PICS ATTACHED | Some residents have a dirty little secret—and it could bury them alive. What is an apartment manager to do?
He was a successful businessman who wore a suit and tie to work.
He paid his rent on time and kept to himself. He was the perfect resident. Or so Kathy Campbell thought.
After receiving a call from the cable service provider, who said one of the apartment homes was too messy to work in, the curious Tulsa, Okla.-based property manager pulled the individual unit’s file. When Campbell saw the resident’s name, she assumed they had the wrong guy.
“When I went in the apartment I was shocked,” she says. “There was literally a tunnel of space that you could walk through to get to each room—every other inch of the apartment was covered. Even the bathtub was full of magazines and trash.”
The businessman was a hoarder.
Once considered “packrats,” hoarders suffer from an often debilitating form of mental illness—sometimes a symptom of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder—characterized by the excessive collection of items, along with the inability to discard them, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Often, a hoarder’s living space is filled to capacity, with narrow pathways winding through stacks of clutter. Cockroaches multiply by the thousands. Stacks of newspapers become kindling. Family pets are in danger of being crushed to death. And in extreme cases, hoarders are buried alive—their bodies found under piles of junk.
To prevent hoards from getting out of hand, apartment owners and managers must address the problem. Residents have the obligation to maintain their apartment in a healthy, safe and sanitary condition, as outlined in the lease, and those who are unable to do so may face eviction.
Hoarders often break down emotionally when confronted, and the conversation is uncomfortable for all involved, but silence in the face of hoarding can lead to far worse alternatives.
Possessed by Possessions
D.J. Longo grew up in the apartment industry. The summer he was born, his parents purchased a duplex in Colorado and leased it to a woman who lived there for the next 40 years.
As a child, Longo—now the owner of Denver-based Terra Firma, an apartment investment and management company—says he remembers entering her home to complete maintenance repairs and having no more than a small trail to walk through. But back then, no one really knew what to call such a problem—nor did they have any idea it was a psychological disorder. Before popular TV shows like A&E’s “Hoarders” introduced the concept and made it a household name, people suffering from a real disease were simply viewed as messy—or lazy.
Since Longo’s first encounter with hoarding—which came to a close when the resident eventually purchased the duplex from him—he has experienced several other cases, with varying degrees of severity.
“I had one resident who was renting a studio basement apartment, who, quite frankly, fell through the cracks,” says Longo, who owns 85 units. “She would always come and go fairly discreetly, but we began to notice that she was always carrying plastic bags full of stuff into her apartment and never carrying anything out.”
When Longo inspected her apartment less than six months after moving in, he couldn’t believe what he saw.
“We had to take out 30 garbage cans full of raw trash, which had been stacked to the ceiling in her apartment,” he says. “It was unfathomable.”
One of the biggest keys to prevention, Longo learned, is being diligent about scheduling apartment inspections. Entering a resident’s unit simply to check-up on them is ill-advised—and unlawful, in many states—says Lynn Dover, an Attorney at Law specializing in fair housing for San Diego-based law firm Kimball, Tirey & St. John. However, an apartment management company may still keep an eye out for hoarders.
“If you make it a part of your normal practice to inspect everyone’s smoke and carbon-monoxide detectors every so many months—which is a good safety practice, anyway—you’ll know if you have a hoarder,” Dover says. “That doesn’t mean you can open up the cabinets while you’re in there, but you won’t have to—if there’s a hoarding situation, you’ll know it as soon as you walk in.”
If five months produced 30 bags of raw trash in Longo’s case, three years could amount to 180 bags—or more than 2,000 gallons of trash.
What Lies Beneath
Your eye doctor. The family accountant. Your son’s third-grade teacher. The sweet old lady next door.
Would you be able to tell if they were secretly hoarding?
According to psychologists, many hoarders are discreet and do not want to draw attention to themselves. Their appearance and occupation are often in stark contrast to their living conditions, making it that much harder to spot a hoarder without entering their home.
“We had a female resident who was a dental hygienist and she always came into the office in professional clothes,” says Malia Mims, Community Manager of Westdale Hills Apartments in Euless, Texas. “She was very clean, her make-up was perfect—you’d never suspect anything was off.”
That is until Mims entered the resident’s apartment.
“A contractor hired to fix the building’s foundation issues came into my office and said, ‘You have to see this apartment,’” Mims says. “[The dental hygienist] not only hoarded trash and food containers, but she had seven cats in there and never changed the litter box. She just poured baking soda over it each time the cats went to the bathroom. We had no idea.”
