Proceed with Caution When Responding to a Hoarding Problem

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In this article, MHCO tackles a challenging problem: resident hoarding. In multifamily housing communities, extreme cases of hoarding can pose serious health and safety hazards—not only to anyone living in the affected unit, but also to neighbors who may share walls, ceilings, floors, hallways, and even HVAC systems. Potential problems include fire hazards, mold and other environmental dangers, pests and vermin, foul odors, and even structural damage. 

Unfortunately, it’s often difficult to detect because people with a hoarding problem rarely seek help on their own. Conditions inside the unit may not come to light until an emergency crops up—or conditions inside seep out into neighboring units or common areas. By the time it’s discovered, the problem may be so out of hand that your first impulse is to order the resident to clean up immediately or move out.

But that approach could land you in fair housing trouble. Hoarding disorder is a recognized mental health impairment, so the resident would probably 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 resident, but you’ll have to tread carefully—and document your efforts to work out a resolution—to prevent or defend a potential fair housing complaint.

In this lesson, we’ll explain how fair housing law may protect residents engaged in hoarding behavior, as well as the limits to those protections. Then, we’ll offer seven rules to help you comply with fair housing laws when dealing with a hoarding problem. 

WHAT DOES THE LAW SAY?

The Fair Housing Act (FHA) bans discrimination against individuals with disabilities. The FHA defines disability as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities. The law applies to individuals who have a disability, as well as those who are “regarded as” or have a “record of” having a disability—even though they may not in fact have a qualifying disability under fair housing law.

Hoarding is more than simply having too much clutter. It’s a recognized mental health disorder, characterized by saving things that others may view as worthless, and persistent difficulty in getting rid of or parting with possessions, which leads to clutter that disrupts an individual’s ability to use their living space, according to the American Psychiatric Association (APA). At some point, it’s likely that you’ll be confronted with a hoarding problem, which may affect 2 to 6 percent of the U.S. adult population, according to the APA.

TIME OUT!

What Is Hoarding Disorder?

In 2013, the APA recognized hoarding disorder as an official psychiatric diagnosis in its Diagnostic Statistical Manual V (DSM-V). Specific symptoms for a hoarding diagnosis include:

  • Lasting problems with throwing out or giving away possessions, regardless of their actual value.
  • The problems are due to a perceived need to save the items and distress linked to parting with them.
  • Items fill, block, and clutter active living spaces so they cannot be used, or use is hampered by the large number of items (if living spaces are clear it is due to help from others).

Hoarding causes major distress or problems in social, work, or other important areas of functioning (including maintaining a safe environment for self and others). Many people with hoarding disorder also experience other mental disorders, including depression, anxiety disorders, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, or alcohol use disorder.

Source: APA

The inclusion of hoarding as an official psychiatric disorder in the DSM-V confirms that hoarding is a mental disability, says fair housing attorney Lynn Dover. Federal and state fair housing laws protect people with mental disabilities from discrimination and require housing providers to make reasonable accommodations when necessary to afford a resident with a disability an equal opportunity to use and enjoy her housing, she says.

In hoarding cases, for example, the community may be asked to hold off on eviction proceedings to allow enough time for the resident to remedy the health and safety issues. Assuming it’s safe to do so, the community may have to grant the request—made by or on behalf of the resident—because there’s an identifiable relationship between the requested accommodation and the resident’s disability.

Nevertheless, there are limits to your obligations to grant reasonable accommodations even if a resident qualifies under the disability provisions. For one thing, 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.

Furthermore, the law doesn’t require you to grant an accommodation request if it’s unreasonable—that is, it would impose an undue financial and administrative burden on the community or result in a fundamental alteration of its operations. But tread carefully: Even if the resident’s request is unreasonable, communities are required to engage in an “interactive process” with the resident to try to work out an alternative accommodation that would meet his disability-related needs without posing an undue burden on the community or require a fundamental alteration of its operations.

7 RULES FOR RESPONDING TO A HOARDING PROBLEM

Rule #1: Watch for Signs of Hoarding

Train your staff to be vigilant for any signs of hoarding behavior by your residents. Residents engaged in hoarding behavior rarely come forward on their own, so you may not be aware of a hoarding problem until its effects seep outside the resident’s unit and into hallways or neighboring units.

