Take 9 Steps When Dealing with Tenant Hoarders

Here’s how to avoid disability discrimination when seeking to evict tenants for hoarding.



Here’s how to avoid disability discrimination when seeking to evict tenants for hoarding.



You may have tenants who cannot or will not throw anything away. They treat everything they come to possess—old newspapers, candy wrappers, banana peels, even burnt-out matchsticks—as a part of themselves and hoard it all in their apartments. This can create fire hazards, mold, odors, pests, vermin, and other serious problems for neighbors who share walls, ceilings, floors, hallways, and HVAC systems. These conditions also expose you to risk of liability for violating building, fire code, environmental, and other regulations.

As a landlord charged with maintaining a healthy, safe, and sanitary community, you have not only a right but a duty to crack down on hoarders, including via eviction, if necessary. But while serving the interests of the entire community, such actions can also get you into fair housing trouble, specifically your duty to make reasonable accommodations for “disabilities.” What many landlords and managing agents fail to recognize is that hoarding disorder is a mental health impairment that’s recognized as a “disability” under the law.

Fair housing protection for hoarding disorders is a difficult issue, especially for landlords who have to deal with it in real-life situations. This month’s lesson is dedicated to helping you meet this challenge. First, we’ll explain how reasonable accommodations requirements apply to hoarding. Then we’ll outline a nine-step strategy to handle accommodations requests, determine if they’re reasonable, and, if so, implement a workable and legally sound plan to get hoarders to comply with community sanitation, health, and safety rules—or at least set the stage for evicting them if they don’t. At the end of the lesson, you can take the Coach’s Quiz to gauge your understanding of the material and apply it to actual situations.  


Section 3604(f)(3)(B) of the federal Fair Housing Act (FHA) bans housing providers from refusing “to make reasonable accommodations in rules, policies, practices, or services when such accommodations may be necessary to afford a person with a disability the equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling.”

The agency charged with enforcing the law, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), defines reasonable accommodation as “a change, exception, or adjustment to a rule, policy, practice or service that may be necessary for a person with disabilities to have an equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling.” In a hoarding case, the requested reasonable accommodation is typically for the landlord to delay eviction and give the tenant time to clean out and remain in the apartment.

Protections for Hoarders Under Other Civil Rights Laws

In addition to the FHA, tenants with hoarding disorders may be entitled to protection under other federal and state civil rights laws, including:  

  • The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which requires landlords and other agencies, businesses, and organizations that provide goods or services to the public to make “reasonable modifications” in policies, practices, or procedures to accommodate people with disabilities;
  •  Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which requires landlords that receive federal financial assistance to provide reasonable accommodations to tenants with disabilities; and
  • State and municipal fair housing laws, which may impose duties and obligations that go beyond what federal civil rights laws require. 

Landlords’ Countervailing Right to Maintain a Clean & Safe Community

While protected under civil rights laws, compulsive hoarding behavior may create conditions that violate federal, state, or local laws, as well as the tenant’s own lease obligations to, among other things:

  • Dispose of waste in a timely manner;
  • Refrain from defacing, destroying, or impairing any part of the premises;
  • Refrain from creating nuisances and disturbing the peaceful enjoyment of their neighbors; and
  • Ensure their use of the premises complies with fire, building, sanitation, and other applicable laws.

Landlords that turn a blind eye to hoarding risk violating their own lease obligations to tenants. Left unchecked, tenant hoarding may also result in fines and penalties for code violations, nuisance lawsuits, and even condemnation of the property.

Example: As in many states, in Massachusetts condemnation can result from “obstruction of any exit, passageway or common area caused by any object, including garbage or trash, which prevents egress in case of an emergency” as well as “accumulation of garbage, rubbish, filth or other causes of sickness which may provide a food source or harborage for rodents, insects or other pests or otherwise contribute to accidents or to the creation or spread of disease” [105 Mass. Code Regs. Sections 410.750(G) and (I)].



For landlords, the compliance challenge is to strike the proper balance between their general health, safety, sanitation, and environmental obligations and their fair housing duty to accommodate tenants and rental applicants (which, for simplicity’s sake, we’ll refer to collectively as “tenants”) with hoarding disorders. There are nine things you can do to meet that objective.

Step 1. Be Aware that Hoarding Disorder Is a Disability

Fair housing laws apply not to hoarding behavior but to those who engage in it as a result of a disability. That disability is called hoarding disorder, an obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) that affects an estimated 2 percent to 6 percent of the U.S. population, or approximately 6 to 18 million people, according to the International OCD Foundation.

