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Attention Landlords: Got Hoarding?


THAT’S what hoarding looks like. The husband, wife and two minor children who rent this apartment are living in the midst of rotting food, infestations of spiders, mice, bedbugs and cockroaches, as well as animal waste. You can see that the furniture is unusable because it’s covered with “stuff”; the kitchen and kitchen appliances are unusable for the same reason. Dust and filth are everywhere, and there hasn’t been regular maintenance for more than three years. Simply put, this accumulation of “stuff” makes the living spaces unusable; it also poses serious dangers, not only for this family but also for their neighbors. Indeed, because the exits from this apartment are completely blocked, emergency entry from firefighters and other safety and health personnel would be impossible.

Fortunately, this scenario is rare, in my experience. It depicts an extreme example of hoarding, which the Mayo Clinic defines as “a persistent difficulty discarding or parting with possessions because of (a perceived) need to save them,” regardless of their actual value. A person with this serious disorder experiences severe distress at the thought of getting rid of “stuff.” As a consequence, hoarding often creates such cramped living conditions that apartments, patios and balconies are jammed to capacity, with only narrow pathways that provide access to stacks of clutter. Countertops, sinks, stoves, desks, stairways -- and virtually all other surfaces -- become piled with stuff.

Dr. Christine Caulfield, a clinical neuropsychologist and an expert on the subject, reports that 5.3 percent of people in the United States – perhaps as many as 17 million! – have this disorder. She observes that it occurs more often with men than women, and increases with age.

Consider this: If you or your company manages, say, 100 apartment units, you may have at least five residents who are hoarders. Do the math: Multiply the number of units in your portfolio by .053; the answer could be the number of apartments occupied by residents who hoard.

The Law of Hoarding. Fair housing laws establish so-called “protected classes,” which are groups of people who share a common characteristic and are guaranteed equal treatment by housing providers. People who have the hoarding disorder are members of the “handicapped/disabled” protected class. This means that apartment residents who hoard cannot immediately be evicted when their behavior is discovered. Instead, their protected class status guarantees a “reasonable accommodation” of their disability, which includes is a “waiver or change in policies, practices and services to provide equal access and opportunity in housing (to them).”

Providing “Reasonable Accommodation” for Hoarding Renters. There are several ways to help people who hoard to resolve the disorder:

  • Working with a professional organizer over a long period of time. Working with a personal friend or relative can work, but this can put the relationship at risk.

  • There are also support groups that help individuals understand that they are not the only ones who are dealing with hoarding. As an attorney, I’ve found that participating in hoarding situations, especially after initially studying the particular problem and carefully preparing the agreed-upon remediation plan, including an aggressive but feasible schedule for completing the work, is very beneficial to the entire team.

  • Team approach. The Minnesota Hoarding Task Force is a non-profit that advocates for a team strategy to support the person who is hoarding. They do not recommend a forced cleanout, unless the person is uncooperative and safety is of primary concern. Instead, they recommend a team of experts, customized for the needs of the particular individual. The group works to obtain cooperation from the person, supported by individual therapy and/or a support group, and in-home assistance working alongside the individual – often a professional organizer. Other team members can include a city inspector, a social worker, and family members.

  • Medication. Researchers have found that antidepressant medications may help some compulsive hoarders. SSRIs -- selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors -- a type of antidepressant that includes Paxil, is most commonly used to treat the disorder.

  • Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT). Research has also shown that medication alone cannot fix hoarding behaviors. Specialized cognitive-behavior techniques focus on excessive acquisition, difficulty discarding, disorganization, and cluttering that impairs functioning. CBT can help to change the way people who hoard think about their stuff. During CBT, they gradually learn to discard unnecessary items with less distress, diminishing their exaggerated perceived need or desire to save these possessions.

  • I’ve mentioned that attorney participation in the remediation can be useful, particularly to prepare a workable plan with an achievable schedule for its completion. This contribution not only accelerates the process and bulletproofs the plan against legal challenges, but also demonstrates to the resident that the work is serious, that there are potential consequences for failure to comply, and that staff personnel will conduct and supervise the acceptable completion of the plan.

