Tenant Hoarding and Fair Housing Issues

Tenant hoarding can affect the health and safety of the resident tenant, his neighboring tenants, and the landlord and his rental staff. Hoarding can create health and safety issues such as unsanitary living conditions, fire hazards, pest infestations, mold, plumbing failures, blocked entry/exit passages, trip and fall hazards, and potentially, structural damage to the rental unit.

Tenants with hoarding issues have fair housing protections afforded by applicable federal, state, and local fair housing laws. Hoarding is a recognized disability under the Fair Housing Act as Amended. The Fair Housing Amendments Act (FHAA) defines a person with a disability to include (1) individuals with a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities; (2) individuals who are regarded as having such an impairment; and (3) individuals with a record of such impairment. The diagnostic criteria of hoarding include:

  • Persistent difficulty discarding or parting with possessions regardless of actual value;
  • A perceived need to save items and distress associated with discarding them;
  • The accumulation of possessions that congest and clutter living areas and substantially compromises their intended use; and
  • Clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational or other important areas of functioning (including maintaining an environment safe for oneself and others).

Most often a hoarding situation is discovered by a landlord during a maintenance visit, scheduled property inspection or in response to resident complaints about a neighboring unit’s odors, pests, pets, or clutter outside the unit.

The tenant with a hoarding issue may not realize there is a problem, recognize the severity of the problem, or what is needed to remediate the problem. The items that the tenant is holding onto may be valuable, trash, or something in between. A hoarder has moved beyond being a collector; there is real difficulty in discarding any possession, whether of value or not. A hoarder is reluctant, usually fearful, of making a wrong decision in keeping or discarding items.

Hoarding is a serious concern for landlords regarding how best to approach the situation and to determine the appropriate and compliant solution to the problem. Each situation requires analysis based on the facts of the matter. Before taking action to terminate the tenancy of a hoarder tenant it is advisable that a landlord seek legal advice to determine how to proceed to avoid claims of fair housing discrimination.

Reasonable Accommodations under Fair Housing Law

Under the Fair Housing Act, a reasonable accommodation is a change, exception, or adjustment to a rule, policy, practice, or service that may be necessary to afford persons with disabilities an equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling, including public and common use areas. Each accommodation request should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. There must be an identifiable relationship, or nexus, between the request and the individual’s disability. A request may be denied if providing the accommodation is not reasonable – i.e., if it would impose an undue financial and administrative burden on the landlord or it would fundamentally alter the nature of the landlord’s operations.

A hoarder tenant has the right to request a reasonable accommodation from the landlord to modify the landlord’s rental policies to minimize or eliminate the threat of hoarding in order to cure his default and bring his lease into compliance.

Hoarders are often private persons and reluctant to engage with others. Rarely will a hoarder request a reasonable accommodation from the landlord. While, in general, housing providers are advised that a tenant should be the one to initiate a request for reasonable accommodation, in the case of hoarding, it may fall to the landlord to initiate a discussion with the tenant regarding a reasonable accommodation to remediate the problem. This is particularly important when the housing situation is unsanitary, dangerous, or the tenant lacks capacity or awareness that there is a problem.

A landlord is obligated to make good faith efforts to accommodate the tenant’s disability when the landlord knows or should have known that the tenant has a hoarding disability. Reasonable accommodation must be made prior to a landlord taking other measures such as termination of tenancy. The tenant must be allowed opportunity to cure the breach and remain in residence. Most often the reasonable accommodation is an extension of time for the tenant to restore the rental unit to habitability standards, building codes, and lease terms and conditions. The extension of time may also allow the tenant to work with appropriate agency and mental health services for counseling and support of a hoarding disability.

A reasonable accommodation plan to address the issue of hoarding behaviors is a plan of cooperation and collaboration between the landlord, tenant, family members, friends, mental health professionals, social workers, and other advocates to assist and support the tenant in efforts to achieve lease compliance and retain tenancy. The accommodation plan is a tool to hold the tenant accountable for compliance and serves to document the landlord’s good faith effort to accommodate the disability of the tenant.

The accommodation plan could include action steps such as:

  • Meeting with the tenant to identify health and safety issues in the unit;
  • Establishing goals and timelines with the tenant that will address the health and safety issues;
  • Setting specific dates or intervals for the re-inspection of the unit to monitor compliance;
  • Documenting the goals, timelines and re-inspections in a written agreement jointly signed by tenant and landlord;
  • Providing the tenant with information of community resources that provide assistance for hoarding issues;
  • Partnering with fair housing and mental health advocacy groups or other professional services who could assist the tenant in developing a workable remediation plan; and
  • Extending the timeframe for compliance to provide the tenant with opportunity to address the health and safety issues and retain the tenancy.

Hoarding disorders have a high rate of recidivism and landlords should be prepared that a tenant may re-hoard in the future. A reasonable accommodation could again be requested but may be denied if the circumstances present an unreasonable burden on the landlord. An accommodation plan of action agreed to by landlord and tenant should provide for periodic property inspections once the tenant has corrected the health and safety issues documented in the plan of action. The plan should include the contingency for specific timeframes for correction of any future health and safety issues identified during re-inspection.

It is possible a reasonable accommodation request could be denied on the grounds that an accommodation would not eliminate or adequately mitigate health and safety issues and that termination of tenancy should be done. The denial could be for situations wherein the tenant’s behavior poses a clear, direct, immediate threat to the health and safety of other residents, the landlord and rental staff, or service providers; the tenant’s behavior causes substantial property damage; or the tenant will not cooperate in the reasonable accommodation process to bring the unit into compliance.

Depending upon applicable laws, the facts of the matter, such as the material violations of the lease, the tenant’s degree of cooperation in remediation, or the failure of multiple efforts to cure the breach, it may be necessary to consult with legal counsel regarding termination of the lease and eviction of the tenant hoarder through court order.

Landlords should be prepared with a policy and practices regarding compliance procedures for handling a situation of tenant hoarding. Hoarding is a disability, protected by fair housing law, and when discovered, landlords are required to offer reasonable accommodations to residents with hoarding issues to remediate the problem. However, landlords are not required to tolerate dangerous conditions for residents, staff, or rental property. If the situation cannot be remedied by a reasonable accommodation, termination of tenancy may be the appropriate measure to be taken.


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