The observations of staff members are crucial to detect hoarding problems. During their routine duties, your leasing, maintenance, housekeeping, or security staff may notice excess clutter or noxious odors in hallways and common areas that seem be emanating from a particular unit. Train 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 the source of the problem seems to be next door or on the floors above and below a particular unit. 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. Any and all can lead to serious health and safety problems involving fire hazards, impaired air quality, mold growth, pest infestation, and structural damage, which can spread rapidly and lead to serious injury or disease without prompt attention. 

Rule #2: Investigate Potential Hoarding Problems

As soon as potential hoarding problems come to your attention, inspect common areas and inside the units of residents who have lodged complaints. Make an effort to determine whether complaints all seem to be pointing to a particular unit.

The next step is to contact the resident whose unit appears to be the source of the problem. Your right to enter and inspect a resident’s unit depends on a variety of factors, including the seriousness of the reported problem, state and local sanitary codes and landlord-tenant laws, the provisions of the lease, and other legal requirements.

In general, communities may enter the units of residents only with reasonable advance notice and during normal business hours, except in cases of emergency. Be sure to document that you have complied with applicable requirements, which will be particularly important if the resident in fact has a hoarding problem and denies you entry.

Once inside, document the conditions, particularly focusing on any violations of lease provisions and applicable health and safety codes. Make notes about the nature and cause of any noxious smells, pest infestations, and other problems that have spread outside the unit. Attempt to take photos since descriptions of hoarding conditions can go only so far to show the seriousness of a hoarding problem. However, if the resident is adamant about not having photos taken, it’s best not to push the issue since the goal is to gain the resident’s cooperation in remedying the unit’s condition.

Whatever you find inside the unit, be sure to treat the resident with dignity and respect. That may be challenging if confronted with the telltale signs of hoarding: an accumulation of large amounts of clothing, papers, bags, newspapers, blocked exits, rotting food, signs of rodent or pest infestation, large numbers of animals, or human or animal waste. Unless you maintain a neutral, nonjudgmental demeanor, you could inadvertently make matters worse by exacerbating the resident’s distrust and resistance to change.

Here’s what you shouldn’t do: Take matters into your own hands to clear away the resident’s possessions. You might believe that you’re helping the resident to conquer a problem that she’s been promising to rectify for years, but that approach can backfire unless the resident gives you the authority to do so, warns F. Willis Caruso, Esq., Clinical Professor Emeritus of the John Marshall Law School Fair Housing Legal Support Center and Clinic.

Rule #3: Listen for Reasonable Accommodation Requests

When resident hoarding comes to light, follow your standard policies and procedures for addressing safety and health problems. Comply with notice requirements dictated by the lease and applicable law if conditions inside the unit are bad enough to rise to the level of a direct threat that can’t be eliminated or sufficiently mitigated by a reasonable accommodation.

Before taking legal action against a resident with a hoarding problem, determine whether the resident qualifies as an individual with a disability under fair housing law. Obvious signs of unsafe and unsanitary hoarding are usually enough to suggest that the resident has hoarding disorder—a recognized mental impairment. As a result, fair housing law may require you to grant a reasonable accommodation that would give the resident time to clean out the unit to preserve her residency.

Dover says it’s rare for residents with hoarding issues to specifically ask the owner or management for an accommodation. Nevertheless, you should listen for reasonable accommodation requests, which may be framed as something the resident “needs” or “wants” because of a disability. In hoarding cases, it may be a request from the resident, a family member, or an advocate to delay legal action against the resident to give him more time to clean out the unit.

In most cases, that’s enough to qualify as a reasonable accommodation request since the FHA doesn’t require that the request be made in a particular manner or at a particular time. According to federal guidelines, a resident or applicant makes a reasonable accommodation request whenever he makes it clear to the housing provider that he’s requesting an exception, change, or adjustment to a rule, policy, practice, or rule because of a disability.

Caruso emphasizes the need to train staff on how to respond to reasonable accommodation requests. It’s a good idea to have a standard form for detailing requests for reasonable accommodations, but you could get into trouble if the staff isn’t trained on how to use it. Training should also cover what to do with the request, including when to go up the chain of command when dealing with hoarding and other challenging issues, he says.

