aclimated to the smell, or whether his health has simply damaged his sense of smell entirely.

Last week, out of curiosity I walked upstairs and quietly sniffed at the key hole of the flat above. It stank of the same wet dog smell. I would expect to be unwilling to spend more than a few minutes inside the flat, based on the smell.


What do I do now?

If they were any of the other neighbours, with whom I have more normal interactions, I would just go and talk to them and explain that it really is a problem, try to sort it out by discussing.

But I don't really know how to approach it in these particular circumstances.

I don't want to just leave it, because it's pretty unpleasant, and also because I would expect it to cause issues when we want to sell in another {however many years}.

Escalating up to BarnetHomes (whom are our Freeholders/management company and we assume are her Landlord/Freeholder too) seems like an unwise Nuclear option. But equally it seems like if we wait 9 months and then tell them that there has been a problem for ages, then I would expect them to say "why didn't you tell us previously?"

What is a sensible set of next steps to try to resolve this?

closed as off-topic by Ælis, Rainbacon, ElizB, Federico, Arwen Undómiel Dec 18 '18 at 10:07

This question appears to be off-topic. The users who voted to close gave this specific reason:

  • "Asking "What should I do?" is off topic. - Questions should ask for help achieving a specific goal. Your question is asking for personal advice on "what to do" without defining a goal; this is too subjective. Edit your question to explain what you hope to achieve and how you would like to interact with the others involved." – ElizB, Federico
If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

  • 2
    So do you have contacts to the landlord/whoever rented the flat to her? – AK_is_curious Jan 19 '18 at 12:30
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    Yes, I could definitely contact BarnetHomes, but my instinct is Escalating up to BarnetHomes seems like an unwise Nuclear option. If you're advise is no, really, you need to escalate to the landlord. It's appropriate and proportionate that's fine :) – Brondahl Jan 19 '18 at 12:32
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    Is it possible that the dog might be urinating inside the lady's flat? Does Ray ever take the dog out? – Tycho's Nose Jan 19 '18 at 13:01
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    You say "wet dog", which makes me think of how dogs smell if they've been in the rain or just had a bath. That's a different smell than urine. Are you saying it's not a urine smell, or that it could be either? (I don't assume that people who don't spend time around dogs would know the difference; I'm just asking if urine is a possibility or being excluded.) – Monica Cellio Jan 19 '18 at 18:46
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    @MonicaCellio I definitely don't think I could distinguish between the two smells. So it could be either. – Brondahl Jan 22 '18 at 11:24
55

It sounds like it's time for a police welfare check...

If your assumptions are correct; that there's a disabled person living in an apartment with a small dog in unsanitary conditions, your looking at a possible case of neglect and/or abuse.

It's sad, but often these cases go unnoticed until neighbors complain. It's unfortunate that they usually complain about things like bad smells before complaining about another person's or animal's well being, but I suspect that it isn't a matter of being uncaring, but rather a side effect of the "mind your own business" attitude that becomes ingrained in some communities.

If you decide it's time to contact the police, try to make it about concern for the well being of the person and dog who live there. The police will likely be more helpful if it's a matter of health and safety, rather than neighbors complaining about a bad smell.

Chances are pretty good that if your assumptions are correct that they'll remove the dog and get the person adequate care, whether that be a social worker, or placement in an assisted living facility.

  • 12
    @Brondahl they can be training to do so, but if you're smelling it, I doubt that's the case. – apaul Jan 19 '18 at 16:22
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    I suspect that, in the UK, this is a matter for the local council rather than the police. – David Richerby Jan 19 '18 at 23:17
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    Whether council or police, this seems like good advice to me. If for no other reason, then for the fact that—going by Brondahl’s description alone—this whole scenario feels like a huge red flag with alarm bells and whistles on it to me. Keep in mind that no one actually seems to know that the woman is disabled; only circumstantial evidence points to this, and every piece of circumstantial evidence presented in the question is at least equally consistent with someone being held in the flat against their wishes. If that’s it, then council/police is definitely the right step. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jan 21 '18 at 23:59
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    Adding to @JanusBahsJacquet comment: The situation also seems very unstable. What if Ray's health deteriorates in a way that he cannot assist the lady anymore? What would happen to her and her dog in that case? How would neighbors know she needs help? Either she is somehow known to some social service of a kind, or she should be, for her own safety. – skymningen Jan 22 '18 at 15:53
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    this answer is the correct. call the police wth your questions, say you want to remain "anonymous" if you want, say there's a dog, talk about the smell if you want. just to inform the OP, ( but don't be scared), sometimes the "old lady" might not be there anymore, and familiar X or friend Y gets there, takes a little care of the dog, cleans up a bit, and takes the paycheck. – CptEric Jan 23 '18 at 7:50
42

