Addressing The Challenge Of A Hoarding Tenant: An Advisory For Residential Landlords

Our society has always been fascinated with hoarders. In the early to mid 1900s, people were obsessed with the fabled Collyer brothers who, over the course of several decades, filled to capacity their Fifth Avenue brownstone in Harlem, where they were eventually found dead in 1947, buried beneath all the clutter. More recently, television shows like the A&E series "Hoarders," which follows extreme hoarders as they try to clean up their homes, have captured millions of viewers. Our intrigue with compulsive hoarding has helped the show remain popular after six seasons.

While compulsive hoarding fascinates the general public, landlords dealing with tenants who compulsively hoard are anything but fascinated. Hoarding tenants raise a host of complicated legal issues for landlords. Compulsive hoarding, by definition, is practically incompatible with the legal obligations associated with occupancy of leased residential property. Compulsive hoarding has three primary characteristics: (1) acquiring and failing to discard a large number of possessions that appear to be useless or of limited value; (2) cluttered living spaces that prevent activities in the spaces they were designed for; and (3) the hoarding causes significant distress or impairment. Psychologists estimate that 2-5% of adults suffer from compulsive hoarding.1 Someone who hoards is considered a person with a disability because they meet the definition of disability under both state and federal fair housing laws. Because hoarding qualifies as a disability under federal and state anti-discrimination laws, landlords have an affirmative duty to first make a reasonable accommodation before resorting to other legal remedies such as eviction.

At a minimum, compulsive hoarding will likely result in conditions that violate the lease agreement. Additionally, compulsive hoarding may violate state sanitary, electrical, or building codes, local regulations, or animal care standards. Hoarding may also increase fire risks, present tripping or falling hazards, impair access by emergency workers, and contribute to the spread of contagious diseases through poor sanitation and related vermin infestations. In addition to breaching the lease agreement, these conditions may be in violation of various state laws, including obstruction of exits and passageways (105 C.M.R. 410.450-410.452), failure to maintain the dwelling in a clean and sanitary condition and free of garbage, rubbish, other filth or causes of...

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