Enjoy schadenfreude? Well, lucky you, there’s an oversized slice of it coming up – prepared entirely at my own expense. Earlier this year, I wrote about how my family had moved from a cramped one-bedroom flat in Manhattan to a spacious terrace house in (far more affordable) Philadelphia. “I have made a very good life choice,” I crowed in a column. And, for a while, that seemed to be the case. We luxuriated in all the new space and marvelled at how quiet our new home was compared with New York. Despite sharing a wall, we couldn’t hear our neighbours at all.
There was good reason for that: we didn’t have any neighbours on one side. I thought they had just gone on holiday; however, it soon became clear that the house next door was empty. What’s more, it looked like the tenants had left in a hurry. There was a knocked-over fire pit in the garden, with a piece of half-burnt wood in it. There was a deflated paddling pool hung up to dry on the fence. And, strangest of all, it looked like someone had been digging an odd-shaped hole by the deck. I’ve consumed a lot of true crime in my life; my imagination went wild. Were the neighbours laundering money for the mob? Had they scarpered under cover of darkness because their bosses realised they were embezzling funds? Had they been murdered? Were they lying dead in the basement?
It turns out the truth was far worse. A little sleuthing revealed that the house was owned by a property developer (he describes himself online as a “maverick”) who had a permit to turn it into apartments. That meant demolishing the interior of the original house and adding a three-storey addition in the back garden. Nice for him, I suppose. Not so nice for my toddler’s nap schedule or, since I work from home, my sanity. I mentioned these concerns when the developer showed up at our door a few weeks ago to tell us that demolition was about to start. “Ah, it won’t be so bad,” he said. “This project is bringing up the neighbourhood!” He then hopped in his car and fled the neighbourhood.
My (annoyingly well-adjusted) wife and I deal with stress in different ways. She blocks out stressors. I open the door as wide as it will go for them, and say: “Hi, so glad to see you! Let’s get to know each other better.” While she went on with her business, ignoring the fact that we were going to have nonstop noise next door for the foreseeable future, I immersed myself in Philadelphia construction laws. In England, you need to jump through quite a few hoops to do such extensive work when you share a party wall with someone, and take steps to ensure the safety of your neighbour’s property. In Philadelphia, however, homeowners have very few rights when it comes to adjacent construction. Your only real option is hiring a lawyer and suing the developer if your house sustains damage during the process.
That, by the way, is horribly common. Philadelphia is full of old terrace homes and there have been a frightening number of cases of houses falling down because of cavalier developers. We live around the corner from a house that made the news because residents had to vacate in a hurry a few months ago, after developers compromised the building when doing demolition work next door.
The spate of collapses means that the city of Philadelphia is finally putting laws into effect next year that provide some protection to homeowners from adjacent development. Alas, that doesn’t really help me now: my living room is shaking and the noise is driving me up the wall; my only recourse is noise-cancelling headphones and wine. Still, I have to keep reminding myself, I am the mum of a toddler, I’m used to noise. When you have lived through Baby Shark on repeat for the 90th time, you can live through anything.
• Arwa Mahdawi is a Guardian columnist