Hoarders often experience intense emotional attachments to their belongings, leading to extreme anxiety or distress when faced with the prospect of having to throw them away. In 2013, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) officially recognized hoarding disorder as a psychiatric diagnosis in its Diagnostic Statistical Manual V (DSM-V). Inclusion of hoarding as an official psychiatric disorder in the DSM-V confirms its status as a mental disability for purposes of the FHA and ADA, according to fair housing attorneys.

Compliance Strategy: It’s not your responsibility to diagnose whether a tenant has hoarding disorder or any other form of mental disability. In fact, making such determinations on the basis of a tenant’s appearance or behavior can get you into a lot of trouble. At the same time, you don’t have to tolerate hoarding and refrain from evicting those who engage in it because they might be disabled. Bottom Line: You and your staff need to be aware of this possibility and proceed accordingly.


Signs & Symptoms of Hoarding Disorder

Individuals with a hoarding disorder typically try to hide their behavior. This makes the problem hard to detect, diagnose, and treat. Signs and symptoms to look for include:

  • Cluttered living space makes it difficult to navigate through rooms or access basic amenities;
  • Hoarders are often forced to confine themselves to certain areas of their apartment because the clutter in other parts makes those areas inaccessible;
  • Hoarders tend to experience problems associated with neglecting maintenance, such as broken appliances, faulty wiring, plumbing issues, and blocked ventilation;
  • The clutter that hoarders accumulate often contains rotting food, mold, mildew, animal waste, and other materials that attract vermin and emit foul odors; and
  • Hoarding may strain relationships with neighbors due to increased noise, pests, or odors, potentially leading to complaints and disputes.

Step 2. Initiate Legal Action But Be on Alert for Accommodation Requests

The general rule is that you don’t have to offer or make accommodations for a disability unless they’re actually requested. That’s not to suggest that you should put off legal action and wait for tenants to request accommodations. Proceed as you normally would when responding to this kind of violation. But also be aware that the accommodations dynamics may be slightly different when you’re dealing with a hoarder. Explanation: Hoarding disorder sufferers often seek to conceal their condition; they might not even recognize that they have a disability for which they’re entitled to accommodation. So residents with hoarding issues may not specifically ask for an accommodation. But they may still make accommodations requests in a more subtle way that you’re not used to. That’s why you need to listen very carefully to what they say with the recognition that they may frame their reasonable accommodation requests as something they “need” or “want” because of a disability.

But this could be enough to trigger the landlord’s duty to make reasonable accommodations. According to federal guidelines, all a tenant must do to make a valid reasonable accommodation request is make it clear to the housing provider that they’re requesting an exception, change, or adjustment to a policy, practice, or rule because of a disability.

If such a request is made, you can’t make a big deal over timing and formalities. The FHA doesn’t require that accommodation requests be made in any particular manner or at any particular time. There’s no rule saying that requests must be in writing; nor do requestors have to use “reasonable accommodation,” “fair housing,” “disability,” “hoarding disorder,” or any other magic words or phrases. Other things to keep in mind about accommodations requests:

  • They can come either from tenants or a person(s) acting on tenants’ behalf;
  • They can be made at any time before or after the tenancy starts, including after the start of eviction proceedings; 
  • They can be made after tenants fail to meet their commitments under previous accommodations agreements by tenants seeking second chances (which we’ll explain under Step 8 below); and
  • You can ask but can’t require requestors to put their requests in writing.

Compliance Strategy: “An undue delay in responding to a reasonable accommodation request may be deemed to be a failure to provide a reasonable accommodation,” according to joint guidelines from HUD and the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ). HUD guidance from 2020 dealing with assistance animals also states that landlords should respond to accommodations requests within 10 days of receiving documentation supporting the request.

Coach’s Tip: In other guidance, HUD has recommended that landlords create forms and procedures for tenants to use to make written requests for any types of accommodations. This can facilitate and speed up the processing of requests and “prevent misunderstandings regarding what’s being requested, or whether the request was made.” But the guidelines add that landlords “must give appropriate consideration to reasonable accommodation requests even if the requester makes the request orally or does not use the [landlord’s] preferred forms or procedures for making such requests.”

Step 3. Get Tenant to Provide Appropriate Documentation of Disability

You should handle a request to accommodate a hoarding disorder the same way you would any other reasonable accommodation request, advises Georgia fair housing attorney Leslie Tucker. You’re normally not allowed to ask tenants if they’re disabled or about the nature and extent of their disability. However, HUD guidelines give landlords leeway to request information to verify both the disability and disability-related need for the requested accommodation.

Obvious & apparent disabilities: Tucker notes that this leeway applies only if the disability is not obvious and apparent. In some cases, the condition of the apartment and unwillingness or inability of the tenant to remove trash and clutter are primary indicators that a hoarding disability is likely involved, she adds. If the indicators make the disorder obvious to management, it’s not necessary to verify the disability status or need with a healthcare professional. In that situation, the landlord should go ahead and make a decision on the reasonableness of the request and, if necessary, engage with the tenant on alternative options.

