Hoarding and housing: Part 2, helping the hoard and the hoarder

February 13, 2009 | Housing, Rental, Research, Tenure

 [Continued from yesterday’s Part 1.]


In yesterday’s post on the prevalence of hoarding is a psychological disease, I discovered via the MBHP Newsletter that it’s amazingly prevalent in affordable housing, the third leading cause of eviction (admittedly, after the two elephants of non-payment and drug use).



Hoarder’s kitchen, before



Hoarder’s kitchen, after
Two dumpsters’ worth of clutter was removed from her home


Obsessive hoarding, of the kind illustrated in yesterday’s photographs (some repeated above), cannot be tolerated in a multifamily apartment property.  Yet the hoarder cannot control his or her hoarding, suffering from a psychological compulsion.  The property must be protected and the rules observed, yet the landlord cannot simply evict, because the resident has Fair Housing rights.  Under Fair Housing:


Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968 (Fair Housing Act), as amended, prohibits discrimination in the sale, rental, and financing of dwellings, and in other housing-related transactions, based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status (including children under the age of 18 living with parents or legal custodians, pregnant women, and people securing custody of children under the age of 18), and handicap (disability).



Not just a good idea, it’s the law


Over the years, what constitutes a ‘handicap’ has expanded continually and accretively – don’t get me started – but along the way, a definition was hammered out that clearly encompasses compulsive hoarding:


[Blue Times New Roman is taken from MBHP’s hoarding guide documents.]


Why would persons who hoard be covered under fair housing laws?
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.
(1) a physical or mental impairment which substantially limits one or more of such person’s major life activities, seeing, hearing, walking, breathing, performing manual tasks, caring for one’s self, learning, speaking, or working
(2) a record of having such an impairment, or
(3) being regarded as having such an impairment, but such term does not include current, illegal use of or addiction to a controlled substance.

The owner thus has a goal – a healthy property – and a procedural obligation – Fair Housing.  The social workers have a goal – aiding a compulsive hoarder – and an obligation – to address the landlord’s requirement for a lease-compliant resident.  How are these twin imperatives reconciled?  Through the somewhat clumsy balance known as ‘reasonable accommodation’:



Is accommodating this much hoarding reasonable?


What is a fair housing reasonable accommodation?
A reasonable accommodation is a request for a waiver or change in policies, practices, procedures and services to provide equal access and opportunity in housing for persons with disabilities or for those associated with persons with disabilities.


At this point, libertarians become agitated.  The owner puts in place equitable objective standards for lease compliance, yet some residents may violate them with apparent impunity if they claim disability.


There must be a direct connection between the person’s disability and the reasonable accommodation request.

Anyone used to contracts or legislation sees that ‘reasonable’ and cringes, because the word is entirely in the eye of the beholder – and the beholder is always a court, which often has an annoying tendency to find a middle ground, even when (to the owner’s eyes, anyhow) there is right and there is wrong.



Some people hoard pets, like these cats


In its wisdom, landlord-tenant law has gradually reached a definition:


What is an example of a reasonable accommodation that could assist a person whose housing is at risk due to hoarding?
If the housing provider is considering eviction of a person with a disability due to the hoarding, a remedy plan can be offered as a reasonable accommodation to preserve the tenancy. This remedy plan could include support services plus an individualized schedule for clean-up and inspections.

That’s a good principle: it’s not the landlord’s job to clean up the apartment, but it is the landlord’s job to cooperate with a cleanup plan that might work.


Must the housing provider approve a reasonable accommodation request?
The request must be approved as long as it does not cause an undue administrative and financial burden or change the basic nature of the housing program.


Landlords aren’t social workers, and they cannot be. 


Social workers aren’t property managers, and they cannot be.



Enter the good guys


Enter the MBHP staff support:


Intervention begins with an MBHP staff member visiting the home for an assessment following an unsuccessful inspection due to hoarding or following a report of suspected hoarding issues.



Somewhere in there, hoarding becomes ‘unreasonable’


The report is customized to each resident:


If the tenant agrees to work to bring his/her home into compliance, an individualized action plan is developed. It tailors resources for home decluttering; in-home education and skill building regarding shopping, organization, and sanitation skills; and counseling and support using cognitive and behavioral techniques. And while not mandatory for participation, treatment is strongly recommended due to the complex psychological nature of hoarding. Hoarding is a mental health condition, and hoarders usually have additional mental health issues.


Out of the report comes an intervention plan:


Hoarding intervention is most successful when it is team-based among support services. Coordinated services — such as home visits, occupational therapy, visiting nurses, substance abuse treatment, individual and group therapies, and funding for clean-out and organizational supplies — combined with ongoing communication among service providers creates the optimal environment for successful hoarding intervention.


Obviously this represents a great deal of work.  Does it succeed?  From a Jesse Edsell-Vetter email:


We’ve worked with approximately 150 people in the past 2 ½ years and only 1 of them has lost their housing as a result of hoarding. 


Is worthwhile for the landlord? 


We’ve found that a traditional route of eviction, cleanout costs, legal fees, etc can be thousands of dollars. 



That’s just a normal person’s goods

Imagine the cost if the tenant were a hoarder


[Fair Housing] laws also help the property owner in that it gives the tenant the opportunity to resolve the issue and obtain long-term support services.


And if it doesn’t work?


If there was a reasonable accommodation in place that initially remedies the situation but the hoarding happened again, is there any recourse?
Due to the nature of hoarding, it would be practical to make it flexible enough to accommodate any future set-backs. While neither the state nor federal fair housing laws limit the number of times a reasonable accommodation can be requested, if it causes an undue administrative and financial burden to the housing provider, then it can be denied.


‘Undue’ is another of those words owners and managers hate and lawyers love to dispute.


[The resident’s] failure to meet the sanity and/or building codes could be interpreted as an undue financial and administrative burden for the housing provider.

‘Could’?  I’d say certainly is such a failure.


The operative principle should be this duality:


Owners should not be exposed to material financial loss from a hoarder.

So long as owners are not exposed to loss, they should cooperate with social-service assistance efforts.



Giving meaning to ‘equal opportunity’: Fair Housing


Implicit in this story, aside from its humanitarian appeal, is that the services provided (a) cost a lot to deliver, and (b) do not pay for themselves in any economic sense relative to the property.  The money comes from donors:


The Hoarding and Sanitation Initiative is part of MBHP’s privately funded Specialized Intensive Programs and Services. It continues to operate thanks to the generous support of corporations and individuals committed to preserving tenancy by providing services to those who need it most.


The field of hoarding-counseling is newly emerging:


We are doing a great deal of work both in Boston as well as training service providers, engaging property owners and others about fair housing issues related to compulsive hoarding, participating on a state-wide task force and most recently, convening a regional network to plan a better response system in the Boston area. 


Helping hoarders illustrates a central difference between public and private imperatives, and how to draw the boundary between them.  Private landlords should not have to bear the costs of dealing with the externalities of hoarding residents; those should be borne by society at large.  Conversely, if society finds the money, either through government appropriations or through simple charity, private landlords should enable the possibility of success. 



Helping severely troubled people takes many hands from many directions


Imagine how worthwhile it would be to turn a life around, and prevent people from dying, psychologically and even physically, under a mountain of their obsessive clutter.


If you or someone you know needs assistance with hoarding issues, or for more information about the program or about how you can donate money so others can receive similar help, contact Edsell-Vetter at (617) 425-6658 [Or Jesse {dot} Vetter {at} mbhp {dot} org. – Ed.].


Good for you, Jesse.



Jesse Edsell-Vetter of MBHP