HANDLING TENANT HOARDING
Hoarding is a vexing problem for landlords and property managers. This challenging subject should be addressed with compassion and a sound understanding of the law.
By Bornstein Law
FEBRUARY 5, 2018
A report on the impacts of compulsive hoarding and cluttering, with compassionate and expert recommendations.
We commend the San Francisco Task Force on Compulsive Hoarding for taking on an important issue that takes a toll on people who hoard, their family and friends, as well as neighbors and numerous public and private health and safety departments and agencies.
Those of you in the rental housing industry should respond to this illness with compassion and make every effort to elicit the help of professionals and exhaust all available outlets to rectify the situation.
We remind landlords that hoarding behavior may trigger federal and state disability laws, and tenants' attorneys will likely ask for a "reasonable accommodation" in an unlawful detainer action.
To get a 360-degree view of this condition, download the report.
Maintaining the rental unit is a dual responsibility.
Clearly, landlords have numerous responsibilities to provide a safe, sanitary and secure dwelling. Furnishing adequate and safe heating, effective weatherproofing, plumbing and gas facilities, maintained stairs and common areas, and vermin-free common areas encompass some of these many obligations. The owner’s duty to provide a habitable dwelling is known as the warranty of habitability and is implied in every residential lease agreement throughout California. Yet tenants have responsibilities of their own.
California Civil Code § 1941.2 requires tenants to keep their units “clean and sanitary”, including disposing of garbage properly, cleaning their plumbing and utility fixtures, and not otherwise damaging the property or using the premises in an unintended way.
When the tenant goes beyond clutter and disorganization and blocks emergency exits or doorways, interferes with ventilation or sprinkler systems, attracts pests through improper food storage and the like, it creates a hazard for others and thus, is normally a violation of the lease.
While we have always urged rental property owners to communicate frankly with tenants at the first sign of violations, there is a greater urgency to address hoarding issues openly and early, given the collateral damages that can spill over to other units.
At Bornstein Law, our hard-won experience has shown us that many landlords are conflict avoiders and would rather kick the dispute down the road in hopes that the conflict will somehow resolve itself. We strongly dissuade our clients against this wishful thinking.
If you identify hoarding behavior, you should kindly inform your tenant of their statutory obligation to keep the unit clean, sanitary, and free from clutter.
Your lease may also include similar language and should be mentioned as a reminder to accentuate the tenant’s responsibilities. If your lease has no such language, perhaps it’s time to review your documentation to ensure it is up to date.
Of course, many landlords and property managers find that enforcement of the tenant’s statutory and contractual duties are challenging.
TWO PERCENT TO 5% OF AMERICANS MAY MEET THE CRITERIA FOR BEING HOARDERS
~ David Tolin, PhD, a hoarding specialist and author of Burried in Treasures
When hoarding behavior is discovered, documentation is key – the more photos, videos, or notes, the better for your case in the eventuality of litigation.
Since the hoarder can easily become a subject of sympathy, it is prudent for the landlord to exhaust all available services and remedies before enlarging the seriousness of the situation. When it comes time for Bornstein Law to advocate for your case, the narrative we want to recount is that the property owner took proactive but compassionate steps to address the behavior, doing everything reasonably possible.
In a perfect world, the hoarding tenant will turn over a new leaf, but when the hoarding continues, your remedy is generally an eviction, which may be based on the tenant’s breach of a term in the lease, or a nuisance. This is best approached with the guidance of an attorney, as there may be multiple grounds for eviction.
Generally speaking, it is not helpful to judge the tenant, but focus instead on the legitimate health and safety concerns the hoarding is causing.
Hoarding can present a fire hazard. Flammable objects, obstructed electrical sources, chemicals, and other hazards could put a home at risk for a flaming end. Additionally, hoarding tenants can be injured when they trip over things or when materials fall on them. Responding firefighters can be put at risk due to obstructed exits, falling objects, and excessive fire loading that can lead to collapse.
While you can’t evict the tenant for hoarding per se, you can proceed for other reasons.
REASONS TO EVICT
- Direct damage to the property
- Blocking emergency exits
- Interfering with ventilation or sprinkler systems
- Storing potentially explosive or other unsafe materials
- Keeping perishable goods in a manner that could attract mold or rodents
- Housing animals in a way that violates the law or lease agreement
Mental illness adds a new dimension to the hoarding behavior.
Bay Area property owners have long dealt with pack rats that have a lot of stuff, or tenants that get careless or clumsy sometimes – the problem is nothing new. But popularized TV shows like Hoarders and other media attention has put more severe hoarding in the spotlight.
This has paved the way for the American Psychiatric Association to classify hoarding as a documented mental illness, thereby catapulting those with hoarding disorder to a protected class.
With hoarding now officially considered a mental disorder, landlords and property managers must handle its occurrence in their buildings with sensitivity and extra caution. Given the shocking conditions and squalor associated with hoarding, eviction proceedings are sure to be a breeze, right? To the contrary, Fair Housing laws muddle the case.
Since hoarding can rise to the level of a disability, its instance can trigger protections under fair housing laws.
A very common reaction to an unlawful detainer action we see at Bornstein Law is the tenant’s attorney requesting a “reasonable” accommodation because the tenant alleges protections under Federal and State disability laws.
This demands that landlords and property managers exhaust all available services and outlets to rectify the hoarding situation.
Eliciting the help of Adult Protective Agencies and mental health professionals is a good start that would paint the picture that the landlord or property manager made a good faith effort to correct the behavior of a vulnerable individual.
We were retained in a hoarding case that did not resolve itself after the rental property owner’s good-faith attempts to correct the behavior. We served a 10-Day Notice to Cure or Quit. The Notice alleged the tenant “failed to maintain the premises in a clean and sanitary condition” and that the client had “such an accumulation of clutter that ingress and egress is impossible in the event of emergency.” Of chief concern was access to the heating system.
In turn, our office received notification from the tenant’s attorney that cited the hoarding disability. The tenant’s counsel asked us to stay the unlawful detainer to buy more time. The gentleman needed more time to remove excessive possessions from his home and allow Adult Protective Services to work with him in bringing his rental unit up to compliance.
The eviction was paused, and we are negotiating a settlement whereby the tenant promised to correct the behavior and barring that, the eviction would resume on the grounds of violating the settlement agreement.