Hoarding and Associations – When the Accumulation of “Stuff” Requires Intervention
With the rising popularity of A&E’s “Hoarding: Buried Alive” and HGTV home improvement television shows as well as easier accessibility to “stuff”, the presence of hoarding behavior in our country has gained increased public awareness and concern.
Hoarding disorder (or “pathological hoarding”) is recognized by the American Psychiatric Association (“APA”) as a distinct condition characterized by the following: the accumulation of and inability to discard or otherwise disposing of a large number of objects that are seemingly of little or no value; extensive disorganized clutter which prevents the effective and intended use of spaces and interferes with everyday living; excessive and compulsive shopping; and impairments in social, occupational or other important areas of functioning. Some of the attendant psychological symptoms associated with hoarding include strong positive feelings (joy or delight) when obtaining new items, strong negative feelings (anger, guilt and fear) when faced with getting rid of items, a belief that useless items are valuable and may be useful at a future time, and a belief that inanimate objects have feelings.
There is no “prototype” of a typical hoarder, as individuals who hoard encompass all economical strata and gender. Hoarding behavior typically begins during teenage years and often worsens gradually over time. This disorder is believed to be sparked by a traumatic event in an individual’s life, such as the loss of a loved one. Many hoarders are described as experiencing euphoria or a “high” when accumulating items, akin to that experienced by drug abusers.
It is important to recognize, however, that not all individuals who “collect” items are properly classified as hoarders. In contrast, collectors deliberately accumulate a special assortment of items in a well-organized manner, recognized by most individuals as being valuable. Items in collections are planned and actively sought out, acquired, organized, cataloged, displayed and never or rarely used. The boundary between a collection and hoarding becomes blurred where mismanagement of unrelated items results in excessive clutter, impinging on one’s ability to perform basic household and other functions.
How can an individual suffering from a hoarding disorder be identified? In some cases, the clutter and unsanitary conditions associated with hoarding are open and obvious to neighbors and are quickly brought to the attention of a property manager or the board of an association. However, in other instances, a hoarder is only discovered after uncleanliness and unsanitary conditions leads to the emission of odors or infestation of vermin or insects (which may spread to neighboring units or properties). For instance, the hoarding of paper products (i.e. newspapers, books, etc.) can create an ideal living space for mice or rats which, in turn, carry parasitic insects such as fleas and bed bugs. Even pest control experts have extreme difficulty eradicating a vermin or insect infestation with traditional use of fumigation, sprays, or traps in a hoarding situation.
Besides unsanitary conditions (which may lead to widespread pest infestation, mold and disease or illness), hoarding also may cause structural issues, dangerous electric or gas appliances, fire hazards, and flooding. The presence of uncontrolled clutter can also prevent emergency services from access to homes and occupants, thus making them unable to render aid in case of emergencies. Moreover, the presence of unsanitary conditions, an inordinate number of pets and danger of collapse may also put emergency personnel at risk of harm.
Accordingly, the hazards created by individuals suffering from hoarding disorder are far-reaching and, for purposes of a community or condominium association, may be dire and should not be ignored. An association could be held liable for failure to act upon being notified of a hoarding situation in cases where other units are damaged as the result of a fire, or in cases where other unit owners are detrimentally effected by the spread of bugs, mold and vermin. Inevitably, this begs the question- what can we, as community association professionals, do to effectively respond to hoarding behavior?
When an association becomes aware of a suspected hoarding situation, the board must look to its governing documents for relevant authority to act. Many documents extend broad rule making powers, set forth access easements and permit direct intervention (self-help). Whether, and the extent to which a board can or must act, will depend upon the circumstances. In most cases, however, investigation and due diligence is warranted. This may include contacting the owner or resident, neighbors, and township or borough officials. Municipalities are often willing to assist in an investigation because hoarding behavior may constitute a violation of local ordinances. The municipality may also be in contact with local agencies which can assist, including the SPCA, hoarding task forces, local mental health agencies and the County Agency on Aging. Moreover, in anticipation of the situation worsening, the association’s legal counsel should also be contacted.
In some cases, an association’s governing documents will provide the board with the power to enter a unit based on a suspected violation, i.e. nuisance, duty to maintain a unit in a good, clean and sanitary condition, etc. Even if specifically authorized, however, self-help may be too risky and thus inappropriate. A board may be able to rely on the local code enforcement officer to obtain an administrative search warrant from a magisterial district court judge, which requires probable cause of the violation of a municipal ordinance. Simultaneously, a preliminary injunction petition should be filed which requests that the court order an individual to refrain from certain activity, i.e., the requirement an individual removes and disposes of items and trash in a timely manner, permitting the plaintiff the ability to inspect the premises, and giving the defending party the responsibility to maintain the property in a safe, clean and orderly manner. The court may also define the consequences of an individual’s failure to abide by the order, which may include sanctions. Although certain legal criteria must be met prior to the granting of a preliminary injunction petition, in hoarding cases the satisfaction of these requirements is typically readily achievable.
Although hoarding is treatable by mental health professionals, simply cleaning out a unit or residence, without addressing underlying psychological causes, will likely result in recidivism. Therefore, in responding to these unfortunate situations, it is important to not only be knowledgeable and sensitive to the attendant mental health issues underlying the behavior, but, to the extent possible, provide a positive motivation for change and attempt to get the individual suffering from hoarding disorder actively involved in assisting the decluttering. In addition, recommending treatment in the form of support groups and counseling may prove vital in curtailing future behavior.
Regardless of the reason why hoarding behavior starts, it is important to orchestrate positive and impactful changes by working in harmony with the affected individual, his/her friends, family and neighbors, municipal officials, legal counsel, mental health and clean-up professionals as well as community organizations in order to ensure that the unit and/or property is restored to a safe, sanitary and functioning state.