Not obvious & apparent disabilities: If the condition of the apartment constitutes a violation of the lease, but it’s not necessarily obvious and apparent as to whether the housekeeping issues are a result of a disability, Tucker says that the landlord does have the right to verify the tenant’s disability status and/or the disability-related need for the accommodation being requested.

Compliance Strategy: Landlords don’t need and shouldn’t request a diagnosis, Tucker cautions. Rather, they should ask only about:

  • The tenant’s disability status—that is, whether the tenant is or isn’t disabled;
  • Whether the accommodation is necessary due to a disability; and
  • How the accommodation is related to the tenant’s disability.  

In addition to requesting a diagnosis, verification practices that are off-limits include requiring tenants to undergo a medical exam and requiring a health care professional to use a specific form, provide notarized documents, or make statements under penalty of perjury.

Step 4. Determine If the Requested Accommodation Is Reasonable

Once the landlord receives the accommodation request and verifies the disability, it must determine whether the requested accommodation is reasonable. So, is it reasonable to allow a tenant with a hoarding disorder to stay in the apartment and delay or forgo an eviction action? The answer, unfortunately, is: It depends. But while each situation is different, the one hard and fast rule is that you must take all accommodations requests seriously and not simply reject them as a matter of course.

There are also general principles that apply in determining the reasonableness of accommodation requests. One of them is that the FHA obligation to provide reasonable accommodations doesn’t apply where the “tenancy would constitute a direct threat to the health or safety of other individuals.”

Compliance Strategy: Be careful about relying on the so-called direct threat exception. Speculation, subjective fears, and generalized assumptions about whether the tenant will clean and maintain the apartment isn’t enough. To prove that a hoarder poses a direct threat, a landlord must make an individualized assessment based on reliable, objective evidence, such as current conduct or recent history of overt acts. According to HUD, such an assessment must consider:

  • The nature, duration, and severity of the risk of injury;
  • The probability that injury will occur; and
  • Whether there are reasonable accommodations that will effectively eliminate the direct threat.

Because the rules are so tricky and fact-dependent, it’s a good idea to seek legal advice from an experienced attorney before taking any legal action to terminate a tenancy for hoarding.

Step 5. Consider Whether an Alternative Accommodation Is Feasible

Making reasonable accommodations does not mean allowing a tenant to continue to engage in hoarding behavior that compromises health, safety, sanitation, or environmental compliance. What you are required to do is consider whether it’s possible to resolve the problem by agreeing to let the hoarder stay in exchange for assurances that they’ll clean up the mess themselves and keep the apartment clean in the future. Where such an arrangement is feasible, seeking to evict a tenant without entering into a dialog or negotiation may make you liable for failure to provide reasonable accommodations. 

Example: A landlord sought to evict a tenant for failing to keep her apartment in a safe and sanitary condition. The tenant made a reasonable accommodation request for a brief stay specifying that she was now receiving treatment, assuring the landlord that a governmental organization would do the cleaning, and conceding that eviction would be warranted if she let the apartment fall into a state of disrepair again. The landlord refused. The case went to the federal D.C. appeals court, which held that the accommodation request was reasonable because it provided “adequate assurance” that the premises would be cleaned and “offered a reasonable prospect for its staying clean” [Douglas v. Kriegsfeld Corp., 884 A.2d 1109 (D.C. Cir. 2005)]. 

Even if the tenant doesn’t broach the arrangement, fair housing advocates take the position that landlords must exercise good faith efforts to accommodate a tenant’s mental disability before seeking to evict them for violating the lease or community rules. Such efforts might include meeting with the tenant to identify the health and safety issues that need to be addressed and working with fair housing and/or mental health advocacy groups or attorneys assisting the tenant to develop a reasonable accommodation agreement.

Step 6. Negotiate an Appropriate Reasonable Accommodation Agreement

A reasonable accommodation agreement is essentially a written plan to bring the tenant and unit into compliance and remain there while reserving the landlord’s right to evict if they don’t. The actual terms must be negotiated and not dictated by one side or the other. Thus, you can’t automatically assume you’re free to evict because the tenant rejects the terms you offer. However, your duty to accommodate ends if the tenant unreasonably fails to cooperate or refuses to engage in the accommodations process.

Example: A landlord tried to evict a tenant suffering from chronic paranoid schizophrenia for significant hoarding activity. The tenant’s legal representative asked the landlord for an accommodation. But the tenant himself insisted that he wasn’t disabled and refused to allow his apartment to be cleaned. As a result, the New York court ruled that the reasonable accommodation request failed. A court can’t force a reasonable accommodation on a landlord when the tenant not only failed to request but also actively resisted the accommodation, it reasoned [Blatch v. Hernandez, 94 360 F. Supp. 2d 595 (S.D.N.Y. 2005)]. 

