How to Handle the Resident Hoarder

You may think hoarding is something that could never happen in your community. But chances are there may be a hoarder living in your community right now. Here are 10 signs you might have a hoarder.
amanda brock in focus

If you’ve watched TLC’s Hoarders: Buried Alive, you may think hoarding is something that could never happen in your community. But chances are there may be a hoarder living in your community right now. Are your community team members prepared to identify and manage a hoarding situation?

Hoarding is a dark secret for many people. For others, it’s just a way of life. Some don’t even realize they have a problem with hoarding until others point it out. It’s not a matter of “bad housekeeping,” “laziness,” or “a bad habit” to be corrected. Removing the person’s stuff will not fix their problem. Hoarding is a mental disorder, and often, it is genetic.

Hoarders have a compulsive need to acquire things, difficulty discarding things and strong feelings towards their possessions. However, hoarding is not like collecting. Hoarders accumulate so many possessions that their homes, cars and even their workplaces can no longer be used for their intended purposes. According to the American Psychiatric Association, 2 percent to 5 percent of the U.S. population can be clinically labeled hoarders.

Hoarding is more common in adults than children, and it is uncommon for adults over age 50 to begin compulsively hoarding. However, adults age 50 and older are more likely to seek treatment for their behavior than younger hoarders. Without professional behavioral treatment, almost 100 percent of hoarders will relapse into their old ways.

The justifications hoarders offer family and friends for their behavior often fall into one of four categories:

  • Future need: “I might need this someday.”
  • Lack of wear or damage: “I can’t throw this away. There is nothing wrong with it.”
  • Sentimental saving: “This item means too much to me to get rid of it.”
  • Potential value: “Someday this item could be worth something.”

They simply cannot convince themselves to get rid of something that they see as valuable. The items may take on an exaggerated psychological or sentimental attachment for the hoarder. In psychological terms, the items may become part of a coping mechanism to help the hoarder deal with their fears, uncertainty, and need for control or responsibility. The person may feel shame or guilt if others discover their behavior. For this reason, hoarders may distance themselves from family and friends in order to hide their living conditions.

There is no typical hoarder. Your community team members will not be able to identify a hoarder by the way they speak, dress, or present themselves. The disorder affects every race, sexual orientation, gender, nationality, socioeconomic class, religion and education level. Many hoarders are discovered when neighbors notice strong odors, buckling floors, or infestations in their own homes. Train your community team members, including your maintenance teams, to maintain strong relationships with your residents and to be aware of the telltale signs of hoarding.

Hoarding and the Fair Housing Act

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that one in 20 Americans have a mental disorder. More surprising, they estimate that almost half of the U.S. population will develop at least one mental disorder during their lifetimes.

In 2013, the American Psychiatric Association recognized hoarding as a mental disorder. As a disability, the 1988 amendment to the federal Fair Housing Act protects hoarders because their major life activities are significantly limited by mental impairment. Keep in mind that the Fair Housing Act also:

  • Protects against disability discrimination for renters without disabilities who live with or are associated with persons with disabilities.
  • Does not allow for discrimination on the basis of fear, speculations, or stereotypes about a disability or persons with disabilities.
  • Requires that property managers or owners make reasonable accommodations for residents with disabilities.

What qualifies as a reasonable request from a hoarder? That answer will change with each situation. No two hoarders are alike in severity or even the types of items they hoard. Community team members should be realistic when considering the request of the hoarder. Supplying additional on-site storage space or agreeing that the resident would hire a cleaning service in order to remain in the home would be reasonable accommodations.

Your community team members can refuse reasonable accommodations if it creates an undue financial or administrative burden or fundamentally changes your community’s operations. But instead of refusing a request, it’s in the community’s best interest to work with the resident to find alternative accommodations that are mutually beneficial. Remind your team that hoarders are part of a protected class—it is against the law to discriminate because they have a disability.

Dangerous situations—fire hazards, unlivable conditions and infestations—should be addressed immediately. Likewise, if children, elderly persons, or animals are being neglected or abused, the community team members should immediately contact local protective services.

Planning

For your community team members, hoarding can cause upheaval. From structural damage and unlivable conditions to fire hazards and infestations, your community is at risk from hoarding. While your instincts may tell you to evict the resident immediately, that’s not always the best approach.

At Grace Hill, we recommend working with the resident to resolve the issue. Each situation will be different, but establishing a plan and timeline, your community team members can provide ample opportunities that benefit the resident hoarder and your community. Let’s take a look at five steps for working with hoarders and how to avoid eviction (when possible) and potential claims of discrimination.

