How to Tackle Hoarding with Mary Ross

Hoarding. What is it? Why is there a need to get a conversation started and increase awareness? What are the fair housing implications? Mary Ross joins us to shine a light on this important topic.

A man sitting in front of a garage full of junk due to his hoarding problem

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

Hoarding is tough to spot and even more brutal to manage. We have definitely seen an increase due to Covid restrictions not allowing for annual unit inspections. Now that things are opening up, we need to get the conversation going to ensure that everyone has access to the training necessary to tackle this highly sensitive topic.

What is hoarding?

Hoarding is considered a mental disability which is why it’s a concern when it comes to fair housing as it is a protected category. A clinical doctor would say that a hoarder is someone with the inability to dispose of certain items, be it for sentimental reasons or fear of letting go. There are five levels of hoarding. It’s pretty difficult to recognize it at its earliest stages. Still, training is needed to catch it no later than level two or three, hopefully, to assist and manage the situation before it becomes what we typically see on TV.

What practical issues arise for property management professionals when a tenant has this disorder?

Property managers are hesitant to make any decisive moves when a disability is involved. There is also the issue of not having a policy in place that allows for periodical unit inspections. Along with that, there also needs to be clear definitions of what cleanliness is to differentiate between who is messy and who is a hoarder.

What fair housing issues come into play when property management has to address a hoarding issue?

When dealing with hoarding, we are looking at a reasonable accommodation or modification. This person has an obvious disability that requires accommodation. This is where documentation is critical. Firstly you need to advise the tenant that you are aware of the situation and offer assistance. The form of assistance can range from providing the tenant with a list of organizations that can help, to offering to reach out to the organizations for the tenant. 

Property managers need to keep in mind that hoarding affects more than just the person with the disability. A hoarding situation can quickly interfere with the peaceful enjoyment of the property by other residents.

What sensible policies should property managers have in place to deal with residents who are hoarding?

Your policies depend on what type of property you are running. For conventional properties, you need very clear documentation that outlines lease violations and potential resolutions. For federally funded properties the government provides a lease that includes language that requires that the unit be decent, safe, and sanitary. Along with this, there are also notices that can be provided should a situation arise.

Combating hoarding – Final thoughts

Hoarding is a difficult situation that requires tact. Remember that it is a disability and needs to be treated accordingly. Ensure that your property is using the right policies based on its type. Encourage regular training on how to identify hoarding and how to manage it. Finally, inspection policies along with documentation are again critical, especially if a fair housing claim is made or the courts need to be involved. These are the steps every property needs to follow to spot hoarding quickly and stay fair housing compliant.

Jonathan (00:12): Hello everyone. And welcome to episode 46 of the 'Fair Housing Insiders'. I'm your host, Jonathan Saar. And today we have a very special guest with us today, Mary Ross from Ross Business Development. So we are looking forward to having an amazing conversation about hoarding. Now, Mary is the president of Ross Business Development, and you can learn more about her at her website, RBD Now dot com. And she is the nation's premiere provider of HUD multi-family housing compliance training, and policy development products. So be sure to check her out, we'll have her website in the show notes. And just as another quick reminder, if you haven't done so already be sure to sign up for our newsletter. So you never miss out on episodes, such as this, it keeps you tune with not only these episodes, but any other items that we're highlighting to our community. And please follow us on our Instagram account at Fair Housing Institute. So today Mary and I are talking about hoarding and the fair housing challenges that are associated with it. We've never talked about this Mary, but first of all, again, welcome to the show. So nice to have you here with us, you know, I'm looking forward to having this conversation with you today.

Mary (01:32): Well, we're looking forward to it too there. I don't think there's enough conversation about hoarding and the fair housing impact on hoarding, but a lot of property managers ask a lot of questions. So I think this is a really great topic.

Jonathan (01:42): Absolutely, absolutely. And a sensitive one too, because I know there's a lot of stigma sometimes around that topic and what people are dealing with from that perspective. So it'll be nice to hear what you've seen, how you're addressing some of these bigger questions and provide our audience with a really high level overview, because yeah, like you said, there's just so much with this topic. So let's start with our first question. What is hoarding?

Mary (02:08): Hoarding is actually considered a mental disability, so, which is why we move into the fair housing arena. And it is basically a, a clinical diagnosis would say it's someone with an inability to let go of certain items and they'd may have sentimental value, or they just may feel like it's something that they need, but there's a fear behind everything. And there's five levels of hoarding. That's one of the most important things that property managers need to know is that you need to start recognizing hoarding at the earlier levels. Level one's kind of difficult, but level two or level three because if you can stop it at that level, then certainly it doesn't get as bad as a level five, which I think is what most people hear about is the worst case scenario where there's things like feces on the floor and rooms become unusable, that kind of a scenario. So what we'd like to do is talk a little bit about how to recognize the earlier stages.

