Complying with Fair Housing Law When Dealing with Hoarders

In its December 2011 lesson, Fair Housing Coach reviews the fair housing implications of a significant problem—hoarding. Reality TV has raised awareness of the issue, but the numbers are staggering—some experts say that up to 5 percent, or 15 million Americans—suffer from this complicated disorder.

In multifamily housing, hoarding may pose serious health and safety concerns, including injury or disease risks, fire hazards, and structural damage—not only to the affected unit, but also to neighboring units and the community at large.

Although your initial impulse may be threaten eviction unless the resident cleans the unit immediately, such a course of action could land you in fair housing trouble. In most cases, a resident engaged in hoarding behavior qualifies as an individual with a disability under fair housing law, triggering your responsibility to try to work out a reasonable accommodation to allow him to continue to live there. There are limits to your obligations toward the resident, but you’ll have to tread carefully—and document your efforts to work out a resolution—to prevent or defend against a potential fair housing complaint.

Here are some tips from the December Fair Housing Coach to help you comply with fair housing laws when dealing with a hoarding problem. The complete lesson—with rules to follow, examples of recent hoarding cases, and a quiz at the end—is available on our Web site's home page, under "Current Issue" or "PDF Archive."

Stay Alert for Hints of Hoarding Problems. Since a hoarding problem usually doesn’t surface until its effects seep into hallways or neighboring units, the observations of staff members and complaints from other residents are crucial to detect hoarding problems.

Don’t Put Off Looking into Suspected Hoarding. It can be frustrating and time consuming to work with residents engaged in hoarding behavior, but experts say that health and safety problems only get worse if left unattended.

Investigate Potential Hoarding Problems. Contact the resident whose unit appears to be the source of complaints, but be sure to comply with state and local laws regarding your right of entry. Whatever conditions you may find inside, maintain a neutral, nonjudgmental demeanor—otherwise, you could make matters worse by exacerbating the hoarder’s distrust and resistance to change.

Listen for Reasonable Accommodation Requests. Depending on conditions inside the unit, you may commence eviction proceedings, but fair housing laws may require you to try to work out a reasonable accommodation to allow the resident to preserve the tenancy. In hoarding cases, reasonable accommodation requests often come from residents or family members who ask you to delay legal action to give them more time to clean out the unit.

Promptly Respond to Reasonable Accommodation Requests. Depending on the health and safety risks involved, you may not have to grant the request—but you do have to take it seriously by responding formally and promptly. Under HUD guidelines, an undue delay in responding to a request may be deemed a failure to provide a reasonable accommodation.

Engage in an Interactive Process to Resolve Hoarding Problems. Even when a resident qualifies as an individual with a disability, a request for an extended period to clean the unit may be unreasonable if conditions inside pose immediate or serious health and safety risks. Nevertheless, HUD says that you should discuss whether there is an alternative accommodation that would effectively address the resident’s disability-related needs. For example, you may work out a plan with time frames for resolving lease violations, along with periodic inspections to keep things on track.

Proceed with Eviction if Interactive Process Fails. If the resident ignores or otherwise fails to resolve hoarding problems, you may initiate proceedings to recover possession of the unit. Even after legal proceedings have commenced, however, you should be prepared for an 11th-hour request to delay eviction proceedings to allow the resident more time to clean up the premises. Because hoarders are resistant to parting with their possessions, it often takes official legal proceedings that threaten their continued residency to prompt them to do something to remedy the problem.

Source: Fair Housing Coach, December 2011