Compliance Strategy: While there’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all template, there are some basic elements that a reasonable accommodation agreement should contain, including:

  • The landlord’s promise to temporarily and conditionally delay eviction or legal action and give the tenant more time and a final opportunity to address the health and safety issues and retain the tenancy;
  • The tenant’s promise to meet a list of specific cleanliness goals or benchmarks in consideration of the landlord’s promise to temporarily forgo legal action;
  • Timelines for reaching each listed goal or benchmark, based on the size of the area to be cleaned, the amount of built-up clutter, and whether the tenant is receiving medical care;
  • The landlord’s right to reenter the premises to inspect and verify that the tenant is complying with the agreement (we’ll return to this issue later);
  • The tenant’s acknowledgement that failure to meet the obligations under the agreement will be grounds for eviction or other legal action by the landlord; and
  • The signatures of the tenant and landlord (or their legal representatives).

A reasonable accommodation agreement could also include the tenant’s promise to seek psychiatric treatment for the hoarding disorder. But insisting on such a promise may be problematic under HIPAA and personal privacy laws, especially if it requires tenants to disclose their diagnosis and/or the terms of their treatment plan. However, tenants are free to consent to such disclosures as part of an accommodation arrangement, provided that they do so voluntarily and without coercion.  

Step 7. Enforce Your Reasonable Accommodation Agreement

You have every right to enforce the reasonable accommodation agreements you make with hoarders. Translation: If tenants don’t achieve the required benchmarks in timely fashion, you should be able to proceed with the original eviction or other legal action you agreed to delay.  

Compliance Strategy: Be sure to document your compliance with eviction and other state and local law notice requirements. You’ll also need photos and other documentation of the apartment’s condition. If possible, get maintenance personnel, neighboring tenants, and other witnesses to testify on your behalf. Even after proceedings begin, don’t be surprised if the tenant makes an 11th-hour request for another delay. “Signing the reasonable accommodation agreement may not be enough,” according to one attorney. “It may take the threat of imminent legal action to get hoarders to overcome their unwillingness to part with their possessions.”  

Step 8. Consider Giving Previous Offenders Third & Even Fourth Chances

Even with treatment and progress, hoarding disorder is associated with high rates of recidivism. Hoarding tends to be a lifetime compulsion and many sufferers who get their problems under control eventually fall back into their bad habits. So, tenants who requested and received accommodations for hoarding once are apt to make second or even third requests later after the initial problem was seemingly resolved.    

Compliance Strategy: First, make sure any reasonable accommodation agreement you sign with a hoarder gives you the right to re-enter the apartment and perform periodic inspections, provided that the frequency of these visits isn’t overly intrusive. According to attorneys, quarterly inspection is a reasonable frequency when dealing with a hoarder after the initial health and safety problems are resolved.

The more difficult question is determining whether it’s reasonable to grant a subsequent accommodations request from a hoarder to whom you’ve already given a second chance. As a general rule, landlords don’t have to grant accommodation requests if they determine, after making the kind of individualized assessment we discussed in Step 4, that the requested accommodations have no reasonable chance of solving the problem. Experts suggest that while the first reasonable accommodation request for relief from legal action by a compulsive hoarder is likely to be deemed reasonable, repeat requests are more problematic, especially when the hoarding behavior immediately endangers health and safety. The fact that the hoarder has already gotten a last chance agreement is potent evidence that entering into another agreement would be a futile and perhaps dangerous gesture.

Step 9. Consider Alternatives If Requested Accommodations Are Unreasonable

The accommodations process doesn’t end when you conclude that a requested accommodation is unreasonable. According to the 2020 HUD guidelines, before rejecting the request, you must dig deeper and “engage in the interactive process to discuss whether an alternative accommodation may be effective in meeting the individual’s disability-related needs.”

Compliance Strategy: While these guidelines deal with requests for assistance animals, the principles would apply to just about any kind of accommodation, including a hoarder’s request for relief from eviction. Whether an alternative accommodation is reasonable is a judgment call that depends on the circumstances. Alternatives that landlords might consider when dealing with hoarders include:

  • Requiring hoarders to take out insurance or pay an additional security deposit to cover future damage;
  • Transferring them to units where their hoarding habits won’t endanger others, if such units exist; and/or
  • Delaying eviction to give hoarders extra time to seek housing elsewhere.  
Coach’s Source

Leslie Tucker, Esq.: Partner, Williams Edelstein Tucker, P.C., Peachtree Corners, GA; https://fairhousingfirm.com; leslie@fairhouse.net.

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