How to Handle Complaints of Cooking Odors Coming from Your Rental

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Tenants have a right to live in a rental unit in peaceful enjoyment, but when cooking smells from the neighbors seem to infringe upon that enjoyment, what are landlords required to do about the complaints?

Are Cooking Smells a Nuisance?

Cooking smells can be pungent and powerful, especially when strong spices are used, such as curry, ginger, cayenne or cumin. Other strong cooking odors include onions, fish paste, cabbage and fats when rendering. The odor of burning food can also permeate a small space. The difficulty for landlords lies in determining whether a strong or unpleasant cooking odor is enough to be considered a nuisance for other tenants.
A nuisance is an action or event that interferes with a tenant’s ability to quiet enjoyment of the rental. Tenants cannot be restricted in what they can cook and eat in the privacy of their own home and you can’t ban tenants from making certain foods.
On the other hand, residents don’t have the automatic right to allow strong cooking odors to intrude on other apartments. Think of it as similar to other strong odors like cigarette smoke, incense, perfume or garbage. Cooking odors can be a nuisance, in the same way as noise and conduct—that it is part of a broadly defined activity that interferes with another’s quiet enjoyment of a property.
Ultimately, landlords cannot take action against a tenant based on cooking odors unless they are so invasive or irritating that the effect on other tenants is significant.

How to handle nuisance smells from neighbors and tenants

Evaluating the seriousness of cooking odors is the landlord’s job. Deal with any cooking odor complaints as you would with any other odor and make the determination as to whether it qualifies as a nuisance to other tenants, or if the incidents do not really infringe upon the other tenant’s quiet enjoyment.
You can follow these 5 steps to help determine whether a tenant’s cooking odors could be considered a nuisance or not:

  1. Are the cooking odors strong during preparation but then fade afterwards?
  2. Are the cooking odors emitted daily? Weekly? Infreqently?
  3. Can you smell the cooking odors in the common areas, such as the hallways?
  4. Have you had more than one complaint from more than one tenant?
  5. Does the cooking odor linger in the neighboring apartment long after preparation is over?

Many court cases have upheld the contention that strong odors can be considered a nuisance if they consistently affect common areas or the living spaces of others. Evaluate the situation carefully to determine whether the odor is simply unpleasant or truly interferes with livability.

Curry Smell in Apartment

A strong curry smell in apartments can be a tough odor to get rid of.
We’ve covered this in a recent Ask A Property Manager video that you can watch here.
The action picks up at about the 0:45 mark of the video below as we discuss how to handle curry smell in apartments.

Discrimination Concerns

You’ll walk a fine line when addressing cooking odors and crossing over into ethnic and racial discrimination. Ethnic dishes and the methods to prepare them can smell unpleasant and unappetizing to those who are not familiar with them or simply don’t like them.
With tenants who descend from a heritage that uses strong-smelling spices in cooking, for example, you cannot set up rules over what a tenant can or cannot cook. You should never disparage a tenant or demean their heritage when discussing cooking odors, nor make references to ethnicity or heritage when talking with the complaining tenant.
Also, acting on stereotypes is unethical and illegal when it comes to screening applicants or evicting tenants. In other words, you cannot refuse to rent to an applicant based on race or ethnicity because you are afraid their cooking will smell bad or you had a previous tenant of the same or similar ethnicity that generated complaints of cooking odors.
Treat the cooking odor complaints just as you would treat any other nuisance complaint, such as barking dogs, cigarette smoke  or loud music. Always demonstrate a consistent process in dealing with odor-related complaints and be sure to administer the same treatment toward the cooking tenants as you would to any other tenant to avoid any hint of discrimination based on ethnicity or race.
Keep copies of all notices in the tenant file and document the complaints from other tenants. Engage the tenant in a good faith effort to eliminate cooking smells, including cooking with windows open, using the exhaust fan and so forth. If the nuisance continues, you may have to take steps to evict the tenant for lease violations.
Have you ever had complaints about cooking smells coming from your rental?