Take Four Steps When Dealing with a Tenant Hoarder
Owners and managers frequently receive a variety of complaints about their tenants' conduct. At some point, it's likely that you may field allegations about intolerable odors from a particular apartment, or about apartment conditions that create a breeding ground for insects, or give rise to fire hazards or other potentially dangerous situations. If these allegations are true, you may have a compulsive hoarder as a tenant.
Compulsive hoarding is more than simply having too much clutter. Potential problems from hoarding include noxious odors, pest infestation, mold growth, increased risk of injury or disease, fire hazards, and even structural damage. And that means that a filthy apartment filled with clutter and debris caused by hoarding behavior can potentially endanger the welfare of other tenants and increase your extermination and maintenance costs. Also, neighboring tenants may complain and may demand rent abatements. And the conditions may prevent empty apartments from being re-rented.
In one recent case, a tenant sued the owner for negligence based on burns and other injuries she suffered while escaping a fire in her apartment. The court eventually dismissed the case without a trial. The fire marshal's report stated that the cause of the fire was the tenant's smoking in the apartment and the report also described the apartment as a “Collyer's Mansion,” meaning that the tenant hoarded trash and debris in the apartment [Mateo v. Uphattan Corp., July 2011].
Mental health experts disagree about the causes of extreme hoarding. Nevertheless, in most cases, a tenant 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. In New York attorney Meryl Waxman's experience, hoarders are usually elderly. In these cases, referrals have been made to Adult Protective Services (APS) and a guardian ad litem or legal guardian is appointed. “In some instances, extra support from social services through APS may provide what they call a ‘heavy-duty cleaning’ when necessary,” says Waxman.
In the context of fair housing, 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.
FOUR STEPS TO TAKE WHEN DEALING WITH HOARDERS
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 property 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. New York City specifies certain minimum standards of cleanliness, access, and safety that must be met or a person can be evicted. The following Housing Maintenance Code violations are related to hoarding; abiding by them prevents increased risk of fire, structural damage to the building, and disease, injury, and infestation.
Blocking of doors to public hallways
Blocking of fire escape
Bathroom and Kitchen
No or insufficient hot or cold water (including quantity, pressure, and temperature) for a period of 24 hours or longer
Combustibles in or near stoves or radiators
Accumulation of waste matter in dwelling apartment
Insect and rodent infestations
Nonworking electrical outlets
Overloading of outlets
Nonworking smoke detector
Combustibles near radiator
Improper storage of combustible materials
Step #2: Document the Extent of Problem
According to Section 27-2008 of the Housing Maintenance Code, no tenant shall refuse to permit the owner or manager to enter a tenant's apartment to make repairs or improvements required by the Housing Maintenance Code or other law, or to inspect an apartment to determine compliance with this code or any other provision of law, if the right of entry is exercised at a reasonable time and in a reasonable manner.
If a suspected hoarder denies access, you should send the tenant a letter to arrange an access date and propose a specific date. Send this letter by certified mail, return receipt requested, and mail it at least eight days before the access date you're proposing. If the tenant doesn't respond to the letter, send a second letter, again by certified mail, return receipt requested, specifying another access date. You must also mail this letter at least eight days before the proposed access date. Be sure to document that you've complied with these requirements. The copies of the letters you sent and the certified mail return receipts can be used as proof in the holdover proceedings.
One of the most important things an owner can initially do is to try to document the complaints and conditions. 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.
According to New York attorney William Neville, if there is such a request, “The owner should grant a reasonable accommodation. However, the court needs to be reminded to balance the rights of the other tenants and the owner to have a safe building.” Depending on the health and safety risks involved, you may not have to grant the request—but you do have to take it 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, we 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,” says Waxman. Hoarding is notoriously difficult to treat, and recurrences are common, so frequent inspections may help ward off future problems.
An agreement or stipulation 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 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 initiate proceedings to recover possession of the apartment. 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 the condition of the premises, including pictures, descriptions, and witness testimony.
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.
For example, last year, a New York court permitted the ouster of a 40-year tenant of a rent-stabilized apartment because deplorable conditions existing for many years remained a nuisance. Witnesses testified about cluttered and dirty conditions, including debris and dirty dishes piled one- to three-feet high; obstruction of the master bedroom; infestation of vermin, spiders, and rodents; and foul odors that extended into the common hallway. The tenant, an attorney, admitted the apartment was messy, but insisted that he cured any defects by cleaning the apartment—although witnesses said it didn't look any different after the clean-up.
Upon invitation by the tenant, the court conducted a surprise inspection. Although the one- to three-foot piles of clutter were gone and there was no evidence of vermin or rodents, the court observed that the filth in the apartment was everywhere and extreme. Because his ongoing pattern of objectionable conduct created a nuisance for his neighbors, the court ruled that the tenant wasn't entitled to any further opportunity to cure the nuisance. The ruling was upheld on appeal [Cabrini Terrace Joint Venture v. O'Brien, March 2010].
The same ruling may hold true even if a tenant qualifies as an individual with a disability. 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. The Department of Housing and Urban Development 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.
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