Hoarding is a psychological condition where: 1) individuals have difficulty getting rid of possessions that are no longer useful; and 2) efforts to discard these possessions and not acquire new items cause distress. Television shows such as Hoarding: Buried Alive and Hoarders display in alarming detail the negative emotional and physical impact of this condition upon the individual with the hoarding disorder as well as his or her family and neighbors.
The negative consequences of hoarding in a community association — especially a high-rise condominium — are very serious. Hoarding behavior can easily lead to unsanitary and unsafe conditions that extend far outside the unit where the hoarding condition has manifested. For example, collections of half empty food containers strewn about a unit can quickly escalate into a pest infestation and breeding ground for mold and other unwelcome guests. Piles of newspapers and other combustible materials in close proximity to heat sources become fire risks. The cumulative weight of hoarded items can even lead to structural problems. Doorways and hallways overflowing and otherwise barricaded by mounds of stuff can hamper the efforts of emergency personnel and management.
A community association that chooses to ignore a hoarding situation could be found liable for failing to take action if the hoarding situation leads to injury to person or property. Although subject to further refinement by the governing documents, the law provides that associations are responsible for the maintenance, repair, and replacement of the common elements while unit owners are responsible for the maintenance, repair, and replacement of his or her unit. As discussed above, a hoarding situation can easily impact common elements along with other units.
Before taking action, however, the association should make sure that it is dealing with a true hoarding situation as opposed to an untidy unit. It is not the association’s job to convert a slob into a neat freak. The association’s focus should be upon the well-being of the community. In addition, the association should rely upon objective criteria set forth in the governing documents, state and local laws, fire codes, and building codes.
Along with focusing on the well-being of the community and objective criteria, the association should proceed with empathy as opposed to indignation or anger. Hoarding is a psychological condition as opposed to a lifestyle choice. The person exhibiting the hoarding behavior may not even realize that he or she has a problem. It is very unlikely that this person is deliberately choosing to create a problem within the community.
The first action step for the association should be to notify the unit owner that the condition of his or her unit violates the governing documents, statutes, and/or local codes. Consultation with legal counsel is recommended since he or she can cite to the specific authority implicated by the hoarding behavior. In addition, notification from legal counsel may be enough to cause the unit owner to modify his or her behavior. Since it is very common for individuals to relapse back to the hoarding behavior, it is important that the association document its enforcement efforts so that it can bolster any subsequent actions to stop the hoarding behavior.
If the unit owner fails to comply with association’s demand, then the association should contact local government authorities as well as the unit owner’s family or emergency contacts (if the information was provided by the unit owner). Government agencies can rely upon property maintenance codes, fire codes, animal welfare laws, child abuse/neglect laws, and even older adult abuse/neglect laws to stop to the hoarding situation. Philadelphia even has a hoarding task force comprised of multiple agencies within local government. While the government is investigating the situation, family members can assist the unit owner in finding help and starting to tackle the physical problem. Involving these parties is cost-free and may resolve the problem. If the problem involves a tenant, the owner can evict.
Depending upon the seriousness of the situation, however, a community association may have to act before the situation can be resolved by others. The association may need to file a preliminary injunction (or temporary restraining order depending upon your jurisdiction) in order to secure a court order that forces the unit owner to abate the hoarding situation while providing the association with the ability to confirm compliance through inspection.