I have received multiple complaints from neighboring units above an elderly resident’s home where there is potential hoarding and cluttering. This resident has declined my request for entry. What should I do?
As reported by the 2007 San Francisco Taskforce on Compulsive Hoarding where SFAA was a participant alongside other community stakeholders, compulsive hoarding and cluttering is a serious and treatable behavior that is often related to several mental illnesses including obsessive-compulsive disorder and major depression. It can have significant negative effects on people who struggle with it, along with their families and communities. Compulsive hoarding and cluttering activities are characterized by the acquisition and retention of overwhelming quantities of objects that do not—to an outsider—seem useful or necessary and that cause the individual significant distress or impairment.
Housing providers are caught between a proverbial rock and a hard place. On the one hand, hoarders like this resident will not be well served by jeopardizing their housing, yet on the other hand, hoarding and cluttering habits oftentimes adversely impact neighbors and may endanger the hoarding resident and others in the building. Examples of adverse impacts include smells and foul odors, pest control issues, and, in extreme cases, floor/ceiling collapses as well as potential fire dangers. Thus, as the housing provider, you cannot not ignore the situation.
Here are several resources available to local landlords: Adult Protective Services https://www.sfhsa.org/services/protection-safety/adult-protective-services, Mental Health Association of San Francisco https://www.mentalhealthsf.org/, and Legal Assistance to the Elderly https://laesf.org/. Start here to try to find someone that will reach out to your resident in a manner that fosters trust and a willingness to permit supervised care. You might succeed, especially if you offer to pay for cleaning and clutter removal. Yes, such proactive help might be initially costly, but these efforts could result in a permanent level of cleanliness that no longer poses serious risk to the tenant or to those living around her.
Sometimes, legal action may be necessary, but contemplate this route only if all reasonable efforts to procure supervised care fails. Your attorney may begin legal action against the resident for failing to permit lawful requests for access (e.g., entries to assess the hoarding and to contemplate a remedy) and, in extreme cases, the ongoing maintenance of a nuisance. However, please keep in mind that the purpose of such litigation should be to convince your tenant to seek help in order to meaningfully address the problem as opposed to forcefully evicting her from the building. In other words, initiating an eviction is done not to make her move but rather to elevate the seriousness of the situation to her as well as to the various local resources in town that may be willing to provide help. Is it possible that the tenant refuses all assistance and continues to hoard and clutter to an extent that severely impacts those around her? Yes, and in those instances the legal processes may have to move ahead towards termination of the tenancy. Yet those cases are rare, and more often than not the hoarder ultimately welcomes good faith efforts to address a mental illness that socially isolates and ostracizes its victims.