I think you are pretty much out of options and did everything right.

To recap:

  • you tried to establish contact to the person

  • you confronted the only person you know to have contact to your neighbor

  • you investigated the source of the problem as far as you can without overstepping your boundaries

What you can do to satisfy your bad conscience, which there is no need for:

  • confront Ray directly and tell him that you and others have noticed a smell and think it is coming from their flat

  • ask directly for permission to investigate further (checking their flat)

As there has been confusion about this I will elaborate a bit further. I do not want him to try to push himself in there and sniff (quite literally) around in their flat. As he has mentioned, his flat is right under hers, so to rule out things like a broken pipe in the ceiling/floor from some waste pipe or even just water would be really helpful. He could simply say

Hey, remember when we spoke about this strange smell? I think there is something wrong with the air channel at the fuse cupboard and I would like to have a look from above. May I come inside for a quick look?

Ray obviously had a problem with him comming inside when he asked before. I simply wanted to make sure that he directly mentions his intend and gives Ray a chance to evaluate it on this.

  • let him know that you will take further action to try to resolve this issue

Careful: if he denies that the smell is coming from them do not accuse them. Just say

Hm ok, I have asked everyone else and we can not figure out the source. I think I will ask BarnetHomes to investigate this issue, thanks for your time.

What you should do in any case:

It would be good to get support from some neighbors, that would be willing to testify the smell and unwillingness of the smell-producer to authorities. Mention your plan to involve authorities and look at their reaction. You do not want them to back out, when push comes to shove and at least say that they have noticed it too and find it unsettling.

Then contact BarnetHomes people for their flat and ask them to resolve this issue.

You live in a house with other people, there are boundaries to uphold, even if you are disabled. If this is indeed the case and they have a hard time, Ray could have explained the situation to you when you spoke.

They/him chose not to. Not your problem.

In my opinion you exhausted your interpersonal options.

  • 14
    I think trying to get access to her flat is exactly the wrong approach. There is nothing to be gained by it and she and Ray seem to be very protective and defensive. – Michael Jan 20 '18 at 8:37
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    The gain is to determine whether escalation to the landlord and/or police is necessary. If nobody but Ray has heard from her in a long time, it's possible she's in very serious trouble. – David Schwartz Jan 22 '18 at 5:16
  • Ray may be a relative with particular knowledge of her situation. – bigbadmouse Jan 22 '18 at 14:56
31

The UK Government publish some advice on resolving neighbour disputes, and although you haven't managed to talk to the neighbour herself, i think this qualifies because you cannot make contact with her. How to resolve neighbour disputes

BarnetHomes own website is unhelpful on the subject, but you may be able to find out if they have a locus in this by contacting their general enquiries email talk2us@barnethomes.org Freephone 0800 3895225 They should quickly know if they rent the property or whether this comes under their Freehold Landlord duties. if you are concerned about 'shopping' someone you could initially frame it as a general enquiry and only give the addresses in question if they seem likely to be able to help.

HOWEVER:

Stepping outside of your own issues with smells pervading your property, this seems to come down to a vulnerable person who is living in insanitary conditions. While Ray may be doing his best, he is clearly not on top of the situation.

