Recently, we started working for a new property in Phoenix. Previously, it had been managed by a brokerage company that did property management on the side. Unfortunately, we quickly discovered that there were some major problems at the property.
As a Phoenix property management company, we have seen some unusual situations, but this property had a truly unexpected problem. The current tenant had lived at the property for 18 years. While she was an extremely nice woman, her lifestyle was a problem. We initially arrived at the property to introduce ourselves as the new property management team. When she opened the door, we discovered a narrow walkway from the back of the house to the kitchen. At its widest, it spanned about 2 feet in size. The entirety of her living room and dining room was packed to the ceiling with stuff.
In the kitchen, the renter had items piled in the oven, on the counters and in the sink. None of these areas could be used, and all of those items were clearly a fire hazard. Many of the doors and the windows were blocked completely from egress and ingress. Since there are laws about habitability in a home, the property needed to be cleaned up.
The tenant was clearly a hoarder. When we discussed the issue, she completely admitted that there was a problem. Each year, our team undergoes training about fair housing rules. Because of this, we all knew that being a hoarder is considered a psychiatric disorder. Under the fair housing guidelines, it was classified as a mental disability.
According to the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic Statistical Manual, Version 5 (DSM-5), hoarding disorder is defined as:
- Someone with a persistent difficulty in getting rid or parting with items, regardless of their actual value.
- Someone with a difficult parting with items because of a need to save that causes stress about discarding the items.
- Someone who has symptoms that are caused by possessions accumulating, congesting and cluttering their living areas. This clutter substantially prevents the living areas from being used.
- Someone who has a clinically significant interference or distress.
- Someone who does not have another medical condition or DSM-5 disorder that could better account for the symptoms.
According to federal and state fair housing laws, people with mental disabilities are protected. Landlords have to make reasonable accommodations for their disabled residents. Unfortunately, many hoarders are ashamed or unwilling to ask for reasonable accommodations. Because of this, the property manager or the property's owner must find a solution.
In this situation and in similar situations, our team uses the following steps to solve the problem.
1. Meet with the tenant for an initial inspection. Determine if hoarding is the problem.
2. If hoarding is the problem, draft a letter about cleaning up the property. In the letter, set a 30-day letter for the tenant to clean up and respond that they have complied.
3. If they want to comply with the cleaning request, we will work to make a timeline with specific tasks that the tenant will complete within a reasonable time frame.
4. If the tenant chooses not to comply, the property owner has the legal right to evict the tenant.
Evictions are expensive, so our goal is to work with tenants to prevent this from happening. In this particular case, we know that we will eventually have to do a major overhaul with the carpet and paint. If the tenant is able to work with us, we can delay those repair tasks and save on eviction costs. Ultimately, our properties save more money by working with tenants in these cases.
When a problem like this used to come up, property managers would immediately evict the tenant and give them notice to vacate the premises. Now, our focus is on finding the lowest cost solution that complies with state and federal laws. Even when they are not readily apparent, we have to be mindful of fair housing rules at all times.