Rule #4: Evaluate Reasonable Accommodations to Remedy Hoarding Problems

Follow your community’s policies and procedures if a resident or someone on his behalf requests a reasonable accommodation to address hoarding problems within a unit. Depending on the seriousness of 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. Under HUD guidelines, an undue delay in responding to a request may be deemed a failure to provide a reasonable accommodation.

Fair housing advocates take the position that before trying to evict a resident whose mental disability is causing him to violate the terms of his lease or community rules, good faith efforts must be made to accommodate his disability even if he hasn’t specifically asked for an accommodation, according to Dover. This generally requires the resident be given opportunities to come into compliance so he can retain the residency.

Dover offers these examples of potential accommodations:

  • Meeting with the resident to identify health and safety issues that need to be addressed in the unit;
  • Establishing goals and timelines with the resident to address the health and safety issues;
  • Setting periodic dates for follow-up visits to the unit to monitor compliance;
  • Memorializing the goals, timelines, and re-inspections in a written agreement that the resident signs;
  • Providing the resident with a list of community resources that can assist persons with hoarding issues;
  • Working with a fair housing and/or mental health advocacy group or attorney assisting the resident to develop a plan to bring the unit into compliance;
  • Extending time for compliance with a legal notice that has been served or entering into a stipulation in an eviction that gives the resident a final opportunity to address the health and safety issues and retain the tenancy.

When dealing with a hoarding situation, the focus should only be on solving legitimate health and safety issues rather than on trying to achieve ideal housekeeping habits, says Dover. Even if the resident meets minimum health and safety standards, you should recognize that the unit may not meet your expectations of an “optimal condition.” It’s also important to realize that residents with hoarding issues may not recognize they have the problem (or the severity of the problem) or be equipped to resolve the hoarding problem on their own, she says.

If health and safety issues are initially resolved, you should be aware that, even with treatment, hoarding disorder has a high rate of recidivism, says Dover. This means that a resident with hoarding issues may “slip” and re-hoard again in the future. Therefore, any written agreement made with the resident should include language that provides for periodic unit “check-ins” to monitor ongoing compliance after the health and safety issues have been remedied and a specified time period for correction of any future health and safety issues.

Rule #5: Engage in an Interactive Process to Resolve Hoarding Problems

Even when a resident qualifies as an individual with a disability, a request for an extended period to clean the unit may be unreasonable if conditions inside pose immediate or serious health and safety risks.

Fair housing law doesn’t require communities to grant accommodation requests that are unreasonable. Dover says that accommodation may not be required, and termination of the tenancy may be possible, if:

  • The person is a clear, direct, and immediate threat to the health and safety of other residents or the property and there’s no accommodation that will eliminate or sufficiently mitigate the health and safety issues;
  • There are serious health and safety issues that can’t be mitigated through accommodation;
  • The resident has caused serious monetary damage to the unit and won’t reimburse the landlord for the cost to repair the unit; or
  • The resident won’t engage in the accommodation process or cooperate to bring the unit back into compliance.

Nevertheless, tread carefully before rejecting a requested accommodation on the grounds that it’s unreasonable. HUD says you should discuss with the resident whether there’s an alternative accommodation that would effectively address his disability-related needs without posing an undue burden on the community.

For example, you may work out a plan with time frames for resolving lease violations, but you may have to be flexible if the resident fails to remove enough belongings to remedy valid safety and health concerns. It may take multiple attempts, extended deadlines, or outside help to alleviate problems inside the unit. And you may have to be satisfied with less than “broom clean” conditions; if the resident remedies health and safety problems, it may be unreasonable to impose overly stringent standards.

To keep things on track, the plan should allow for periodic unit visits during the accommodation process—as often as once a month, if warranted. Hoarding is notoriously difficult to treat, and recurrences are common, so periodic unit visits to monitor compliance may help ward off future problems. But it’s important to make sure that the frequency of these visits isn’t overly intrusive. In most situations, the visits after the resident has remedied the unit shouldn’t be more frequent than quarterly at most. The agreement should also spell out consequences for failing to maintain the unit as agreed—for example, by giving you the right to serve a new legal notice or reinstate eviction proceedings if the resident doesn’t live up to her agreement to maintain the premises.

