It happens daily. You do you an inspection of an apartment unit or rental property, or your maintenance technician is entering to change a filter for the furnace and what you find inside is beyond comprehension. Piles of trash, discarded food containers, newspapers, magazines, dirty dishes, dirty clothes, etc. Through the jungle of filth there are pathways cleared by the resident so they can travel to the bathroom, bedroom and kitchen. If you listen carefully, you might hear the scurrying of mice. If you look closely, you might see flies, gnats, maybe bed bugs. Then you say to yourself: “What do I do now?”
First, it is important to understand what hoarding is.
Hoarding is considered a mental disorder/illness. It is characterized by the persistent difficulty of discarding or parting with possessions, regardless of the value others may attribute to such possessions. Yes, I said mental disorder. Yes. That means that the Fair Housing Act can play a role when confronting a tenant that is a hoarder.
Second, you should be aware of the practical and legal concerns caused by hoarding.
Practical concerns caused by hoarding include:
- Fire hazard
- Pest infestation
- Items and odors that may interfere with the rights of other tenants or deter prospective tenants
- Property damage
- Safety hazard
Legal concerns caused by hoarding include:
- Violation of fire, building, or health codes/ordinances
- Time and cost of management or eviction
- Claims of housing or disability discrimination
- Liability for loss
Third, it is important to understand your legal options to address a hoarding situation.
If your State’s Landlord-Tenant Act has a statute that addresses noncompliance by the tenant with the terms of the lease, that should be your first option. Typically, those statutes require the tenant to cure any default/breach of the lease within a specified period of timed (e.g., 14 days) after receiving proper notice of the default (typically referred to as a Notice of Noncompliance). If the tenant cleans up their apartment unit/rental property within the required time period, they get to stay. If they don’t, you can proceed to evict them as allowed under the statute. When using this option, it is important to state on the Notice of Noncompliance the lease terms and/or rules regarding property storage/keeping the premises clean. It is also important to inform the tenant of any federal, state and local laws and ordinances that they violated, it supports your reason to serve the tenant.
Fourth, you need to be aware of the protections provided by the Fair Housing Act to tenants suffering from a hoarding disorder.
The Fair Housing Act makes it unlawful to discriminate in the rental, or to otherwise make unavailable or deny, a dwelling to any renter because of a handicap or to discriminate against any person in the terms, conditions, or privileges of rental of a dwelling, or in the provision of services or facilities in connection with such dwelling because of a handicap. Discrimination includes a refusal to make reasonable accommodations in rules, policies, practices, or services, when such accommodations may be necessary to afford such person equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling.
When you are seeking to evict a tenant for hoarding and the tenant requests an accommodation to your rules or policies regarding his/her failure to keep their apartment unit/rental property clean, the following are some helpful tips:
- Offer as a “reasonable accommodation” a written plan to de-clutter the apartment unit/rental property in a reasonable time frame and have the tenant sign the written plan.
- Break the plan it into manageable pieces, e.g., access ways first by a certain date; kitchen and bathrooms next by a certain date; etc.
- In the plan mention state and municipal code violations at issue
- Document legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons for the tenant’s noncompliance with the rules or policies (e.g., pictures, complaints from other tenants, etc.)
- Keep detailed records of accommodations, time and costs.
- DO NOT RUSH TO EVICT
Finally, there are proactive steps you can take to defend against a Fair Housing complaint when enforcing rules and policies against a tenant that is a hoarder.
These steps include:
- Have a strong written lease that (1) provides for routine inspections with prior consent; (2) requires compliance with all federal, state, and local laws and ordinances; (3) defines potential outcomes of hoarding as lease violations. The NAA Leaseis a excellent example of a strong written lease and in my opinion is the Gold standard in the industry.
- Document the delivery of written rules and policies regarding property storage.
- Base the rules and policies regarding property storage on local codes (fire, building, electrical, etc.) and property insurance requirements.
If you ever have any questions or need assistance on how to handle a tenant that you believe is a hoarder contact our attorneys at Goosmann Law Firm.