PHOTO: Peter Arkle

Kathy Belville could go on for days about the hoarding stories she’s heard over the years.

And not much surprises her. As partner at the San Diego-based branch of law firm Kimball, Tirey, and St. John, her office averages about three calls a day from owners asking what to do when faced with a hoarding tenant.

Owners have long dealt with "pack rats"; from overflowing boxes to the sheer volume of weight pressing down on a floor, the problem is nothing new. But after its recent attention in the media via TV shows like Hoarders, and after becoming a mental disorder in May by the American Psychiatric Association – thereby becoming a protected class – hoarding is a trending topic.

Operators can easily teeter on the lines of a fair housing violation if they don’t handle the problem correctly.

“It’s something that we need to be a little bit more aware of,” Belville says. “It became much more clear to the general public when they started having television programs about it, when people could actually see what it’s like and how it affects someone’s life. So they can understand why a landlord has a problem [with the lifestyle].”

Kimball, Tirey, and St. John handles the largest amount of defense cases throughout California, and disability filings alone make up about 40 percent of the state’s fair housing complaints. But the cases could be avoided, so long as property managers are delicate in how they approach the situation.

“Our goal is not to have those cases,” Belville says. “Our goal is to resolve them earlier so our clients don’t end up being sued by a fair housing agency.”

Unit Recognition
Recognizing a hoarder can happen either during their tenancy, or once the resident moves out. There’s not much that a manager can do in being proactive to prevent it, but early recognition will help alleviate long-term issues.

“When [property managers] become aware of a problem, what they can do is try to avoid there being damage or further accumulation of [items],” Belville says.

Evan Knupp, partner at Milwaukee, Wi.-based law firm Roney and Knupp, has dealt with more than one instance of evicting a hoarding tenant, and the signs are all the same. In one case, the hoarding came to his client’s attention when extermination was attempted in the unit, but the exterminators could not do their job because there was so much stuff in their way. In most cases, though, not being allowed in the unit in the first place is a tell-tale sign that something is amiss.

“If you have a sudden bug infestation or rodent problem in a building, or perhaps if there’s a unit that you’re never able to get into because [the resident] refused access, I would pay attention to those key indicators,” says Shailene Casio-Smith, vice president of business development at Austin-based FirstService Residential Realty (FSRR).

But unless a landlord is already aware of the health and safety issue that exists in the unit, they don’t have power to force entry. Tenants should be given prior notice before a landlord does repairs or enters their unit; only if there is an emergency can owners take the legal route or call the cops to get access.

“If there’s water pouring out of an upstairs unit and the downstairs tenant won’t let you in, that’s an emergency,” Belville says.

Once the problem is discovered, landlords can ask tenants to clean up and follow up with an inspection, with proper notice. Knupp suggests planning ahead with placing actionable items in an up-to-date lease to make sure tenants keep a reasonably tidy unit that poses no fire hazard or safety threats.

“The tough thing in Wisconsin is, if you can’t evict someone based on non-payment of rent, you really need to have a provision in the lease that they’re violating,” Knupp says. “It needs to be such a substantial violation that it warrants an eviction.”

Jumping to an eviction is where things get tricky, though.

Reasonable Accommodation
By claiming the disability, a tenant is asking for reasonable accommodations from their community, but it has to be reasonable under the given circumstances. That reasonability is gauged by the courts on whether or not the accommodation burdens the landlords.

“Now the trend with fair housing advocates is to say that a landlord could be responsible to accommodate if they knew or should have known that the person was disabled and in need of an accommodation,” Belville says.

So while you can’t give a tenant a three-day notice to move out once you discover their hoarding tendencies, depending on the state, it’s necessary to help them in their efforts to bring the condition of their unit up to proper safety. That can be as simple as allowing them to take the necessary steps to get help, and giving them a timeline to come up to compliance with reasonable rules. Their disability will generally allow them more clean-up time after the owner’s request.

It’s when the resident don’t bring the unit up to compliance, however, or refuses to, that the owner has more leverage to evict after documenting all communication and evidence that they’ve worked with the tenant to no avail.

“It is disruptive to their neighbors and they’re violating their lease in regards to keeping their unit habitable,” Smith says.

The timeline for compliance varies based on the severity in the situation. One of Belville’s recent clients in California, for instance, was concerned about a stack of paper found in and around a gas wall heater. Upon removing the paper and cleaning the area during a follow-up inspection, the tenant let the owner know that they would just continue to put more paper in the spot once they left, creating a fire hazard.

“So we had to give them a notice,” Belville says. “[Reasonable accommodation] relies upon some level of cooperation.”

Quick Clean Up
After an eviction, the clean-up of a unit that housed a hoarder can be time consuming, depending on the degree of the issue.

Most units require a full paint job, full carpet cleaning or replacement, and a professional removal of everything from the apartment. More serious cases require cleaning beyond the surface areas–vents need to be cleaned for air quality, and the unit needs the services of an exterminator. The landlord also has the right to bill them for the cost of clean-up and damages, if it’s already outlined in the lease agreement.

With good planning, though, cleaning up a unit after dealing with a hoarder won’t take up too much time.

“[Turnover] would only extend it by a day or so depending on your vendors and resources, how quickly they’re able to schedule you,” Smith says.

Operators should also continue to be alert with new tenants in making sure their unit stays habitable.

“The landlord can’t be the ‘house beautiful’ police making everything great,” Belville says. “But when there are health and safety issues, the landlord has a responsibility to other residents … to try and resolve those issues.”

-Linsey Isaacs is an assistant editor with Multifamily Executive magazine. Follow her on twitter @LinseyI  to continue this conversation.