It’s impossible to know what’s happening behind closed doors—especially when there are hundreds of residents—but there are several warning signs and observable behaviors of which apartment professionals should be aware to identify and address hoarding situations.
One of the most common, according to Craig McMahon, a Partner at Kimball, Tirey & St. John, is a resident who refuses entry for maintenance issues or who constantly reschedules visits and makes excuses for why it is never a convenient time for maintenance or management to enter the unit.
Longo agrees. He says in every hoarding case he has ever encountered the resident refused to allow access to the apartment—a violation of the lease when maintenance work is required.
“I had a situation not long ago with a man who had been a resident for several years and never once made a service request,” Longo says. “We wanted to do an inspection of the apartment and he was very against it. I think he had a sense that what he was doing wasn’t right and he was embarrassed.”
Apartment professionals should also consider the possibility of hoarding if they receive complaints from other residents about foul odors emanating from neighboring apartments or a sudden (and unexplained) infestation of bugs or rodents in surrounding units, adds McMahon, who will be presenting a session on hoarding with his colleagues at NAA’s Education Conference & Exposition from June 28-30 in Boston. He says a resident who is continually observed bringing items into their apartment from the Dumpster or off the street is another sign.
While a community manager does not have contact with most residents—especially those who keep to themselves—there are other individuals who can take notice of potential hoarding problems.
“Your pest control guy can be your best ally in reporting unsanitary conditions, in which case you should assess the situation and determine if hoarding is an issue,” says Jennifer Schendel, Vice President of Property Management for Tulsa, Okla.-based Capital Assets, who dealt with a hoarder for the first time in 2003.
Ron Harrison, Ph.D., Director of Technical Services for Orkin, an Atlanta-based pest control company, says he often receives calls from apartment managers asking him to come out and treat one or two individual apartments where there is an increase in pest activity. If the issues persist after treatment, this can be an indication that pests are coming from another apartment where hoarding may be to blame.
Stacks of newspapers, magazines and trash balanced atop and around vents, kitchen appliances and electrical outlets is more than a mess—it’s a fire waiting to ignite. And once it does, it may be uncontrollable.
Recently, a 55-year-old man died after a fire swept through his North Carolina condominium. Police believe he was trapped inside by the things he hoarded, which prevented neighbors from opening the front door. In other extreme and highly publicized cases, hoarders—as well as their pets—have been found dead in and among the hoarded garbage.
Billy Tesh, Owner of Greensboro, N.C.-based Pest Management Systems Inc., says poor sanitation in conjunction with hoarding leads to explosive pest infestations. Trash that hasn’t been taken out for months becomes a food source for roaches, mice, rats and ants. Certain items can attract other pests, like termites drawn to cardboard boxes. Less common but no less severe infestations occur in the South, where meat such as dog food can attract fire ants—a particularly nasty brand of insect.
“Food, water, shelter and an agreeable temperature are four attractive elements for pests that are necessary for their survival,” adds Orkin’s Harrison. “These things are abundantly available in an apartment where hoarding is an issue.”
Tesh says hoarding is particularly problematic in an apartment community because infestations can cause lateral damage to neighboring apartments. When an infestation occurs, the population can quickly explode—and migrate—because pests are able to hide and breed under mounds of garbage.
“If we have 20,000 German cockroaches—which is a conservative estimate in many of these hoarding situations—it’s going to take a lot to kill them and they’re going to travel,” says Tesh, who recently appeared on an episode of TLC’s “Hoarding: Buried Alive.”
A hoarder’s private battle suddenly becomes a public nightmare.
Something To Talk About
If residents in neighboring apartments suddenly spot teeth marks on their box of oatmeal, cockroaches crawling out of the sink or a trail of ants headed to the kitchen, they’re going to start talking—then complaining. And they’re going to want answers.
But according to privacy laws, Dover says property managers must be very careful about the information they release.
“Even if a resident is hoarding—and therefore causing a building-wide pest infestation—you still have to protect their privacy,” Dover says. “Tell the neighbors that you have identified the source of the problem and are taking the necessary steps to remedy it. You’ll find that in many cases, the neighbors will put two and two together and say, ‘I always see so and so dragging all these bags into her apartment.’ Often, they know what’s going on.”
In such situations, Tesh’s team—who has dealt with soup cans full of cockroaches—treats both the hoarder’s apartment and those surrounding it. He uses a special vacuum to reduce the pest population before beginning the rest of the treatment, but says it is usually impossible to effectively treat an infestation until the residence has been cleaned and the hoarded items have been removed.
It’s an uphill battle, and the experience can be a difficult one for Tesh.
