Question: I have a tenant who has been occupying one of my apartments for about seven years now. The tenant always pays the rent on time and I have not had any complaints until recently. Last month, a neighbor informed me that the tenant appears to be a hoarder. When I went to visit my tenant at the apartment, I was shocked to see that I could barely step inside. There were boxes stacked to the ceilings, what appeared to be trash strewn all over the interior, blocked doorways and a generally disgusting atmosphere. What can I do?
Answer: An apartment in the condition you describe is likely the result of hoarding, a serious mental illness related to obsessive compulsive disorder. A tenant who hoards is not simply messy or disorganized, but suffers from a debilitating psychological disorder. As a tenant with a disability, a hoarding tenant has some protection under the Fair Housing laws, but that does not mean you are powerless to take action to address the problem.
Avoid judging such tenants; focus instead on the conditions that result from their actions that present legitimate health and safety concerns. Are they breaking any building or fire codes? Are there blocked emergency exits or other limited egress? What about interference with ventilation or sprinkler systems that could result in a fire or other dangerous condition? Any or all of these conditions represent potential lease violations and serious health and safety concerns, and you can take action to address them.
You might also be able to take action if the tenant's hoarding is interfering with other tenants' enjoyment of the property. For example, if personal property is being stored in common areas, such as stairways and hallways, or if the clutter is causing noxious odors or attracting pests, the tenant is probably in breach of the lease agreement and may be violating local health and safety codes.
Your first step should be to document the conditions, put the tenant on notice, and give an opportunity to cure the breach of any applicable lease conditions and code violations. Be forewarned, however, that your tenant may not be able to resolve this situation without a good deal of assistance, such as professional counseling or cleaning and moving services. You might consider offering to put your tenant in touch with professionals who may be able to provide assistance.
In the end, however, if the tenant cannot or will not bring the apartment back into compliance with the lease provisions and redress any serious health and safety concerns after ample time and opportunity to do so, you can and probably should consider eviction.
Van Deursen is director of Dispute Resolution Programs for Project Sentinel, a Bay Area nonprofit. Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.