How to Handle a Tenant with a Hoarding Problem
While accidental property damage, late payments, and neighborly disputes are the main problems landlords typically deal with, certain troublesome situations can occasionally present much greater challenges. Addressing a tenant with a hoarding problem, for example, is quite a tricky business that has to be approached in a very delicate and thoughtful manner in order to avoid confrontations and legal issues. Difficult as it may be, you need to take immediate measures as hoarding behavior may compromise the health and the safety of the affected person, as well as the well-being of other residents in the building and even the integrity of the property itself.
Things to Consider When Dealing with Hoarder Tenants
When faced with the problem of what to do about a hoarder tenant, you need to take into account several crucial factors:
- Hoarding is an officially recognized mental disorder. Hoarding is found to be a subtype of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) that is characterized by excessive acquisition of worthless items, strong emotional attachment to possessions, inability to discard items, severe indecisiveness, organizational difficulties, and poor socialization skills. Ever since its official recognition by the American Psychiatric Association, hoarding qualifies as a disability under federal and state anti-discrimination laws, so hoarding tenants are protected under the federal Fair Housing Act. This means that landlords and property managers have the duty to offer adequate help to the hoarder and to make a reasonable accommodation before taking extreme measures, such as eviction;
- Hoarding behavior poses a variety of risks. Compulsive hoarding often results in poor sanitary conditions and restricted living space which causes a variety of problems: increased fire hazards, obstruction of emergency exits and passageways, pest infestations, easier spread of contagious diseases, etc. All these conditions are not only dangerous but also in direct violation of state sanitary, electrical, or building codes, as well as different local regulations and animal care standards;
- Hoarders have often been through a traumatic event. Hoarding is usually triggered by a very stressful or traumatic experience and more often than not, the person involved may have suffered a bitter loss which explains the fear of parting with personal possessions, however worthless they may be. Hoarder renters are usually long term tenants who pay rent on time and don’t engage in hostile activities. So, being compassionate and helping the hoarder resume a normal lifestyle will be a much more humane and efficient solution to the problem than threatening an eviction.
Take Precautions When Drafting the Lease Agreement
To be able to handle a tenant with a hoarding problem without triggering a Fair Housing complaint or being accused of taking discriminatory actions, you need to be very careful when drafting the lease agreement:
- Include a clause about housekeeping standards to let the potential tenants know your expectations and to have legal grounds to base your statements and requests on should a dispute arise;
- Include a provision allowing you access to a unit with reasonable notice to the tenant;
- Provide firm guidelines about what your tenants are not allowed to do – piling too much stuff near windows, doors or stairs, as well as near air ducts and appliances; storing flammable, explosive or perishable items; cluttered living spaces to the extent that regular everyday activities are prevented (especially cleaning and cooking); housing animals without taking proper care of them; failing to properly dispose of garbage; etc. – whatever is relevant in your particular case;
- Put a stress on safety concerns and health issues to help your tenants understand why it will be beneficial to keep their rented homes neat and tidy and encourage them to comply with the rules for their own sake.
Including a hoarding clause may seem a bit excessive, but you need to provide maximum protection for your property and to guarantee the rights and the well-being of all the tenants.
Adequate tenant screening (reviewing records of past problems, property damage, living habits and housekeeping issues before leasing your property to the specific person) may also help you avoid the troubles of dealing with tenants who hoard.
Watch Out for Warning Signs of Hoarding
Early recognition of the hoarding problem will help prevent many bothersome issues, so you are advised to keep your eyes open for the first indications of hoarding behavior. The first step is to get familiar with the typical telltale signs of hoarding tenants:
- Pest problems – a sudden infestation of insects and/or rodents means that there is enough clutter in the building to provide safe hiding places for the pests to take shelter and to breed undisturbed, as well as plenty of improperly stored perishable food, leftovers, or empty food containers that attract vermin. Such conditions are typical for hoarders’ homes;
- Distinctive smell – the strong odor resulting from the poor sanitary conditions in the hoarder’s home is often the first issue that disturbs the neighbors and attracts their attention to the problem;
- Cluttering of common areas – cluttering of hallways and staircases presents increased risks of tripping and falling, not to mention the inherent inconveniences. What’s more, it is a clear sign that the home of the suspected hoarder is so full of clutter that the latter cannot accommodate any more acquisitions inside;
- A large number of pets – although the number of animals people keep in their homes is not necessarily indicative of animal hoarding, if a tenant has more than several pets, alarm bells should start ringing. Chances are the person in question won’t be able to take proper care of his/her animal companions (to provide adequate food and sanitary living conditions, to take them to the vet whenever necessary or to play with them, etc.). As a result, the animals may suffer from malnutrition and various illnesses, which inevitably results in great sanitary problems and raises a number of ethical issues;
- Denied access to residence – denied access to a rental unit is a key indicator that you are dealing with a serious problem. When a tenant never has people over for a visit, or refuses to allow maintenance workers in his/her home, or finds excuses not to let the landlord inside, he/she is certainly trying to hide something. More often than not, the reason for such a reclusive behavior is a hoarding problem – the person in question is embarrassed by the great clutter in his/her home and is also afraid of being forced to get rid of it, so he/she prefers to live in complete social isolation and denies access to the residence.
