The American Psychiatric Association (APA) has recently announced that compulsive hoarding is now considered a mental disability, and is therefore protected under the nation’s various disability related laws; this includes the fair housing laws under The Civil Rights Act of 1968 and various state and local fair housing laws. The effectively means that tenants with hoarding issues must now be considered eligible for reasonable accommodations under fair housing law, and automatic lease termination for such households is not permitted.
Mental health experts say that about 15 million Americans suffer from the mental health problem of hoarding. Some interesting facts about hoarders:
- They make up 2-5% of the population;
- Anyone can be a hoarder – men, women, and even children as young as 13;
- Elderly women are the most likely hoarders;
- Hoarders are not lazy, nasty or defiant;
- The behavior usually has occurred for a long time and there is no quick fix;
- Hoarders are usually very intelligent;
- Hoarders may have a mental disability and must be given the opportunity for a reasonable accommodation, even if they do not specifically request one;
- The accommodation may be in the form of more time to bring the dwelling unit up to code before termination of the lease agreement;
- Early intervention is the best plan; and
- Trying to solve the problem without the individual’s cooperation will usually make the problem worse.
Potential problems from hoarding include noxious odors, pest infestation, mold growth, increased risk of injury or disease, fire hazards, and even structural damage.
Clinical hoarding is defined as:
- The acquisition of, and failure to discard, a large number of possessions that appear to be useless or of limited value;
- Living spaces that are cluttered enough that they cannot be used for the purpose for which they were designed; and
- Significant distress or impairment in functioning caused by the hoarding.
This level of hoarding usually involves a mental impairment, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder or chronic depression. Many hoarders suffer from multiple issues, such as
- Major depression (53%);
- General anxiety disorders (24%);
- Social phobia (24%);
- Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder – ADHD (28%); or
- Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder – OCD (18%)
As owners and managers, we cannot ignore the many potential hazards from hoarding, including:
- Increased risk of fire
- Combustible materials, when ignited, create extremely hot, fast spreading fires;
- Escape routes may be blocked;
- Access to the unit by fire fighters may be blocked.
- Increased risk of structural damage
- Sagging floors and ceilings;
- Cracked floor joists or roof trusses;
- Compromised bearing walls; and
- In extreme cases, partial structural collapse.
- Increased risk of disease, injury, and infestation
- Lack of regular maintenance can result in the lack of running water, heat or refrigeration;
- Toilets or sinks may be unusable or inaccessible;
- Stacked items are a falling or tripping hazard, which can injure occupants, staff or public safety personnel; and
- Accumulated garbage can lead to rat and insect infestation.
Property staff should stay alert for signs of a hoarding problem. Once detected, do not put off investigation of the issue. Listen for and promptly respond to reasonable accommodation requests, and, in the case of hoarding, management should be proactive is seeking to assist the resident in resolving the issue. This is one area where waiting for the tenant to request assistance may not be the best approach. However, keep in mind that a landlord has no obligation to make an accommodation that a tenant actively resists.
The lease of a hoarding resident may be terminated if:
- The hoarding is a threat to the health and safety of others and the health and safety issues cannot be addressed through a reasonable accommodation; and/or
- The hoarding causes significant damage to a unit and the resident will not reimburse the landlord for the repairs.
It is also possible to terminate the lease if the tenant will not participate in any dialogue about the hoarding or will not cooperate with efforts to bring the tenant into compliance with lease requirements.
We are beginning to see court cases affirming that hoarders may be disabled, and are therefore entitled to consideration with regard to reasonable accommodations. One court decision from 2010 ruled that a Washington D.C. cooperative violated the Fair Housing Act by failing to accommodate a resident who hoarded due to severe mental disorders. The ruling indicated that the owner must make a concerted effort to provide a reasonable accommodation before termination of residency (Rutland Court Owners, Inc., v. Taylor, July 2010).
Owners and managers of multifamily properties must now develop procedures on how they will deal with potential hoarding issues. The key is to be proactive – have a plan on how to deal with the issue before it occurs.