Masters of Disaster

House and Hoard

written by Susan K. Breed

When a hoarder’s clutter creates unsanitary and unsafe conditions, property owners are legally obligated to intervene.

Hoarding is a mental illness that affects between 5 million and 14 million Americans. While that number may seem relatively small considering the country’s population, it affects a surprisingly large number of landlords. Hoarding is not merely a failure to keep a tidy home or to promptly throw away items others would perceive as not only without value, but simply as trash. The Mayo Clinic defines “Hoarding Disorder” as “a persistent difficulty discarding or parting with possessions because of a perceived need to save them. A person with hoarding disorder experiences distress at the thought of getting rid of the items. Excessive accumulation of items, regardless of actual value, occurs.” For this reason, landlords must approach a hoarding tenant with the understanding that simply discussing the condition of the tenant’s unit or requesting that any dangerous or offensive conditions be removed will, most likely, fail. It is most often the case that hoarders cannot control their impulses to collect items, which may include anything but often consist of clothing, papers, furniture, trash, and even pets.

Not all hoarding tenants pose a hazard. The apartments of tenants with the least severe form of hoarding may only have a minimal amount of clutter, no noticeable odors, and access to all doors and windows. Contrast that with the most serious type of hoarding, which may cause a rental unit to have severe structural damage, broken walls, fire hazards, mold and mildew, odors, visible rodents, clutter filling bathrooms and kitchen, blocked electrical outlets, noticeable human feces, more than one blocked exit, lice or bedbugs, and rotting food on surfaces and/or inside a non-working refrigerator. This list is far from exhaustive, but it illustrates the types of damage to a rental unit and the building that may occur as a result of hoarding. This article will only address the types of hoarding that may require landlord intervention.

A landlord’s first obligation is to operate the property in a manner that meets all health and safety requirements, and failure to do so can lead to liability to other tenants. If clutter and debris has been allowed to remain for long periods of time in the hoarder’s unit, offensive odors may be detectable in the common areas of the property and pests may be attracted to rotting food, which could then infest other tenant’s units. In addition, the hoarder’s clutter may block common emergency exits. To be in compliance with the Implied Warranty of Habitability, a landlord must at all times maintain his or her legal obligation to provide tenants with livable premises. In fact, California law demands that landlords ensure that the building, grounds, and all areas of the landlord’s control, kept in every part clean, sanitary, and free from all accumulations of debris, filth, rubbish, garbage, rodents, and vermin. By permitting the hoarder to negatively affect the health and safety of your other tenants, you may be liable to them for the loss of use of their unit or other damages. As such, it is essential that the landlord take action with respect to the hoarding tenant.

When facing any issue with a tenant, the first step is to look at the lease to determine whether the tenant is violating any lease provisions, such as by directly damaging the property, blocking emergency exits, interfering with ventilation or sprinkler systems, storing potentially explosive materials, keeping perishable goods in a manner that could attract mold or rodents, or housing animals in violation of law. Again, this list is not exhaustive, and other lease violations may exist that constitute a breach of the tenant’s lease obligations.

If there is no written lease, a landlord has other options to deal with a hoarding tenant. First the landlord must determine whether the unit is in compliance with all health, safety, fire, building and other ordinances. Failure to do so can expose a tenant to the risk of eviction. Just as the landlord is obligated to obey the Implied Warranty of Habitability, California Civil Code §1941.2 requires tenants to keep their units “clean and sanitary,” which includes properly disposing of garbage, rubbish and waste in a clean and sanitary manner, and cleaning their plumbing and utility fixtures, not otherwise damaging the property or using the premises in an unintended way. Failure to abide by this law can constitute a lawful ground for eviction.

A landlord may learn of a potential hoarding problem in a variety of ways, like a landlord’s inspection of the unit or the report of another tenant. It is important to remember the difference between an untidy tenant and a hoarder. While a landlord may not like the manner in which a unit is kept, he or she cannot take action if the tenant is in compliance with his or her lease and applicable laws.

Once the landlord determines that the building and/or other tenants are negatively affected by the hoarding, the first step is to notify the hoarding tenant of issues concerning his or her unit and seek an inspection. If no legal entry upon 24 hours prior notice is permitted—pursuant to California Civil Code §1954 (that is, there is no basis to claim a right to enter for an emergency, for the purpose of necessary or agreed upon repairs, decorations, alterations or improvements, to supply necessary or agreed services, or exhibit the dwelling unit to prospective or actual purchasers, mortgagees, tenants, workers, or contractors or to make an inspection in connection with the refund of a tenant’s security deposit)—and the tenant will not consent to a landlord inspection, the landlord may be best served by calling the San Francisco Fire Inspector, DBI, or other appropriate governmental authority to report a dangerous condition in the unit. A tenant’s failure to permit a governmental agent access to the unit may, in and of itself, constitute grounds for eviction.

It is absolutely essential that you keep all documents related to the condition of the hoarding tenant’s unit, including texts or emails with the tenant. Just as important is to photograph or videotape all conditions in the rental unit as you may need to utilize this evidence to evict the tenant.

Provided the hoarding tenant does not abate the health and safety violations in his or her unit and/or the breaches of the lease, following your request or as mandated by a County agency, you should immediately speak with an attorney about recovering possession of the unit to protect the integrity of the building and the residents within.

Unfortunately, apart from thoroughly screening potential tenants and, particularly, by speaking to former landlords, there is no easy way to know whether a  prospective tenant is a hoarder. For this reason, it is difficult to avoid renting to a hoarder. Additionally, refusal to rent to a known hoarder may cause a landlord to run afoul of the ADA for failing to accommodate a disabled tenant or lead to a claim for discrimination.

A landlord’s best weapon is to ensure that all leases are up-to-date and, when appropriate, include provisions that specifically deal with hoarding, such as those which require that (1) tenants maintain access to all doors and windows within the unit, (2) preclude the storage of hazardous materials in the unit, and (3) require unimpeded movement throughout all hallways in the unit for safe exiting in an emergency. While a landlord may not be able to avoid renting to a hoarder, having a lease that contains provisions that specifically address the manifestations of hoarding will be of great assistance should a landlord need to recover possession of the unit.

Susan K. Breed is with the Law Offices of Denise A. Leadbetter