Jonathan (03:05): Right? Right. Very good, nice overview and timely too, because there's so much conversation about mental health challenges and mental health awareness that this is one as property management professionals. We don't wanna ever kind of like brush this under the rug. It's just as important as all the other ones that are being talked about. So thank you for providing that overview. So let's dive in for a second, from the perspective of the property management company, like what are some issues that arise for a management company when they find resident that has this kind of disorder?

Mary (03:42): What one of the problems is that property managers have learned to recognize that this is a disability and property managers are often hesitant to make any strong moves when they know there's the presence of a disability. There's a lot of fear about dealing with reasonable accommodation and modification. Especially with COVID, there's been a hesitance to enter an apartment. And if you don't enter an apartment, then you cannot discover hoarding in its early stages. And it gets to a really bad point before a property manager gets there. So one of the things that we've noticed is that owner agents sometimes have an absence of a policy to enter a unit periodically, even during COVID 19, there's a way to have a resident move out and, and not move out, but get out and the property manager come in. The other thing is that a lot of owner agents don't have clear definitions of what cleanliness is. You know, there's a difference between somebody that is messy and then somebody that is you know, a hoarder. It really is a significant difference. And I think that with a property management firm, they don't even think about addressing hoarding until they have a problem. And it's usually a big problem and we would strongly suggest a little upfront action that says, you need to think about prevention before you get to a point where you're dealing with remediation.

Jonathan (05:05): Oh, I love that. Very good. A practical tip, like try and get ahead of the problem. So yeah. Thank you for that, Mary. That's great. So, you know, the reason, one of the big, obviously the big reasons other than wanting to have you on the show for the longest time, but we wanna talk about fair housing now. So like where does fair housing really come into play for property management when there's, when they know that they have a tenant or a resident that has a hoarding issue?

Mary (05:30): Well, for us property management or fair housing training and property management includes all of the seven federally protected categories, but we have always encouraged everybody to have special training regarding reasonable accommodation and modification, and recognize that there are more than just the standard disabilities that people think about like mental disabilities or physical disabilities. Sometimes there's a combination that what physicians will say is it presents in a certain way. So really hoarding is really a manifestation of OCD sometimes that's what brings on hoarding. And that's not the only mental disability that brings on hoarding, but just an example of one. And so when we look at reasonable accommodation and modification, what you tend to see is somebody backing off and what you really have to do as a property manager is understand that every single reasonable accommodation has its own special practices.

Mary (06:27): So when you're looking at hoarding and addressing hoarding, you have to say, okay, I know that this is a person with an obvious or known disability that's comes right into your head, and fair housing tells you to recognize that, right? And so you have to say, I need to make sure that we're making the resident understand that they have a right to a reasonable accommodation. And that's where things seem to fall apart. It's a situation where you have to advise the resident. And the best way to do that is to have special documentation that says, if you need assistance, let us know, these organizations can assist you. We will be happy to contact them for you. So if you get into a situation where you're in litigation, that you can present your case and say, we tried everything we could to address this issue, but it is still interfering with the peaceful enjoyment of the property by other residents. I think sometimes with fair housing property managers get focused on the person that is protected. And sometimes they don't remember that everybody else has rights as well. And that can certainly be a challenge.

Jonathan (07:32): Yeah, no, absolutely. So think, yeah, it's good to, I'm glad you brought that out. Like it's not just the individual, there's just so many other factors that have to be in play. So good. I think we've followed a really nice path here. You know, so issues that come up for property management, kinda a nice overview of where fair housing comes into play. So now the next logical question that will come from all of our community is okay, so we know this is gonna happen. It's very realistic that it could happen. So what are some policies that we should have in place to deal with residents who are hoarding?

Mary (08:11): Well, the policies that we recommend for the owner agents that we work with are very different, depending on whether or not you have a conventional property with no federal funding or you have an affordable property with federal funding because the rules are a little bit different. So for a conventional property, we would make sure that notices are set in place, not to say hoarding per se, cause we would never use that specific term anymore than we would say because you're blind. You know, we wouldn't say because you're a hoarder. In that situation, we would make sure that they have clear documentation that addresses the lease violations and potential resolutions to the lease violations, including making sure the lease says what it's supposed to do. From a federally funded point of view, we're using a lease that's provided by the federal government, which already talks about decent, safe and sanitary.

