If Your Tenant is a Hoarder, Tread Carefully



We’ve all seen the reality TV show about hoarders, who save their possessions obsessively regardless of their value, causing severe problems in their homes. Hoarders live in rental properties, too, and cause very real complications for owners. In a recent issue of IREM’s Journal of Property Management magazine, Joseph Dobrian relates the story of “the nicest lady in the world”, an apartment tenant in her late ’70s, whose “floor buckled into the unit below from the weight of her possessions.” But she paid her rent on time every single month for years. So what does an owner do?

Before the Fair Housing Act, a landlord could set her out if her hoarding behavior caused fire, vermin, odor, or weight-bearing issues–even though she paid her rent in a timely manner. But no longer: hoarding is now considered a disability under the Fair Housing Act, and a landlord must “reasonably accommodate” her, as they would a person with any other classified and protected disability. But what does that mean?

Dobrian notes in his JPM article that housing attorneys suggest a landlord bring in a third party with experience to help deal with the situation. Hoarding is a “co-morbid” condition, meaning that it almost always exists alongside a mental health issue. Landlords would be wise to bring in someone from a local social services or mental health alliance to suggest a plan for the tenant to follow to pare down their possessions, so they don’t feel beaten up by a landlord. Dobrian notes that, often times, people know they’re hoarding and they need help, but they just don’t know how to ask for it.

Landlords should tread carefully, even though people with disorders are still not allowed to break the rules or create hazards. Here are some tips:

  • Don’t use words that can offend when talking to the tenant, like “junk” or “trash” or “debris”
  • Be in contact with local authorities (fire and health departments, mayor) who can help, even if you’re afraid of receiving a citation
  • Don’t push the tenant to fix the problem yesterday–the solution needs a non-judgmental plan
  • Remember that most tenant hoarders are otherwise inoffensive and pay their rent on time, and will remain a long-term tenant if you work with, and not against them

IREM members can read Dobrian’s article online at irem.org in the March/April 2015 issue of JPM, and can also access an online course with video scenarios on how hoarding affects fair housing compliance.