“Our job is to make people’s lives better and it’s very sobering to see people in such desperate conditions,” Tesh says. “You almost feel angry at times and wonder how someone could let their life get so out of control—especially when children are involved—but you have to stay focused on what you’re doing to positively affect a person’s environment and not think about the other side. That being said, sometimes you just can’t prepare yourself for what you see. I’ve had technicians tell me they’ve woken up at night after dreaming about some of these hoarding nightmares.”
Mims says she had an older female resident who was very clean, but who hoarded furniture—multiple couches, love seats, china cabinets and entertainment centers—and knick-knacks, with picture frames covering nearly every inch of the walls. Her apartment became infested with rats but the pest control company was unable to reach them because of all of the possessions she had accumulated.
“She only knew about the rats because they were eating her food,” Mims says. “It’s sad because many of these hoarders don’t realize they have a problem until it’s too late.”
In addition to pests that are attracted to food and paper products, Tesh says hoarding makes it nearly impossible to treat bed-bug infestations because these pests will hide (and multiply) in the cracks and crevices of someone’s belongings.
To begin to remedy the problem, Harrison says the resident must begin by getting rid of the items that the pests are feeding on and using as shelter—a difficult task for someone who can’t throw anything away.
A Messy Situation
According to Dover, an owner or property manager has the legal right to insist that legitimate health and safety issues be addressed and the right to require the resident to comply with the terms of his or her lease and rules regarding the condition of the apartment.
However, Dover says hoarding is now considered the result of one or more mental disabilities. A resident who hoards has the right to request reasonable accommodations—which generally translates to giving the person extra time to clean their apartment.
“When confronting a resident, focus on the health and safety issues that the current condition of the apartment is creating and how the condition of the apartment violates the lease and/or rules,” says Dover, who suggests being sensitive to the situation and the person by avoiding potentially offensive words like “hoarding” or “hoarder.” “Let the resident know that you are willing to give them some time to remedy the condition of the apartment, but that if they refuse, you will have no choice but to terminate the lease.”
Although Schendel is more than willing to make such accommodations, she says it’s difficult to determine if someone has a disability and will require accommodations.
“You’re not going to have someone come in and say, ‘I’m a hoarder and I need help,’” she says. “So we’ve determined that when the hoarding conditions violate a fire code, sanitary standards or other areas of the lease, it could be regarded as a disability. Therefore, instead of giving them the standard 15 days to remedy the situation—which is unrealistic in most cases—we’ll give them a 45-day written plan with clear expectations. That’s a fair and reasonable accommodation.”
While some residents may argue that their apartment is simply messy, Schendel says unsanitary living conditions are clearly outlined in the lease as a violation. If a resident’s apartment is deemed unsanitary, they must remedy the situation.
“We encountered a resident who had over 3,000 empty cigarette cartons,” Schendel says. “We didn’t consider that messy, but that of a routine, obsessive behavior—and one that was also contributing to the pest control problem insider her apartment.”
Dover agrees, and says although it is not reasonable to expect a resident to have a perfectly tidy home, it is reasonable to expect the home to be kept free of the five basic health and safety code violations that are areas of concern when dealing with a hoarder: sanitation, volume, blockage, mold and fuel or fire danger.
Ideally, the management company is able to work with the hoarder to create a livable and compliant environment. In 2003, Campbell says she worked with a resident who began to cry when confronted about her hoarding. The community put a plan in place and even set a Dumpster next to the building that the resident could use to get rid of the clutter. Two weeks later, she made enough progress and was able to retain her residency.
“We want to have a successful ending in these situations because worst-case scenario for the resident is they get evicted and lose their home,” says Schendel, who utilizes a foundation in Oklahoma that will pick up old furniture and household items that are left behind and no longer needed. “We, as community owners and managers, then gain legal possession of the apartment, including all of the contents inside, and have to go through the apartment ourselves. That includes completing an inventory and sometimes even storing items for a certain period of time. It can be a nightmare.”
There is a common misconception that hoarders are lazy or dirty. If they just did a little cleaning, many believe, that would solve the problem.
In reality, there are often serious psychological issues at the root of hoarding that must be addressed. If hoarders are not treated with sensitivity and patience, psychologists explain, they will feel even more alienated than they already do and neither the resident nor the apartment community will benefit.
“I had a very emotional conversation with a woman in New Orleans whose entire apartment was full of boxes with paperwork and magazines, from floor to ceiling,” says Schendel, who says she has felt both stressed and heartbroken when working with hoarders. “There was one small path into the kitchen and one small spot for her to sleep on the bed. The rest was covered by boxes.
