Landlords and homeowners associations have long been concerned with health and safety conditions. So what can they do when a tenant or owner is discovered to be a hoarder?
Hoarding has been defined as including three main characteristics:”(1) the acquisition of, and failure to discard a large number of possessions that appear to be useless or of limited value; (2) living spaces sufficiently cluttered so as to preclude activities for which those spaces were designed; and (3) significant distress or impairment in functioning caused by the hoarding.” This definition distinguished hoarding from the collecting of objects generally considered interesting and valuable. Frost and Hartl (1996). When the clutter includes excessive numbers of pets without keeping up with cleaning, pest infestations or inability to properly use kitchens or bathrooms, hoarding becomes a health issue. When the clutter reaches the point that hallways and exits are blocked, hoarding becomes a safety issue.
In May 2013, the American Psychiatric Association declared hoarding a mental disability. This strengthened the protection for hoarders under the federal Fair Housing Act. Thus, landlords and homeowners associations must tread delicately when addressing hoarding rather than jumping directly to eviction or assessments. While the hoarder has the legal obligation to request reasonable accommodation, as many hoarders are secretive about or do not recognize their compulsion, the landlord or homeowners association is encouraged to initiate the discussion of accommodation. The primary accommodation is a written plan for clean-up with specified reasonable time lines, which the landlord or homeowners association monitors in writing for compliance. The plan should include future monitoring after the initial clean-up, as hoarders are likely to return to the hoarding behaviors, and may also include the requirement for counseling. Having the hoarder responsible for his or her own clean-up can result in significant savings for the landlord or association, who otherwise would need to engage HazMat (hazardous materials) teams to clean, as well as the landlord’s costs of eviction and securing a new tenant or the associations costs for assessment and collections.
Despite the recognition of hoarding as a mental disability, Houston City Council passed an ordinance in April 2014, making hoarding illegal in an apartment, townhouse or condominium. The concept is the initial report that will allow the City to make a welfare check and fine the hoarder per day until clean-up. Thus the ordinance transfers the responsibility for rectifying the resulting health and safety concerns to the government. It will only be a matter of time until this law is challenged on the basis of criminalizing a disability. If the challenge is successful the obligation to deal with the hoarding will remain with the landlords and homeowners associations.