A fire or ambulance crew can’t safely respond to a medical emergency in a single family home because the resident has belongings stacked up to the ceiling and blocking many windows or doors.
A tenant living in an apartment faces eviction when he or she fails to pass a follow-up inspection after several warnings about lease violations related to items that create a tripping hazard, fire danger, or limit access to maintenance staff. The tenant then contacts their case manager in a panic.
These are just two examples of possible complications in housing settings that could impact housing providers. Hoarding is distinct from simply building a collection, which is usually displayed with pride, or letting a few days of dishes and laundry pile up when life gets busy. A person who has been diagnosed with hoarding has a disability under the Fair Housing Act1. Hoarding has been added to the DSM-5, the latest version of the American Psychiatric Association’s classification and diagnostic tool, and is now recognized as diagnosable condition independent of other mental health conditions.
FHCO had received a few calls about potential hoarding situations by the time an invitation came in the spring of 2013 to participate in a collaborative Multnomah County conversation about the issue. Two graduate social work students serving as interns in the Multnomah County Office of Aging and Disability Services convened various agencies to meet for a “community assessment.” Attendees have included representatives of several nonprofit and for-profit housing providers, Aging and Disability and Adult Protective Services, Legal Aid, Animal Control, and Assessments and Tax. This Hoarding Task Force has continued to meet regularly, researching resources and bringing in experts to assist in coordinating services and developing best practices. The group is now beginning the process of staffing cases and developing a more formal protocol. The good news is that there are new cognitive behavioral therapy models that can be successful in treating hoarding.
Since hoarding disorder is a disability under the Fair Housing Act, these individuals have the right to request a reasonable accommodation (RA) from a housing provider. This might include providing an agreed upon length of time to bring in a professional cleaner / organizer to help clear pathways, reduce pile heights, clear materials in front of heating vents, etc. More will probably be needed than a single deep clean. There may be several steps to the RA request, prioritizing the most immediate safety needs and then allowing a more gradual timeline for reducing other clutter, in conjunction with a professional organizer or mental health provider.
As with any RA request, housing providers need to evaluate the request and the verification of disability and respond in a timely manner. Housing providers are always well advised to review the legal reasons for denial, consult with a fair housing attorney, document the rationale for their decision, and feel comfortable defending it if a complaint / case follows when making a decision on a RA request. As always, regardless of the request that’s made or what the disability is, if a denial is made, HUD says a conversation should ensue about what would work for the individual with the disability.
Want to learn more? Suggested reading list:
- Hoarding basics: www.psychiatry.org/hoarding-disorder -- American Psychiatric Association: “Hoarding Disorder”
- "The Hoarding Handbook: A Guide for Human Services Professionals" – Bratiotis, Christina, et. al., New York: Oxford University Press, 2011
- “Task Forces Offer Hoarders a Way to Dig Out” – The New York Times, Jan Hoffman, 5/26/13
- “Obsessive compulsive and related disorders” – American Psychiatric Publishing
This article brought to you by the Fair Housing Council; a civil rights organization. All rights reserved © 2015.
 Federally protected classes under the Fair Housing Act include: race, color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status (children), and disability. Oregon law also protects marital status, source of income, sexual orientation, and domestic violence survivors. Additional protected classes have been added in particular geographic areas; visit FHCO.org/mission.htm and read the section entitled “View Local Protected Classes” for more information.