1. Understand the situation and act accordingly. Take time to train your staff to understand hoarding disorder and to handle the situation with sensitivity. If your maintenance technician engages with the resident during a repair call, train them to use the same language as the resident when referring to their “things” or “collections;” do not refer to their possessions as “junk” or “trash.” The resident may be ashamed, embarrassed, or even unaware of their hoarding. Train your team to respect the hoarder’s attachment to their belongings, exercise good judgment, and be considerate when talking to the resident about health and safety concerns.

2. Document everything. The resident may be wary of allowing community members to enter their home. Hoarders will rarely request a maintenance repair or allow routine maintenance, making it almost impossible for maintenance technicians to identify potential problems in the home. Check your lease agreement. Does it allow community team members to enter and inspect the home without the resident’s permission? If not, you may want to consider changes to your agreement.

If possible, have a trained community manager or leasing consultant conduct a thorough inspection to determine if the issue at hand is hoarding or a lack of housekeeping. They should evaluate the home for safety, noting blocked doorways and stairs, structural damage, unsanitary conditions, non-working utilities or appliances, or infestations. Combustible materials stored close to an ignition source should be immediately removed from the premises using appropriate precautions. It is best to photograph or video the residence in addition to the community team member’s written documentation. If the situation does not improve, this documentation may be used in future litigation.

3. Consult with others as needed. Because hoarding is a disability, you should consult with your legal counsel on the legal guidelines and ramifications for hoarders. If children, elderly persons, or animals are present, involve local protective services and/or law enforcement. For structural damage or health code violations, local code enforcement and inspectors may need to be involved. If possible, provide the community team with a list of local agencies and their contact information.

4. Work with the resident. Under the Fair Housing Act, hoarders can request reasonable accommodations. Your designated community team member should establish a plan and timeline for cleanup that will allow the resident to stay in their home and accommodate their requests for changes. Work with your maintenance technicians to enlist the help of cleaning and disposal services. Ask the resident to reach out to family and friends to support them through the transition and to seek professional help. To avoid potential discrimination claims, be consistent in the types of accommodations and timelines used in hoarding situations.

Discuss realistic expectations with your community team. A hoarder’s home will most likely never return to its pristine, new construction appearance. Train your community team to understand what is an acceptable improvement when working through a resolution plan.

5. If all else fails, move forward with an eviction. In cases where the resident is hoarding explosives or animals, blocking emergency exits, or causing damage to their home, the community may be able to immediately begin the eviction process. Due to the costs and timeliness, it’s best to exhaust other options before attempting to evict the resident. Work closely with your legal counsel and local governing and emergency agencies to determine the best way to proceed and stay within the law.

The cost and time consumed when evicting a hoarder can quickly add up. The Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination based on disabilities, so take the time to train your community team to identify and manage hoarding situations. Initiating a plan of action can not only help maintain a great on-site experience in your community, it can also help a resident get the help he or she needs to overcome hoarding.

10 telltale signs of hoarding

  1. Living areas are unusable. There are often no sitting areas in the home. The hoarder creates “nests” if they need a place to sit or sleep.
  2. Appliances and utilities are shut off. Moldy refrigerators, overflowing toilets and infested ovens are often found in hoarding homes, making basic functions like cooking and bathing impossible.
  3. No organization to the clutter. Hoarders may be unable to control their impulse to buy things or take free items, but they do not organize or display their possessions.
  4. Home is unsanitary. From structural damage to infestations to decaying piles of garbage, sanitation problems can quickly arise and spread to neighboring homes.
  5. Lack of maintenance requests. Hoarders may not request repairs or allow routine maintenance to help hide their hoarding behavior.
  6. An extreme number of pets. Animal hoarders may intend to care for their pets, but the situation often leads to unintentional neglect, abuse, or death.
  7. Unwilling to dispose or give up items. Hoarders may be psychologically or sentimentally attached to their belongings. When another person touches, moves, or attempts to dispose of their things, it can cause overwhelming anxiety.
  8. Combative or defensive when confronted. Ultimatums do not usually work for hoarders. They may become angry or distance themselves if pushed to change their behavior.
  9. Socially isolated. Hoarders may feel alienated by family and friends who do not understand their behavior, or they may hoard to comfort their loneliness resulting from isolation.
  10. Unwilling to allow people in their home. Guilt, shame and embarrassment may prevent hoarders from allowing people to enter their homes.

Amanda Brock is an instructional designer at Grace Hill, Inc. She has over a decade of experience in marketing, public relations, technical writing and training. She currently lives in Greenville, S.C.