Rule #6: Proceed with Eviction if Interactive Process Fails

If the resident ignores warnings about lease violations or otherwise fails to address hoarding problems, you may initiate proceedings to recover possession of the unit. 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 photos, if available; descriptions; and witness testimony.

Even after legal proceedings have commenced, however, you should be prepared for an 11th-hour request to delay eviction proceedings to allow the resident more time to clean up the premises. Because people with hoarding disorder 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 residents whose hoarding behavior poses ongoing safety and health hazards to other residents. Fair housing law doesn’t protect anyone, with or without a disability, who poses a direct threat to the health and safety of others or whose behavior would result in substantial physical damage to the property of others, if the threat can’t be substantially reduced or eliminated with a reasonable accommodation.

To determine whether a resident with a hoarding problem poses a direct threat, the community 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, Dover says it’s a good idea to seek legal advice before taking any action to terminate a tenancy if hoarding issues may be involved. No two hoarding situations are alike, so each situation involving a resident with hoarding issues requires analysis based on the facts of the particular case. If not handled appropriately, it could result in a fair housing complaint being filed against you, the property, and the company, she warns.

Rule #7: Recognize that Residents May Get Multiple Chances to Remedy Hoarding Problems

Even when you’ve proven that the resident’s hoarding justifies eviction, you should be prepared for further delays under certain circumstances. No matter how patient you’ve been with efforts to address hoarding problems, the courts may be willing to put an eviction on hold to allow more time to remedy the situation.

Example: In November 2019, a court ruled that a New York cooperative community proved that hoarding conditions in a resident’s unit justified her eviction but put the matter on hold to give her guardian more time to clean it up or move her to another residence.

The resident was an elderly woman who had lived at the community for 10 years. In 2017, the landlord issued a termination notice and later initiated eviction proceedings because conditions in her unit amounted to a nuisance. The landlord claimed that the resident violated the lease by keeping her unit in poor condition by amassing clutter in the form of garbage, books, and newspapers, resulting in infestation, unreasonable odors, and an increased risk of fire.

Nearly a year later, a court appointed a guardian with authority to access her unit, arrange for a heavy-duty cleaning, and if necessary, remove the resident from the premises to complete the cleaning. The court later expanded the guardian’s authority to defend the resident in housing court proceedings and arrange for heavy-duty cleanings and home care services.

After multiple attempts to resolve the matter, the case went to trial in 2019. An employee of the management company testified that strong odors of urine and garbage continued to emanate from the resident’s unit as recently as the day before the hearing. Although a cleaning had occurred in 2018, the employee said that it alleviated the odors for only a few weeks.

A maintenance worker also testified that he was in the resident’s unit twice that year to inspect her air conditioning units. He said he observed piles of garbage, clothing, papers, and other debris that made navigating the unit difficult and that there were extreme odors of urine and feces. He produced photos, which showed garbage and clutter strewn throughout her unit.

The resident’s next-door neighbor also testified about pungent odors emanating from the resident’s unit and that he was concerned that the smell could cause health problems or diminish the value of his apartment.

The court ruled that the landlord proved that the resident breached the lease by maintaining a nuisance, which interfered with other residents’ use and enjoyment of their homes. It was clear that the resident’s failure to keep her unit free from clutter and in a sanitary condition over the course of at least two years represented a continuity and recurrence of objectionable conduct.

Although the landlord was entitled to final judgment of possession and warrant of eviction, the court had broad discretion to determine whether a resident with a disability should be given an opportunity to cure the condition or be allowed additional time to relocate. In this case, the court said that the resident, an elderly woman who had lived in the current unit for 10 years, would be likely to suffer extreme hardship if a stay weren’t granted. Furthermore, the guardian was making good faith efforts to secure a safe, affordable dwelling for the resident and that it was reasonable to afford the guardian more time to do so. In the meantime, the resident had allowed the landlord to have access to her unit and had cooperated with the guardian’s efforts to keep the unit clean and free of clutter.

The court granted a stay of execution for 90 days to allow the guardian time to sell her unit and relocate her to a suitable environment, or in the alternative, to allow the guardian an opportunity to cure the nuisance condition, without prejudice to seek a further stay upon the showing of good cause [140 W. End Ave. Owners Corp. v. Dinah L., New York, November 2019].

  • Fair Housing Act: 42 USC §3601 et seq.

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