“I suggested she contact her friends and family for help and she told me she didn’t have any. Her husband was in the military, she explained, and her sons had their own lives. Her belongings were all she had. She seemed very desperate and alone and had no one who could help.”
If management is fortunate enough to bring the situation under control, Mims says a permanent plan must be put in place to prevent future hoarding. In most cases, she schedules quarterly inspections with such residents to ensure they have not reverted to old habits.
Dover says written accommodation agreements are a good way to work with a willing resident and can be structured in such a way to include specific language regarding a timeline for initial clean-up, as well as an agreement for future inspections.
“I’ve learned from experience that you have to be very specific,” Dover says. “I worked with one woman who was told to ‘clean up her apartment’ and she ended up throwing out all of her furniture instead of the belongings she hoarded. You can ask a hoarder if there is anything management can do to help them, but it’s up to them to figure out how they’ll fix the problem.”
While it may be tempting to call a hoarder’s friends and family members for help, Dover says a resident’s privacy is at stake. Instead, she suggests inviting the resident to bring someone else into the process.
“If you are going to call a family member, simply say that you’re having issues with this resident and you’re hoping there is something they can do to help them retain their residency,” Dover says. “Often, the family members are aware of the hoarding and will volunteer that information, but it’s not your place to divulge it.”
Unfortunately, most hoarding cases do not end well. If the hoarder does not get treatment, Dover says, it can be very difficult to remedy the apartment’s condition.
“If an apartment is cleaned out but the hoarder does not receive ongoing treatment for the underlying psychological conditions, he or she will likely re-hoard,” she says. “And the hoarding may be more extreme the second time around because the hoarder will be reacting to having all of his or her belongings taken away.”
And another dirty little secret begins.
Hoarding Affects More Than the Resident
Neighbors: Pest infestations and odors will spread next door
and down the hall.
Maintenance Technicians: Occupational hazards
increase for them and all staff.
Property Managers: Creates an emotional, stressful
and altogether uncomfortable experience.
Community: Fear and safety hazards rise. Resident morale,
Bottom Line: Wreckage and response creates stacks of new bills
and potential liability.
Trash or Treasure?
Hoarders find emotional comfort in possessions.
While unpleasant, experiences with hoarding such as these are not unique. According to recent studies, approximately two or three out of every 100 people—or between 6 million and 15 million Americans, depending on different estimates—are hoarders.
Many apartment professionals who have dealt with hoarders say the majority tend to save trash, old newspapers and magazines. To the average person, these items are junk, but hoarders often believe they will have some utility or value in the future.
According to Randy Frost, a psychology professor at Smith College and co-author of “Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things,” a person may also hoard items that they feel have important emotional significance—particularly with individuals who have experienced a loss or traumatic event. The clutter may drive most people crazy, but some hoarders actually feel safer when they are surrounded by the things they save.
Frost says hoarding consists of three different kinds of problems.
“The first component is a level of excessive acquisition,” says Frost, who weighed in on the topic during an NPR radio broadcast of “The Diane Rehm Show.” “All of us perhaps buy and pick up more free things than we should, but people who hoard have excessive levels of this kind of acquisition. The second component is a difficulty letting go of things or discarding things. And by discarding, I don’t mean throwing away, but just letting go of it, selling it, giving it away, recycling it and so forth. And the final characteristic is the inability to keep all this stuff organized. That is perhaps the key component because if a hoarder was able to organize everything, it might not be so overwhelming.”
Hoarder Characteristics. One characteristic associated with hoarding is an information-processing deficit problem, Frost adds. While the average individual receives an electricity bill, for example, and is able to categorize it and put it with the other bills out of sight, a hoarder lives their life visually and spatially. “They create a mental map for themselves and that’s why stuff ends up in the middle of the room where they can see it,” Frost says.
Hoarders may be stigmatized by society, but Frost says in many ways, the attachments hoarders have are no different than the attachments everyone else has to their objects or possessions.
“For all of us, possessions have a magical quality,” he explains. “So, for instance, the ticket stub from a favorite concert has a value to you that goes beyond the physical characteristics of that ticket stub. The emotion that’s wrapped up in that ticket stub does not exist in the physical object itself, but in your head.
“So the value you place on it is a value that, is magical because the object itself does not have that value. The same is true with any sentimental object or a chunk of concrete from the Berlin Wall or any kind of souvenir that’s attached to another person.”
One man’s trash, after all, is another man’s treasure.—L.B. This is a Repost of an article written by Lauren Boston is NAA’s Staff Writer.
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