We live in a society where erratic, awful behavior can be purposefully glamorized, particularly through reality TV. Consider the homeowner who throws nothing away, lives in filth and squalor and ends up the star of a TV show about clutter. Welcome to the horror of the hoarder.
In a condominium building, the first evidence of a hoarder is usually a nasty smell in the hallway or bugs migrating into neighboring units. Once inside, rooms are littered with newspapers, mail and trash — empty cans, dirty dishes, even unused cleaning supplies. Sofas are obscured by stacks of clothes and random papers. In a homeowners association, backyards are filled with broken appliances and ruined furniture or garages are packed with junk.
The conditions caused by hoarders and pack rats violate community association governing documents. Worse, they have palpable, negative consequences for the adjacent homes. Not only is the quality of one’s day-to-day life compromised by their neighbor, the hoarder’s property can drive down the entire community’s real estate values.
Unfortunately, the standard approach taken by community associations to address hoarding — sending warning letters and threatening fines — rarely works. The pack-rat syndrome is usually caused by mental or emotional issues, making it difficult to deal with the resident in a rational way. In 2013, the American Psychiatric Association declared hoarding to be a disorder, defined as “people who excessively save items others view as worthless and who have persistent difficulty parting with possessions, leading to clutter that disrupts ability to use living/work spaces.”
When faced with a hoarding situation, associations may find more success by employing more creative strategies to enforce community standards. Here are alternate methods for handling hoarders.
1. Contact family or social service agencies. Hoarders may be elderly or have a declining mental state underpinning their behavior. It is often family members or a social service agency that can help address the core problem.
2. Involve a local government’s “hoarder task force,” zoning department, or fire marshal. In many jurisdictions, local governments have instituted programs through zoning and code enforcement departments to deal with hoarders. Your tax dollars pay for these services, so at least give them a try before spending money on legal counsel.
3. Written demands for cleanup. As noted, demand letters rarely do the trick — and often end up contributing to the stacks of paper that render the hoarder’s property a fire hazard. However, such letters — even if unheeded — show a court that the association sought voluntary compliance before taking legal action, which is important evidence of the association’s commitment to fairness and due process. The letters should include a notice to the hoarder that he or she may end up paying the association’s legal fees if court action is required.
4. Inspect and take pictures. Most governing documents give the association the right to inspect a unit if violations are suspected. Gain access to the unit and photograph it from various angles to document the hoarding. If the case goes to court, the pictures, more than any other piece of evidence, will impress upon a judge the seriousness of the situation.
5. Get a court order. If all other strategies don’t work, an association may invoke the “nuclear” option: Seek a court order. Although a lawsuit should be the last resort, it ultimately should work as long as the problem is severe enough and the governing documents have appropriate language requiring owners to properly maintain their home. A court — once confronted with pictures or testimony regarding the hoarder’s home — will usually side with the community association.
These steps may sound daunting, but they are worth consideration. Hoarder problems do not solve themselves. Your fellow homeowners will appreciate the resulting improvement in their lives and property values.
Brendan P. Bunn is a fellow of the College of Community Association Lawyers and a partner at Chadwick, Washington, Moriarity, Elmore, & Bunn in Fairfax. This column is not legal advice and should not be acted upon without obtaining legal counsel. Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.