Have in mind that even if you suspect hoarding behavior, you don’t have the power to force entry unless there is an emergency situation (tenants should be given a prior notice before a landlord enters their homes, whatever the reason). However, pay prompt attention to complaints of other tenants concerning a particular unit (odor, vermin, or cluttered access areas) and make every effort to discover and to investigate potential hoarding as quickly as possible.
Verify Your Suspicions
Before taking any further steps, you need to make sure you are really dealing with a case of hoarding. It is possible to have misinterpreted the situation and to be wrong in your assumptions – the tenant may be simply reorganizing (which can explain clutter in the common areas) or feeling depressed (which will account for social withdrawal), etc. So, you need to get a better idea of what’s actually going on in your property without violating the tenant’s privacy in the investigation process. Inform the tenant in question that you need to visit his/her place but be careful not to trigger anxiety, fear, or embarrassment. If you are denied access, make it clear that you will resort to legal measures if necessary – you can seek assistance from the local board of health or fire department in order to access the unit.
Once you enter the residence of the suspected hoarder, take lots of notes and make plenty of photos to properly document the condition of the property. However, avoid confrontations and do your best to establish trust and to gain cooperation. Refrain from words like “junk”, “garbage”, etc. and don’t insist that the tenant should immediately dispose of all the accumulated items. Point out health and safety issues instead and show compassion and respect for the feelings of the hoarder.
How to Deal with Hoarding Tenants
Since hoarding is a mental disorder, in most cases the hoarding tenant won’t have the capacity to resolve the problem without help – not only psychological help, but also professional help for cleaning and organizing the premises. It is your responsibility as a landlord to help the hoarder improve the condition of his/her home. You need to offer the tenant reasonable accommodation to address the situation, including a viable plan to declutter and clean the unit.
- Reason with the hoarder tenant. Identify the most pressing issues and try to convince the tenant to take proper care of them first. Discuss simple strategies to reduce fire hazards, to get rid of vermin, to clear blocked passages and to tackle with any other dangerous issues that pose a risk to the health and the safety of the hoarder and all the other residents of the building. Allow sufficient time for the requests to be accomplished and then suggest other relevant measures to slowly improve the overall condition of the property;
- Provide the hoarder tenant with a written plan for decluttering and cleaning. It is a good idea to break the plan into multiple small and easy tasks. Start with the least sensitive issues, such as removing food leftovers and empty food containers from the kitchen and decluttering the bathroom (disposing of actual garbage is least likely to present sentimental challenges for the hoarder and will result in quick improvement of the sanitary conditions in the home) and slowly move on to larger decluttering and cleaning projects. Set appropriate time limits for each specific task (have in mind that a hoarder needs much longer time to deal with a certain issue than other people would need, so allow the tenant sufficient time to restore the good condition of the property). Make sure the plan also includes all the code violations at issue, as this may help the tenant better appreciate the gravity of the problem;
- Take advantage of professional counseling and cleaning Typically, hoarders see nothing wrong with their behavior, so they refuse treatment. However, you can consult a professional and come up with efficient ways to help the hoarder overcome his/her anxieties and resume a normal lifestyle. Hiring professional cleaning and organizational services may also prove to be quite beneficial for everyone. Such a thoughtful approach will provide further evidence that you did everything possible before resorting to eviction. You are advised to keep detailed records of all the actions you have taken to reasonably accommodate the hoarder, as well as of the time and expenses spent on the process;
- Get legal advice and give the hoarder tenant an eviction notice. If the tenant refuses to comply with your requests despite your considerate approach and the offered help, you have no choice but to proceed with eviction. Consult a lawyer and be careful not to make statements or take actions that could be called discriminatory. Focus strictly on the actions you have taken to help the hoarder and the various code violations that necessitate eviction for breaching the lease contract (see above).
When dealing with tenants who are hoarders, there are two possible outcomes of the situation:
- The hoarder tenant has brought the unit up to compliance. If the tenant has complied with your requests and has met the required health and safety criteria, the problem is solved – just be sure to provide adequate support and to encourage the person to maintain a neat and tidy environment. Pay the tenant brief friendly visits every now and then to ensure compliance and to offer additional help if needed. Continuous monitoring will help achieve efficient and sustainable results;
- The hoarder tenant has been evicted. If the hoarder tenant insists on maintaining his/her lifestyle and ignores your warnings and your attempts to help improve the situation, you will have to evict the affected person as his/her actions are violating the other tenants’ rights by posing various risks for their well-being. The premises that have been inhabited by the hoarder will require thorough cleaning before you can lease them out again. The clean-up process usually includes professional removal of all the garbage and clutter from the apartment, extermination of rats and other vermin, air-duct cleaning, repainting, carpet cleaning or replacement, etc. (You may have or may not have the right to bill the hoarder tenant for the cost of clean-up and damages, depending on the relevant provisions in the lease agreement.) Professional hoarding clean-up will allow you to restore the good condition of your rental unit in a quick and efficient manner and will guarantee the best possible results.
Dealing with a hoarder tenant is quite a delicate matter – you need to be patient and compassionate in order to help the affected person and also very careful not to trigger Fair Housing complaints in case you have to evict the hoarder. Consult the above tips for handling a tenant with a hoarding problem to find the best solution for your particular case and avoid further troubles.