Mary (08:56): So you look at, as the owner agent developed the appropriate notices to comply once hoarding is identified. And once again we find that property managers do not start addressing it soon enough, training to make sure that property managers understand the levels and when they step in is really important once again, with the proper notifications and then we also implement something from a unit inspection point of view that says, okay, annual inspections are the norm. You know, we come in once a year, make sure the unit's okay, doesn't need to be repainted, nothing needs to be replaced, et cetera. But if we have a situation where the unit is not maintained in accordance with the lease, you know, which we're very specific about, then we implement a more frequent unit inspection policy. So depending on the level, you know, it might be quarterly instead of yearly. And then that adjusts based on positive results of a unit inspection.

Jonathan (09:55): Okay. Very good. Thank you for all that. And thank you for like also highlighting the differences between, you know, conventional housing and affordable housing, you know, and before we're getting you know, setting up for the show today, you were talking about some of the training and stuff that your company does. And I was just imagining we talk about this often Mary on our show, just like these are all good practical steps, but it is so important to incorporate these situations into your training or, you know, work with a company like you that provides that for, you know, that's unique to that because especially for all the new ones coming into the industry, we don't wanna blindside them with, okay, well what do I do in this situation? So policies are good, but it's also so, so important to have practical training you know, either in person or online training to make sure that those things are reinforced.

Mary (10:51): I would agree with that.

Jonathan (10:53): You know, thank you so much. This is like fast paced, like, boom, boom, we got this, got this discussion taken care of.

Mary (11:01): You said we were short on time, so.

Jonathan (11:03): Yeah, yeah, no, no, it's, it's good. And you know, and I think we'll, we'll get so much feedback from the community. So we look forward to your comments and questions that you have. So remember to do that, if you have any questions, please post that in the YouTube channel or on the blog or any of the social posts that we share. So Mary, again, thank you so much for being on the show and we wanted to involve you in one of the fun things that we've instituted for 2022. So are you up for the 60 second Fair Housing Fast Five game to play along.

Mary (11:43): I am.

Jonathan (11:43): You are. Okay. Cool. Cool. Cool. All right. Let me get my fancy phone stopwatch up here. And so how this game goes Mary is, you know, you win one quintillion fake dollars. If you can get it under 60 seconds, you know, that's a lot of fake possibilities. So you know, do your best. We look forward to it, but it's always fun cause we know fair housing's it can be, you can go on and on with some of these questions. So I mean, looking forward to hearing your feedback on our fast five questions for today. So are you ready?

Mary (12:22): I'm ready.

Jonathan (12:23): All right, here we go. So what do we do if the resident will not allow access to the unit?

Mary (12:29): Well, once again, a little different between conventional and affordable. Affordable properties would mandate entry into the unit. So if the resident will not allow entry into the unit at an affordable property, the result will be termination of tenancy, which is eviction under normal rules.

Jonathan (12:45): Very good. Thank you. How many times may a resident request a reasonable accommodation?

Mary (12:50): There is no limit to the number of times a resident can request reasonable accommodation.

Jonathan (12:55): Okay. Are owner agents responsible for contacting an agency to help the resident?

Mary (13:01): Under affordable housing? The answer would be yes. Under conventional housing. The answer is no. Although we would consider that a best practice to be presented if there is any litigation.

Jonathan (13:11): Perfect. What's the biggest difference between conventional properties and federally funded properties?

Mary (13:17): Conventional properties are subject to the Fair Housing Act while affordable properties are also subject to the section 504, which would require the owner agent to pay for resolution of hoarding where a conventional property manager could charge the tenant.

Jonathan (13:31): Beautiful. What is the biggest mistake property managers make?

Mary (13:36): Not addressing hoarding issues soon enough.

Jonathan (13:40): So close, so close. So close. You almost won the one quintillion kajillion fake dollars, but that was amazing. A minute, 15 seconds. That's that's huge, you know? So thank you for sharing that. And I know everyone will take, take note of the those those answers and be able to use them. So just as a reminder to our community, yeah. Please share this with your team. We'll share this. We'll provide some nice background to this topic if you're choosing to talk about it in-house. So again, Mary, thank you so, so much for being on the show today, it has been an absolute, genuine pleasure to have you, and we look forward to having you back on again in the future, if you're up for it.

Mary (14:23): Thanks Jonathan. I look forward to that as well.

Jonathan (14:25): All right. Very good. So thanks everyone for tuning into our show. We thank you for your support. Please give our show a thumbs up if you're on YouTube and we want your feedback. So if you have any questions, please feel free to reach out to us. So until next time take care, everyone.

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