Take 4 Steps When Dealing with a Tenant Hoarder
As the temperature starts dropping across the country, your site may be undertaking increased pest prevention treatments or inspections as pests, particularly rodents, start moving indoors. Unfortunately, some residents are not always diligent about reporting pest issues for reasons such as concerns about cost or lease violations.
Federal regulations require that HUD housing “must be decent, safe, sanitary and in good repair" [24 CFR §5.703]. And owners must maintain housing in a manner that meets certain physical condition standards [24 CFR §5.701(c)]. To meet these standards, it’s good practice for your site to perform regular pest and housekeeping inspections. Doing so can help identify residents with housekeeping issues that may be lending to a pest problem in the building.
This is especially the case with those residents with a hoarding disorder. A Compulsive Hoarding Disorder is the medical diagnosis for those who have difficulty in disposing of items others may feel are clutter, and excessively save items that many would deem worthless. This disorder can result in living situations that are compromised due to the hoarded items.
Hoarding things, regardless of what they may be, is a huge fire hazard and potential liability for management. HUD requires that all areas and components of housing be free of health and safety hazards. These include garbage and debris, infestation, fire hazards, mold, and other observable deficiencies. With all of those papers, cardboard, clothing, nooks, and crannies pests have an ideal place to live, as well as a possible food source. Clutter also affects the ability of exterminators to properly treat a unit for mice, roaches, or bed bugs.
Mental health experts disagree about the causes of extreme hoarding. Nevertheless, in most cases, a resident engaged in hoarding behavior will qualify as an individual with a disability under fair housing law, triggering your responsibility to try to work out a reasonable accommodation to allow him to continue to live there. There are limits to your obligations toward the tenant, but you’ll have to tread carefully—and document your efforts to work out a resolution—to prevent or defend yourself against a potential fair housing complaint.
We’ll explain how fair housing law may protect tenants engaged in hoarding, as well as the limits to those protections. We’ll also offer four steps you should take when you suspect a tenant is a compulsive hoarder.
Hoarding and Reasonable Accommodations
The underlying causes of clinical hoarding are many and varied—and often poorly understood. Most often, hoarding involves a mental impairment—such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxiety disorder, or chronic depression.
Some cases of compulsive hoarding seem to be related to the aging process: Mental health experts have coined the term “Diogenes Syndrome” to describe the stereotypical reclusive elderly person living in domestic squalor, often amid excessive clutter.
It’s important to remember that the Fair Housing Act’s (FHA) definition of “disability” encompasses a broad array of conditions—both physical and mental—that can account for hoarding behavior. And in some cases, hoarders may qualify under the FHA’s disability provisions simply because they’re regarded as having a disability.
Fair housing law offers an array of protections to an individual with a disability—chief among them is the right to a reasonable accommodation. Under the FHA, owners are required to alter their rules, policies, practices, or services when necessary to afford a person with a disability an equal opportunity to use and enjoy her housing.
In hoarding cases, for example, an owner may be asked to hold off on eviction proceedings to allow enough time for the tenant to clean the place out. Assuming it’s safe to do so, the owner may have to grant the request—made by or on behalf of the tenant—because there’s an identifiable relationship between the requested accommodation and the tenant’s disability.
Even if a tenant qualifies under the disability provisions, an owner isn’t required to grant an accommodation request if it’s unreasonable, which means that it would impose an undue financial and administrative burden on the owner or result in a fundamental alteration of its operations.
Furthermore, the FHA doesn’t protect an individual with a disability whose tenancy poses a direct threat to the health or safety of others or substantial physical damage to the property of others, unless the threat may be eliminated or significantly reduced by a reasonable accommodation. If the hoarder fails or refuses to clean the apartment, despite your best efforts to accommodate his requests for more time, then you have a right to protect the health and safety of other tenants as well as avoid further property damage to the apartment and surrounding areas.
Step #1: Identify and Investigate Potential Hoarding Problems
Because compulsive hoarders are often socially isolated, hoarding can be difficult to detect. Train your staff to be vigilant for any signs of hoarding behavior by your tenants. Hoarders rarely come forward on their own, partly because the nature of the illness prevents them from seeing that their behavior or living conditions are a problem.
Since hoarding problems usually don’t surface until the effects seep outside the hoarders’ apartments—and into hallways or neighboring apartments—the observations of staff members are crucial to detect hoarding problems. During their routine duties, your staff may notice excess clutter or noxious odors in hallways and common areas that seem to be emanating from a particular apartment. Train your staff to report such problems immediately, so that you’ll be able to address the issue at the earliest stage possible.
For the same reason, pay attention to similar complaints from neighbors, particularly when they’re localized next door or on the floors above and below a particular apartment. Hoarding isn’t limited to common possessions, such as clothing, newspapers, or plastic bags; some people hoard garbage and rotting food—even animals or human waste products.
