July 29, 2022 • By Dennis Beaver
“Terry” was my first hoarder client. About 50 years old, he worked as a custodian at a high school in a small town not far from where I was living at the time.
He was a genuinely nice guy and proud of his collection of washing machines from the 1940s onward.
Now, “collectibles” to some people are pure junk to others and to Terry’s neighbors, his front and back yard, as well as the inside of his rented home had become a dangerous junkyard, complete with rats and other vermin that freely roamed the property.
The place was overflowing with, not just washing machines, but broken down cars, airplane parts, toilets, sinks, you name it.
In those years, he was known as a junkman. Today he would be called a hoarder.
He had received and ignored notices from his town’s code compliance officers to remove the items, and especially the things that made entry or exit from his home dangerous. With few window coverings, the home’s interior was visible, piled to the ceiling with “stuff.”
His wife and children were living in dangerous conditions that Terry did not acknowledge. With the assistance of code compliance, they and their landlord arranged for a meeting at my office to work out a clean-up plan with Terry – or he would face prosecution.
I was asked to drive him to my office. In reality — behind my back — during our lengthy afternoon meeting, Terry’s wife, with the enthusiastic approval of the landlord 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 from inside and outside the home. Anything of value was purchased by a scrap dealer.”
The crew did such a good job that when I drove Terry home, it took a few minutes before we could find his house!
I have to admit that it made me happy to see this crap gone and a bit of sanity restored to his family and the neighborhood. Terry got into therapy and did not repeat his hoarding behavior. He was lucky as there is a high relapse rate among hoarders.
But this was well before the psychology of hoarding became widely understood. Today, if the same things happened, some poor landlord – driven out of his mind by the insanity of having a hoarder as a tenant – could wind up being sued.
Seen as a mental illness – Landlords Must Protect Themselves
Once called “junkmen,” hoarders – who landlords and governmental officials agree pose major risks to the health and safety of not only themselves, but their families, neighbors and communities – are viewed as suffering from various forms of mental illness and are generally protected under the ADA, the Americans with Disabilities Act.
“This is why it is so important for landlords and property managers to have proper language in their rental agreements that covers these types of tenants and scenarios,” San Diego attorney Evan Walker points out.
“State law requires landlords to maintain habitable dwellings, and also requires tenants to keep their units clean and sanitary, disposing of garbage properly, avoiding excessive clutter and not damaging the property or using the premises in an improper way.
“So, when you are on notice that the tenant’s ‘stuff’ is blocking exits or doorways, interferes with ventilation or sprinkler systems, and attracts pests because of improper food storage – to list just a few – this could be a hazard for other tenants, and could be considered as a violation of the rental agreement and, likely, state law.
“At this stage, contact the tenant, point out what you have seen, and politely – but firmly – indicate that if the problem isn’t resolved, you may have to file an eviction suit. Be sure you can prove that you have brought these items to the tenant’s attention.”
Build your Case against the Hoarder
Pasadena property manager Jon Anthony Dolan says, “Document Everything!
“If the tenant will not respond appropriately and clean up the mess, you may have no choice but to evict them. So, begin preparing for the possibility now and document your correspondence with the tenant and keep detailed, chronological records. This means taking videos, photos, detailed notes which establish a record of the property’s condition. This material is critical to prove your case.”
Important: You are NOT evicting because they are a hoarder, but because of their behavior.
Dolan stressed the importance of understanding what you are NOT evicting them for – “You are not evicting them because they are a hoarder, because if you use that language, it is a violation of Fair Housing laws, since mental illness is a protected class.
“In addition to a possible violation of the rental agreement, often the hoarding behavior can be seen as a nuisance to other tenants if it substantially interferes with their use of the property. For example, filth that creates a pest infestation, and clutter in common areas can create accessibility issues for EMS personnel.”
Walker strongly recommends retaining experienced landlord-tenant counsel, “as hoarders are among the most difficult of tenants. They may be unlike any tenant you will ever have, and the risks of being sued for violating their rights are very real.”
Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.