I would not tackle this as 'how to sort out the smell', but 'how to make sure that a vulnerable neighbour gets the support she requires to live in a safe, hygienic and supported environment'. That approach puts the problem into the realm of Social Care and I suggest approaching socialcaredirect@barnet.gov.uk 020 8359 7651

OR

go along to your local councillor's next surgery and explain the situation, both your concern for a vulnerable neighbour and the direct effect on your own property. A Councillor can generally get away with approaching the wrong part of the council confident that folk will make sure the issue gets to the right desk, in a way that us mere mortals can't.

In the meantime, consider keeping your distance a little. Collaring Ray to ask to be let into the flat, or being seen sniffing at keyholes may be open to misinterpretation of your motives.

  • Sorry to be an American blowing in on a convo between Brits like the Cool-Aid man, but I've never seen this use of "surgery" before. I found a Wikipedia link explaining the practice. I think in the US we'd try to do the same thing by calling a representative's local office. – T.E.D. Jan 22 '18 at 16:12
25

From your description, the problem is almost certainly pet fouling - the dog is peeing in the flat and this is leaking into your flat.

According to http://thebarnetgroup.org/bh/home-advice/antisocial-activity/, this is antisocial behaviour ("problems caused by pets such as noise, fouling or stray animals"). They do advise you to talk to her first. If she won't answer the door then perhaps leave a note pinned to her door?

The main thing is not to phrase the situation as a question, but as a statement of fact. There are three statements of fact here:-

  • I can smell dog pee in my flat.
  • I don't have a dog, and nor do my neighbours.
  • You do have a dog.

After that, give options for resolution:-

  • She contacts you to discuss the situation.
  • After 14 days, you contact BarnetHomes and pass the problem to them.

It's not at all a nuclear option. The reason you have a management company is precisely to deal with things like this. Besides which, even if it causes bad feelings between you and Ray, is this actually a problem?

You may also want to check your contract with the management company to see whether pets are generally allowed in the flats. If they aren't, then she (or Ray) may be violating the terms of their lease anyway.

4

This is a long shot, but...

Could the lady upstairs be Mary Jane, as in "Ray's pot farm"?

The smell of some strains of weed could be interpreted as "wet dog", sour, musky and/or earthy. You don't seem to have proof that an actual lady lives up there, and it seems odd that Ray never let you in.

The leaking could be consistent with this theory, if there's a leakage in the watering system. I'm not sure about the dog-like scratching noises. It's a sad thought that there could live a dog there who's never let outside.

So:

  • Do you think you can distinguish the smell of wet dog from cannabis?
  • Do you have any reason to believe a lady lives upstairs? Just Ray taking things upstairs?
  • Does Ray always leave empty-handed or does he also take (packaged) things from the apartment? (Bags of weed?)
  • Are there any signs of high-wattage light use? E.g. high electricity usage on the meter, or snow melting faster on your roof in particular (this is how the illegal pot farms are located sometimes).

Either way, it doesn't really matter what the cause of the smell is; it's got to go. I think contacting the management company (or requesting a health check) is the way to go, after giving off a warning. Other answerers have this in more detail.

You could consider talking to Ray to gauge his reaction to "the smell is still there/I'm potentially involving management", or just put a letter in the upstairs apartment's mailbox with a request to discuss the smell. The letter seems like the least confrontational approach you have available, and if it's not answered you can't reasonably be blamed for contacting management.

I would explicitly warn the neighbor that you will involve management if the problem is not solved (or the letter is not responded to) after a set number of days, because earlier attempts at contact have failed and the problem persists.

  • 1
    The OP does mention at one point that they can hear "skittering on the floor above and barking", though I suppose these could be explained away by other things if your theory is correct. That said, I think it might be worth adding a sentence on how to deal with this situation assuming you are correct - as it stands, I don't see how this answers the question of what the OP's next steps should be. – BiscuitBaker Jan 22 '18 at 13:49
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    Honestly, this seems pretty farfetched, and not remotely helpful. If this were somehow the case then it will become obvious from any of the other approaches. – Brondahl Jan 22 '18 at 14:11
  • @BiscuitBaker is this better? I've cut down on the first section and added a solutions section. – Willem Jan 22 '18 at 14:31

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