Some managers may be reluctant to get involved with tenants who begin hoarding. While there seems to be a simple solution to remove what appears to be junk, those with clinical hoarding problems experience extreme distress at the prospect of losing their treasured possessions. It can be frustrating and time consuming to work with tenants who don’t see their hoarding as a problem and ignore or resist any attempts to interfere with their behavior or possessions.
Nevertheless, hoarding problems only get worse if left unattended. Your city, county, or state may specify certain minimum standards of cleanliness, access, and safety that must be met or a person can be evicted. For example, in New York City, there are Housing Maintenance Code violations related to blocking doors to public hallways, unsanitary conditions, pest infestations, and storage of combustibles. Abiding by the rules helps reduce the risk of fire, structural damage to the building, and disease, injury, and infestation.
Step #2: Document the Extent of Problem
One of the most important things an owner can initially do is to try to document the complaints and conditions. You should keep a record of housekeeping notices sent to the resident. These notices should highlight the health, safety, and sanitary provisions in the lease. Also, it’s a good idea when issuing housekeeping-related lease violations, you have standards in your policy or house rules, and not just the lease.
Also, have tenants who lodge complaints memorialize those complaints with letters. Building staff should submit written memos to management and photograph the conditions, if possible. Often, security cameras can be used to document the dates and times of the occurrences. Footage may show a steady stream of items being brought into an apartment and nothing leaving. The information collected is necessary both for trial and for the preparation of a fact-specific notice of termination.
Step #3: Promptly Respond to Reasonable Accommodation Requests
Fair housing laws may require you to try to work out a reasonable accommodation to allow the tenant to clean out the apartment in order to preserve her residency. Obvious signs of unsafe and unsanitary hoarding may be bad enough to suggest that the tenant has some type of disability. In hoarding cases, it’s usually a request from the tenant or a family member to delay legal action against the tenant to give her more time to clean out the apartment.
These requests should usually be granted but depending on the health and safety risks involved, you may not have to grant the request. Regardless, you do have to take the accommodation requests seriously by responding formally and promptly.
To keep things on track, an accommodation plan should allow for periodic inspections. When the owner is satisfied upon a scheduled inspection that the premises are cleaned up sufficiently to remove violations and in essence ‘cure’ a nuisance, you can put the tenant on a ‘probationary stipulation’ whereby interval inspections for the probationary period are required of the tenant to establish that the tenant has complied with the terms of the probation by refraining from re-creating any of the conditions as alleged in the petition. Hoarding is notoriously difficult to treat, and recurrences are common, so frequent inspections may help ward off future problems.
An agreement should also spell out consequences for failing to maintain the apartment as agreed—for example, by giving you the right to reinstate eviction proceedings if the tenant fails to maintain the premises.
Step #4: Initiate Subsidy Termination/Holdover Proceeding if Remediation Efforts Fail
If the tenant ignores warnings about lease violations or otherwise fails to abide by any informal efforts to resolve hoarding problems, you can terminate the resident’s subsidy for noncompliance with the decent, safe, and sanitary requirements in the lease. The resident’s rent should go to market rate and, if the resident is unable to pay, then you can initiate proceedings to recover possession of the apartment for nonpayment of rent. Be sure to document your compliance with notice provisions and other legal requirements imposed by state and local law.
It’s also important to have documentation of direct damage to the property; blocking emergency exits; interfering with ventilation or sprinkler systems; storing potentially explosive or other unsafe materials; keeping perishable goods in a manner that could attract mold or rodents; or housing animals in a way that violates the law or lease agreement. The documentation can include pictures, descriptions, and witness testimony.
A court also could ask what you have done to accommodate the resident. You can provide documentation of your accommodation plan to meet the burden of proof that you reasonably accommodated the resident. Or even after legal proceedings have begun, however, you should be prepared for an 11th-hour request to delay eviction proceedings to allow the tenant more time to clean up the apartment. Because hoarders are resistant to parting with their possessions, it often takes official legal proceedings that threaten their continued residency to prompt them to do something to remedy the problem. Nevertheless, there are limits on your obligation to accommodate tenants whose hoarding behavior poses ongoing safety and health hazards to other tenants.
Remember that the FHA doesn’t offer protection to a tenant with a disability whose tenancy amounts to a “direct threat” to the health or safety of other individuals or would result in substantial physical damage to the property of others unless the threat can be eliminated or significantly reduced by reasonable accommodation. To determine whether a tenant with a hoarding problem poses a direct threat, the owner must make an individualized assessment—based on reliable, objective evidence, such as current conduct or recent history of overt acts. HUD says that the assessment must consider:
- The nature, duration, and severity of the risk of injury;
- The probability that injury will occur; and
- Whether there are reasonable accommodations that will eliminate the direct threat.
Because of these and other requirements, it’s best to get legal advice when you believe a tenant’s hoarding poses a direct threat to your property or the health and safety of other tenants.