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When Evan McAnney opens the front door to his eighth-floor apartment, he hears an ocean at high tide. Crashing water. Whisking wind. Air whistling as it changes speed. That’s what he hears when he rolls over in the morning. And that’s what he hears when he’s brushing his teeth and cooking his eggs and surfing the Internet.
It’s not a Sharper Image sound machine; the sound comes from a vent near the ceiling on McAnney’s kitchen wall. In some other apartment, retreating to another room or turning up the television might provide an escape. But in McAnney’s tiny studio in the Kenmore building along the upper reaches of Connecticut Avenue NW, the kitchen is in the living room and the living room is the bedroom, so the noise is with him constantly.
“It’s like having a hurricane in your kitchen,” he says.
And city regulators agree that it’s intolerable. “It was uncomfortable; I was shocked that it was that loud,” says William Harris, an inspector with the city Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) who measured the sound as being about as loud as an outdoor leaf blower.
McAnney thought that getting a noise inspector to vouch for his excessively noisy vent would force Kenmore management to fix the problem. But making the noise stop hasn’t been so simple. McAnney has run into a regulatory Catch-22—the city noise code covers only sounds that originate from outside the apartment, such as construction noise, trash trucks, or music from nightclubs. So although the air is blowing in from some crowded duct elsewhere in the building, the vent is inside McAnney’s apartment, and the city can’t do a thing.
The 44-year-old McAnney is disabled and is often in the apartment, so the noise is more than just an irritation. The noise began in May 2005; he complained to Kenmore management about the noise in April 2006, then again in August. He complained another time in October, once more in November, and then four times in December including, on Christmas Day.
At first, McAnney says, the building management tried to fix the vent, but after having maintenance and several outside contractors come up and take a look at it, the noise persisted. He kept complaining, but his pleas went nowhere. “They do a lot of double-talking,” McAnney says. “They make a lot of excuses, and then they stall you. They stall you with a smile and a handshake and a pat on the back.”
The operations manager for the Kenmore didn’t return repeated calls, and the building’s on-site manager refused to comment on the matter.
So McAnney gave the city a call to register a noise complaint. After the five phone calls and seven days it took to get a message returned, Harris went to McAnney’s apartment and was surprised by what he found. The noise emitted from the vent measured about 67 decibels. “Sixty is excessive,” he says.
McAnney is not alone in his suffering. John Scheinman also lives on the eighth floor and says he hears the whooshing sound as well as another nuisance. “I’m sick of the constant low-level rumble and vibration in my home,” he says.
Harris says he spoke with the Kenmore’s building management after his inspection and told them the results. They showed him a proposal to fix the vent and told him they were then taking bids from contractors. To cut down on the noise, Harris says, building management proposed installing material inside the vent or the air-conditioning unit to reduce the airflow.
McAnney was relieved to know that the building managers would be forced to fix the problem. But his relief was short-lived: Harris later informed him that the city was powerless to stop excessive noise inside a residence.
“Since this is inside the vent, I don’t regard it as originating inside the apartment; it’s originating from the machine on the roof,” McAnney says. He continued pressing his case with the DCRA until someone suggested that he call the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which enforces noise-pollution standards.
But when he contacted the EPA, he was misdirected to an obscure department elsewhere in the area. “They ended up giving me a phone number out in Virginia to the department of underground tanks,” he says.
When McAnney contacted the DCRA again, he was told that he should make another complaint but change the wording to circumvent a ventilation code. When that didn’t work, he was told to contact the department’s tenant-advocacy office but found more runaround, he says.
Further complicating matters is that Archstone-Smith, the company that owns the Kenmore, announced in September that the building is for sale. McAnney thinks Archstone-Smith is just trying to wait him out until the building is sold. Whenever he sends building management e-mails regarding the vent or any other problems with his apartment, he says they address the other problems but ignore his inquiries about the vent. He’s since filed a complaint with the D.C. Inspector General’s office, but in the meantime, he says he’s considering helping the DCRA out.
“I’m seriously thinking about what it would take for me to get a job as an inspector,” McAnney says. “I think I really could be evenhanded about it.”