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Hoarder Tenants: Risks, Prevention and Avoiding Fair Housing Trip-Ups

by Editor | ezLandlordForms

One of the scariest prospects for landlords and property managers is tenants who hoard mountains of junk or animals in their rentals.  Hoarding has been around for as long as people have had mental illness, but a newly televised cable tv show and recent internet trending has brought this issue to the forefront for many who were otherwise in the dark on the topic.

Hoarding is defined by Mayo Clinic as a disorder [characterized by] a persistent difficulty discarding or parting with possessions because of a perceived need to save them.  Further, “a person with hoarding disorder experiences distress at the thought of getting rid of the items.”

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness in Massachusetts, up to 5% of the world population suffers from hoarding disorder which is considered a mental illness.

The most important thing for landlords and property managers to glean from this is that having a mental “disorder” renders these individuals disabled and therefore, protected under the Fair Housing laws.  This potentially poses a challenge for landlords and property managers who might be inclined to evict a hoarding tenant (or deny their rental application in the first place).  On the surface eviction may appear to be an immediate resolution to a potentially dangerous and immensely disturbing situation.

Experts say eviction may be avoided in some cases when certain steps are taken.  Also, there are steps landlords and property managers can take to protect themselves from the start and to observe hoarding behaviors early on in order to stop it in its tracks before the home is destroyed, infested or becomes a fire hazard or nuisance.

Another little known, but equally important fact for landlords and property managers to consider is that there is an expectation that if a landlord is aware of, or should have been aware of a tenant’s hoarding practices, that landlord/property manager now has a duty to accommodate the tenant.  This means that working with the tenant to remain in the home should be the priority whenever possible.  Not only is eviction a challenge because of Fair Housing laws, but landlords want to avoid eviction at all costs because of the associated costs of having someone remove the mountains of accumulated junk the tenant has hoarded.  Removing a hoarder tenant’s belongings can cost upwards of $10,000 in some cases.

So, exactly what are these steps landlords/property managers can take to protect themselves and their properties for hoarders?  Here are the best ways to deal with hoarders or potential hoarding tenants.

Add Clauses to Your Lease Agreement.  Most definitions of hoarding speak to the hoarder’s tendency to crowd spaces thereby preventing them from using the spaces as they were intended.  Use this definition to your advantage in your lease agreements.  Your rental agreement should have a statement regarding maintaining rooms in the home in a manner in which they were intended.  You can also address prohibiting the use of any rooms in the rental property for storage space other than in closets or along one wall, for example.  Lastly, leases can require that all rooms and hallways allow for unimpeded movement, for safe exiting during an emergency.

Observe All Prospects.  Professionals who work with hoarders believe hoarders leave tell-tale signs of their hoarding in other areas of their lives.  When a tenant comes to view your property make an extra effort to observe their cars whenever possible.  A hoarder is likely to have junk piled in every nook and cranny of their cars.  Once you see someone who is driving around with a car whose seats and floor can’t be seen anywhere except the driving area, you may very well have your first clue that you’re dealing with a hoarder.

Landlords and property managers should also inspect all applicants’ present homes to see how they live, and how they treat their current residence.  If they treat the property poorly by leaving it messy and unsafely cluttered, the landlord will know before having signed a rental contract with them.

Implement Routine Inspections.  All tenants should be informed by up front by way of the lease agreement as well as your verbal communication with them of routine checks by you or your staff (maintenance or other), at least for the first year of their tenancy.  After the first year, you can switch to quarterly or semi-annual inspections.  This is generally a good idea, but is especially important to help avoid issues such as hoarding.  You or your staff will be able to pick up immediately on issues which may cause concern and need urgent attention.  To avoid any pushback from your tenants, you can utilize these inspections to complete HVAC inspections and routine filter and smoke detector inspections.  Most tenants won’t mind preventive maintenance checks made quarterly.  Completely timely checks such as these can definitely go a long way towards preventing any major damage that hoarders can cause.

Document, Document, Document.  This goes along with every other area of your business, but is especially important if you ever have to deal with evicting a hoarder.  Because hoarders are now included as a protected class, the courts will look for proof that you as a landlord/property manager actually made attempts to accommodate the tenant’s disability.  You or your staff members must ensure every conversation and effort made to remedy the situation is clearly documented before taking any action towards evicting these tenants.  Be sure you’re very clear on the laws in your jurisdiction regarding non-economic evictions and follow those procedures to the letter.  It may also be a good idea to speak with an attorney should you ever encounter a tenant who is found to be a hoarder.

Have you ever dealt with a tenant who was a hoarder?  What additional advice can you offer landlords who may run into this problem?

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