 

My Experience with Apartment Hoarding. I’m a Minnesota real estate attorney with an extensive background in managing and marketing rental housing. I also have experience with resident hoarding behavior, as I’ve outlined above, and I continue to help apartment owners and managers to respond effectively to hoarding situations. Here’s a summary of my approach:

  • Inspect the Premises. State statutes and most residential leases permit landlords to inspect apartments to make repairs, alterations, or improvements; to supply necessary or agreed services; or to show the unit to prospects. If your state law or your lease doesn’t have such a provision, include a paragraph in your lease that addresses the landlord’s right of entry to conduct “regular apartment inspections.” Persons with a hoarding disability may be so embarrassed by the condition of their apartments that they fail to report maintenance problems and disregard inspection notices. Your residents need to know that any failure to comply with required inspections will result in legal action, a provision that I include in the remediation plan.

  • The Accommodation Process. When an apartment inspection, or perhaps strong odors caused by poor sanitary conditions, or denied access to an apartment, reveals a likely hoarding situation, the landlord’s agent should schedule an initial meeting with the resident. Assuming that there is evidence, the agent contacts the resident, calendars an initial meeting, and establishes a businesslike relationship, rather than a contentious atmosphere.

Experts agree that remediating apartment hoarding is likely to be challenging, time-consuming, and unpredictable. During either the first or second meeting, I tell the resident that the work we’ll do is to identify health and safety issues and to solve them together. I emphasize that my purpose is not to conduct “an inspection” or to tell residents what to do with their belongings. Instead, I tell the resident that my job is to make sure that the apartment is brought into a healthy, safe, and sanitary condition.

The goal of this meeting is to establish an environment in which the resident can recognize, and perhaps acknowledge, first, that a problem exists and that the landlord will not seek an immediate eviction, and second, that the landlord and the agent will be supportive in helping to resolve it. It is also important to keep in mind that yearly inspections may not be sufficient. Quarterly – or even monthly – inspections, if allowed by law or the rental agreement, may be necessary to curb rehoarding. I also include this provision in the initial plan.

  • The Ongoing Accommodation of the Disability. I believe that the early work should include the preparation of a comprehensive, written remediation plan coupled with an agreed-upon schedule that will remove potential emergency conditions and health and safety risks. As I previously mentioned, it’s useful to involve a licensed attorney in preparing a plan that, if necessary, will survive potential legal challenges if court proceedings are likely. We identify the most dangerous and important issues and agree to handle those first. We also discuss strategies to reduce potential danger to the resident and others.

 

Early in the meeting schedule with the renter, site staff and me, I begin to meticulously photograph the existing apartment conditions to ensure that there is an accurate depiction of every space where hoarding exists. I use the photographs as a template, and refer to them specifically to design the workplan remediation process. Photographs of the most dangerous conditions – fire, falling, health, mold, and biohazards – illustrate the immediate and ongoing calendar for resolution and eventual success. They also become part of our contract to work together to find a way to continue the residency by resolving the problem.

As I mentioned above, I also include a provision for periodic inspections – 15 to 30 days initially, then 45 to 60 days if the remediation is progressing according to the agreement. This ensures that the apartment continues to be in compliance. If the resident is non-compliant, the agreement specifies that whatever problem exists must be remedied within 15 days. Non-compliance at this stage suggests the possibility of a subsequent eviction.

I have found that an agreed-upon work plan with measurable achievements, a timeline and deadlines for complying with each item, serves as a roadmap for a progressive elimination of the hoarding that meets meet health and safety goals. When the plan has been prepared, the resident and I sign and date it.

Finally, it’s essential that you document each of your interactions with the resident. Ultimately, if the resident fails to cooperate and fulfill the terms of your agreement, you will likely have to terminate the tenancy. Being able to prove that you’ve made a good faith attempt to accommodate the disability, as evidenced by your agreement and the updates and photographs that you have made, should be sufficient to successfully defend a fair housing complaint.

Conclusion. As you encounter hoarding situations, which my experience suggests is likely, I believe that you will learn that apartment hoarding is a persistent problem and that you’ll need to conduct routine inspections to find out whether there is evidence of hoarding and if problems have reoccurred. If you would like to talk with me about hoarding, you may do so either by email – harmonlaw@outlook.com -- or by calling me at either 952.975.9040 (office) or 651.900.3031 (cell).

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