“Hoarding:” Why It Matters and How to Deal With It
Psychiatrists diagnose a “hoarder” as someone who collects too much stuff and can’t get rid of it, which creates significant distress for the hoarder and causes health and safety risks for others. Apartment hoarders cram their units full to overflowing, often with only very narrow pathways – tunnels, most likely — to get to other rooms and facilities only by burrowing through the mountains of clutter.
Here’s a description of extreme hoarding: Living spaces are unusable; all the rooms are used for non-intended purposes; toilets, sinks and tubs are not functioning, and human urine and excrement are everywhere. The apartment may be severely damaged, with pervasive mold and/or mildew, moisture or standing water, and is typically heavily infested with insects, spiders, mice, rats, snakes, and other vermin. Any animals in the home are at risk and may be dangerous to people due to the animals’ behavior, ill health, and numbers.
Historically, landlords who discovered hoarding simply evicted these residents. That option is no longer available!
Here’s why hoarding matters. For fair housing purposes, hoarding is a disability! Hoarders, then, are protected against discrimination, entitled to the same benefits that all members of “protected classes” enjoy, which is what HUD calls “reasonable accommodations” in rules, policies, practices, or services “when such accommodations may be necessary to afford a person with a disability the equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling.” Consider this: experts tell us that perhaps five percent of American adults – 15 million of us – have the hoarding disorder, so odds are that one in 20 of your residents is a hoarder.
Here’s how to handle hoarding situations. Some experts claim that prospective landlords should identify hoarders by questioning previous landlords, employers, even friends and family members, and then denying potential hoarders identified by this prescreening campaign. I disagree: handicapped prospects have the legal right to lease apartments and thereafter seek the “reasonable accommodations” they’re entitled to; screening to identify, and then decline, disabled prospects violates their fair housing rights.
Here are some alternatives that I’ve personally used to resolve hoarding problems:
- Identify the problem. Conduct a routine inspection of every apartment, especially those units which residents try to make unavailable to you. There’s a difference between “collecting” and hoarding. One expert says that for the person whose collecting has become hoarding, possessions become unorganized piles of clutter that are so large that they prevent rooms from being used for normal activities. Another hoarding identifier is a chair or two, or perhaps all seating arrangements, that are too cluttered to be used, or there’s at least one room that cannot be used for its purpose.
- Initiate the resolution process. Hoarders are extremely unlikely to ask for an accommodation of their disability. It is the landlord or landlord’s agent who typically discovers the condition, often accidentally because of a neighbor’s complaint or a maintenance request that reveals the problem. The discovery of a hoarding situation is likely to be uncomfortable for the landlord’s agent, and terrifying for the hoarder-resident, whose compulsive and shameful behavior has been unmasked, laid bare. The initial tension in the room can feel like a shameful crisis intervention.
The initial meeting with the hoarder. The goal of this first interaction, however, is to establish a collaborative relationship between the landlord’s agent and the hoarder-resident to find a way to continue the residency by resolving the problem. An essential part of this meeting is to help the hoarder to understand the dangers that the existing conditions pose, not just to the hoarder, but also to the other residents and the physical plant itself. It’s been my experience that a sincere effort by the site staff to help, to partner with the hoarder, especially at this early stage, gradually diffuses the resident’s anxiety.
Goal-setting. The “extreme hoarding description” (above) is pretty typical of what we discover in the apartment management business. After the initial meeting, here’s a suggested step-by-step strategy for dealing with hoarders:
- After you’ve convinced your hoarder-resident that you and he/she will be partners in resolving the situation, explain, either in that initial meeting or soon after, what the process will be. Your joint goal is to correct the problem, so that the hoarding will stop and will not reoccur.
- The next step is to document the existing conditions in the apartment, by photographing every space where the hoarding exists. This documentation, a roadmap for what needs to be done, will facilitate a progressive, scheduled elimination of the hoarding.
- Next, explain that the hoarding cure will be a gradual process, a defined and segmented approach. Although the agreement between the agent and the resident can be only verbal, I’ve found that to avoid confusion or disagreement, it’s best to document the understanding, with your and the hoarder’s signatures at the end of the document.
You can use the photographs you’ve taken as templates, and refer to them specifically to design the remediation process. I suggest that you select a photograph of the most dangerous conditions, such as fire, falling, health, mold, and biohazards, and devise strategies to eliminate each, ranging from most to least dangerous.
I’ve found that local health departments, even in relatively small cities and counties, often have personnel who are expert in handling hoarding situations and are very willing to help. My experience is that representatives of these agencies can be excellent resources, not only to assist in remediating dangerous conditions but also relating sensitively with the hoarder.
When you Google “hoarding,” you’ll find ads for the popular, now discontinued television special “Hoarding: Buried Alive,” which helps the uninitiated to understand the disorder; clicking “hoarding + dangers” provides a list of potential outcomes from disregarding the problem; “hoarding + solutions” summarizes strategies for approaching the problem, and includes commercial resources that will assist in the cleanup for a fee.
Conclusion. As you encounter hoarding issues, which my experience tells me is inevitable, you’ll find the above Internet resources can assist you to understand the nature and seriousness of the problem, as well as alternative approaches to resolve the situation. You’ll learn that hoarding is a persistent issue with these residents and that you’ll need to conduct routine inspections to make sure the problem hasn’t reoccurred. Once you’ve exhausted your options and the problem isn’t resolved, you’ll have provided the necessary “reasonable accommodation” for the disability and you can proceed with eviction.