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The Intersection of Hoarding Disorders and Tenancy Laws: Rights and Responsibilities of Landlords

— May 21, 2024

Provide your tenant with resources that will help them obtain a new place, like Fair Housing options or other low-rent listings. While the fact that the issue has escalated to this point is regrettable, you can still provide much-needed support in this step.

You’re a landlord. Your property is an investment; one that costs a small fortune up-front, either to purchase outright or in pre-market repairs. And frankly, with no shortage of respectful, responsible tenants currently looking for a place to call theirs, you should have no problem making that investment back in an ideal world. 

But what happens if you get a tenant who you know is kind, who pays their rent on time, never has issues with their neighbors, and generally upkeeps the house well, who is also a hoarder? 

As this is a disorder that affects a significant portion of the population, it’s not unlikely that you’ll encounter a well-meaning hoarder as long as you’re in the property market. If you’re struggling with what to do, you’re in the right place: we’ll walk you through how to approach the issue of hoarding with empathy, kindness, and grace, teaching you how to deal with hoarders’ impact during and after their tenancy. 

Hoarding Explained

Firstly, it’s important to understand that while hoarding is commonly treated as being synonymous with poor housekeeping, research shows us that is not the case.

Poor housekeeping is an intentional, willful choice to let property fall apart; hoarding (HD) is a mental disorder, one that requires a practical but compassionate approach. Its primary symptoms are:

  • A deep struggle to let go of anything, even if said possession no longer has objective or personal value.
  • Extreme distress associated with not saving things or discarding them.
  • High accumulation of objects that may make living/communal spaces unsafe.
  • An inability to remove objects without a third-party intervening.

Hoarding disorder thus poses unique challenges for landlords and tenants. If left untreated, tenants might not be aware of what they’re doing; and you can’t address an issue you don’t know exists. However, on the landlord side, hoarding can cause very real damage to property, and make it unsafe for repair technicians to navigate the house. Landlords have even tried, in the past, to evict tenants for hoarding to little avail. 

Obviously, that isn’t the most compassionate approach; and as providers of housing, landlords should take every opportunity to meet their tenants where they are. You aren’t a doctor, of course, but there are still ways you can provide compassionate support to hoarding tenants. 

Best Practices for Dealing With Hoarding

The first step in dealing with a hoarding tenant is to take a conversational approach. If you notice a tenant beginning to engage in hoarding behaviors, set aside some time to sit down and talk with them. Explain how those behaviors can cause unintentional property damage, and ask the following:

  • It’s a lot of work, I understand; is there any way we can break this up into smaller chunks?
  • Do you have a support network you can call on when things get rough?
  • Do you see how the way things currently are can be dangerous? For visitors, repair technicians, etc?

Tone is extremely important to ensuring your tenant will be receptive to these inquiries. You want them to answer for two reasons: one, their answers will indicate how aware they are of their disorder, and two, they will give you an idea of their existing support system. With a firm grasp of their situation, you can then offer aid, partnering with them to help keep your property clean in whatever way you see appropriate. 

  • If they haven’t been diagnosed and aren’t averse to the idea, consider leaning on social services for a low-cost mental health screening. 
  • You can offer to hire cleaners when they are out of the house or ask them to see if their support system wouldn’t mind coming by for a cleaning day.
  • You can ask them what steps they take to remain organized and provide alternative solutions that will decrease clutter.

The particulars of that conversation will likely vary from tenant to tenant. Don’t push; but if you need to convince them that this is a serious issue, do inspect the house for common issues like hidden leaks, mold buildup, or insect infestations. For example, if you notice any strange, unidentifiable musty smells, any unusually damp areas, or discoloration of walls or ceiling tiles, you may have a hidden leak; make a formal note of it and show the tenant the area.

Compulsive hoarding Apartment. Photo by Grap, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 3.0

We’re doing this for two reasons: one, the sooner those issues are identified, the easier they’ll be to clean up, and two, they establish a record of property damage caused by the issue. The latter is useful for making your case to the tenant that something needs to change; and if necessary, will help your case later if you need to evict. 

Reasonable Accommodation – and When to Evict

If your tenant is receptive to what you’re putting forth, you’re in the clear; once the issue is properly recognized and begins to be treated, tenants usually put their best foot forward to ensure your property is kept up. 

However, if they aren’t, then the eviction discussion may need to happen. If your tenant either refuses to accept that hoarding is a problem, or refuses to do anything about it once they know, you may have a case to evict. As harsh as it is for all parties involved, you have to protect your investment; and at a certain point, there’s nothing else left to do.

Even at that point, however, you can choose to be compassionate. Provide your tenant with resources that will help them obtain a new place, like Fair Housing options or other low-rent listings. While the fact that the issue has escalated to this point is regrettable, you can still provide much-needed support in this step.

You can protect both your property and the people living in it; and you can do it with practicality, expedience, and tact. All you need to do is remember to put yourself in their shoes.

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