Daniel asked about tenant hoarding
In a December publication, Daniel takes on this landlord's question regarding a hoarding tenant.
Q: I went to my tenant’s unit to do a necessary repair and I found an unusual amount of garbage in the unit. What is the legal definition of a hoarder? What are my next steps?
A: The dictionary definition of Hoarder -- a person who hoards things – certainly doesn’t provide much guidance to the question above. The more important inquiry is whether the tenant’s accumulation of garbage and personal possessions poses a health, safety and/or fire risk and/or whether the accumulation rises to the level of nuisance. Under California law, a tenant who engages in nuisance conduct typically, defined as, “anything which is injurious to health, including, but not limited to, the illegal sale of controlled substances, or is indecent or offensive to the senses, or an obstruction to the free use of property, so as to interfere with the comfortable enjoyment of life or property” (CC3479), may be subject to an eviction lawsuit.
The initial evaluation will be whether the accumulation of garbage in the unit is severe enough to rise to the level of nuisance, or whether it is a “housekeeping” issue. Many people have different threshold assessments for what is an unkept unit versus what is a unit that rises to the level of nuisance. I typically seek photographic documentation from the client to evaluate the significance of the problem. Having practiced for 25 years, I am particularly adept assessing whether the condition of the unit merits immediate action versus a letter housekeeping habits.
Upon review of the photographs, I am able to provide guidance on how to handle the situation. Thus, the first step of any owner who is concerned about the condition of a tenant’s unit is to photograph (if possible) the interior of the unit. Eyewitness evaluation is helpful, especially if there are multiple parties present for the inspection, but photographs are ideal.
If, after review of the photographs, I assess the condition as unsanitary and unreasonable but not “life threatening,” I might first suggest a written letter informing the tenant of the need to clean the unit and remove the excessive garbage from the premises. I always state a date for the premises to be cleaned by.
Once the date has passed, I direct my client to conduct a subsequent inspection of the premises, with photographs, if possible, taken again. If the place has been cleaned, the matter is over (for now). If the premises have not been satisfactorily cleaned and garbage removed, I will then seek authorization to raise the seriousness of the matter by serving a legal notice to clean the unit or face eviction. If, after proper service of the notice, the tenant still has failed to remedy the condition of the premises, an unlawful detainer action should be pursued.
On the other hand, if the initial photographs depict a serious life safety threat, for instance, a unit so full of garbage there is no easy egress from the unit (garbage and personal possessions stacked up to the ceiling), I may suggest the immediate service of a notice demanding compliance or an eviction would be filed. I act quickly in this situation as the risk of harm to the tenant and other building occupants demands focused attention. We are all familiar with the horrific situation where recently occurred in the Ghost Ship Fire where individuals lost their lives as a result of conditions existing within a property.
Please note that even if you are compelled to file an unlawful detainer action, this does not always result in recovering possession of the unit. Remember, “compulsive hoarding” also known as “hoarding disorder” is a mental health disability. In particular, it is a behavioral pattern characterized by excessive acquisition of and an inability or unwillingness to discard large quantities of objects that cover the living areas of the home and cause significant distress or impairment.
Often times when pursuing an eviction lawsuit against a tenant who has a unit filled with garbage, the tenant attorney will assert that the tenant has a diagnosed “disability” and is entitled to a “reasonable accommodation” for the disability. Typically, the request is that the landlord not pursue the removal of the tenant from the property but instead, provide the tenant more time to clean the unit. Upon receipt of a tenant’s claim of disability, a landlord with the guidance of counsel, must make a decision as to whether or not to proceed with recovery of possession of the unit, negotiate a settlement or seek some compromise to ensure that the landlord is not subject to a discrimination/fair housing claim.
In the end, an owner whose tenant is not keeping the unit clean typically must act to preserve the safety of the building and the safety of building occupants. Hopefully, the tenant is receptive to cleaning the unit, but if not, an unlawful detainer action should be pursued. However, the initial goal should be to secure a clean and safe living environment.
Always consult an attorney when evaluating how to handle these type of landlord/tenant matters.