What to do when your tenant is a hoarder?

“Terry” was my first hoarder customer. He was in his 50s and worked as a caretaker at a high school in a small town not far from where I lived at the time.

He was a really nice guy and proud of his collection of washing machines from the 1940s.

Now, “collectibles” to some people are pure junk to others. For Terry’s neighbors, his front and backyard, as well as the inside of his rented home had become a dangerous dump, with rats and other vermin roaming the property freely.

The place was not only overflowing with washing machines, but also broken down cars, airplane parts, toilets, sinks, etc. During these years he was known as a garbage collector. Today it would be called a hoarder.

He had received and ignored notices from his city’s code compliance officers to remove items, and especially things that made entering or leaving his home unsafe. With few window coverings, the interior of the house was visible, stacked on the ceiling with “stuff”.

His wife and children lived in dangerous conditions that Terry did not acknowledge. With help from code compliance, they and their landlord set up a meeting at my office to work out a cleanup plan with Terry – or he would face lawsuits.

I was asked to drive Terry to my office. In fact, behind my back, during our long afternoon meeting, Terry’s wife – with the landlord’s enthusiastic approval – had embarked on something like an intervention. Later she told me, “I hired a disaster restoration company and told them to remove every last piece of junk inside and outside the house. Anything of value has been purchased by a junkyard.

The team did such a good job that when I got Terry home, it took us a few minutes before we could find his house!

I have to admit, it made me happy to see that shit go away and some sanity restored to his family and the neighborhood. Terry went to therapy and did not repeat his hoarding behavior. He was lucky because there is a high relapse rate among hoarders.

But that was long before the psychology of hoarding was widely understood. Today, if the same things happened, a poor landlord – driven mad by the madness of having a hoarder as a tenant – could end up being sued.

Hoarding is protected as a mental illness

Formerly called “junkmen”, hoarders – whose owners and officials agree pose major risks to their health and safety, as well as that of their families, neighbors and communities – are considered to suffer from various forms of mental illness. This means that hoarders are generally protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“That’s why it’s so important for landlords and property managers to have appropriate language in their tenancy agreements that covers these types of tenants and scenarios,” points out San Diego attorney Evan Walker.

Rent Pro, based in Lancaster, NY, recommends that landlords consider adding what’s called a housekeeping addendum to their rental leases in states where it’s permitted. The addendum outlines the standards tenants must adhere to, including stipulations such as:

  • Floors should be clean, clear and free of any hazards that could cause tripping and falling.
  • Waste should be disposed of properly and not left in the unit.
  • The entire rental unit must be free of anything that contributes to rodent or insect infestation.
  • The kitchen should be free of spoiled food and grease. Appliances should be kept clean.
  • Passageways leading to the front and rear doors should be clear of furniture, appliances and debris.
  • Front and back yards must be free of debris, trash, old furniture and appliances.
  • Porches should be free of living room type furniture.
  • The car park/parking space must be free of grease and oil. Inoperative automobiles must be removed. No auto repairs are permitted on the premises.

Violation of these conditions will result in the eviction of the tenant.

“State law requires landlords to maintain habitable dwellings, and also requires tenants to maintain their dwellings clean and sanitary, properly disposing of trash, avoiding excessive clutter, and not damaging property. or using the premises inappropriately.” says Walker. “So when you’re warned that the tenant’s ‘stuff’ is blocking exits or doors, interfering with ventilation or sprinkler systems, and attracting pests due to improper food storage – to name a few a few – it could be a danger to other renters, and could be considered a violation of the rental agreement and, possibly, state law.

“At this point, contact the tenant, report what you saw and politely – but firmly – indicate that if the issue is not resolved, you may need to file an eviction suit. Make sure you can prove that you brought these items to the tenant’s attention.

How to pit your case against a hoarder

Pasadena, Calif., property manager Jon Anthony Dolan says, “Document everything! If the tenant doesn’t respond appropriately and clean up the mess, you may have no choice but to evict them. So start preparing now for this eventuality and document your correspondence with the tenant and keep detailed and chronological records. This means taking videos, photos, detailed notes that establish an inventory of the property. This material is essential to prove your case.

You must be able to prove that notice to remedy the tenant’s default was provided. Do this with a certified letter or with a letter delivered by hand to the tenant, and if no one shows up at the door, have it posted on the front door, with photos taken. It is important to follow your state’s rules for process service just to be sure you can establish giving the tenant every opportunity to remedy the violation.

Important: You are NOT expelled for being a hoarder!

Dolan stressed the importance of understanding why you are NOT kicking them out. “You are not evicting them because they are hoarders because if you use that language it is a violation of fair housing laws because mental illness is a protected class.

“In addition to a possible breach of the rental agreement, hoarding behavior can often be considered a nuisance to other tenants if it significantly interferes with their use of the property. For example, dirt that creates pest infestation and clutter in common areas can create accessibility issues for EMS personnel.

Walker strongly recommends retaining the services of an experienced landlord-tenant lawyer, “because hoarders are some of the toughest tenants. They may be unlike any tenant you will ever have, and the risks of being sued for violation of their rights are very real.

Lawyer at the bar, author of “You and the Law”

After attending law school at Loyola University, H. Dennis Beaver joined the Kern County District Attorney’s Office in California, where he established a consumer fraud section. He is into the general practice of law and writes a column in a syndicated newspaper, “You and the Law”. Through his column, he offers free help to readers who need down-to-earth advice. “I know it sounds corny, but I love being able to use my education and experience to help, just to help. When a reader contacts me, it’s a gift.”

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