Apartment Chaos, Clutter, and Catastophe-Whose Problem?

By Mahlon L. Fast, J.S.C., Ret.

I learned throughout my law school career that cases are based on discreet sets of facts, that an apparently minor fact could distinguish one case from another, or as the old saying went, “how many fairies can dance on the head of a pin?” As applicable to this subject, there’s a definite difference between chaos, clutter and hoarding. Likewise, the consequence of the difference may result in the incongruous result of a tenant who is “less at fault” (i.e., a tenant who “clutters” an apartment) being evicted more readily than one who has become a hoarder.

“Chaos” is disorder or confusion. “Clutter” is a hodgepodge, a salmagundi (a miscellaneous collection of things.) “Hoarding” is particularly repugnant, and a problem – – – to a landlord. The differences may be illustrated as follows:

“Chaos” – an unmade bed covered with worn clothes, several wet towels left on the bathroom floor after a shower, clothes, boxes, and personal items that should be put away strewn about in disarray, etc.

“Clutter” – an accumulation of unwashed dishes in the kitchen sink or left on the kitchen table, an accumulation of clothes that should have been taken to the laundry last week, a three-foot high pile of newspapers, magazines and mailed circulars.

A “hoard” is an accumulation of discombobulated disassociated ephemera; the result of an obsessive, compulsive disorder (“O.C.D.”), as defined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). In short, it is an accumulation of useless things like unused clothes, newspapers, bags, or used disposable plates and plasticware. If your tenant has the use of a yard, it may even include abandoned vehicles. The main characteristic of a person with a hoarding complex is the inutility of the objects; it is unlike hoarding water or toilet paper during a period of domestic turmoil. And, because it is found in the DSM as a mental disorder, it is a condition that is a problem to a landlord (as well as potentially to other tenants); it is a problem because both federal and State laws require a landlord to make “reasonable accommodations” in policies and practices to deal with a person with this disability. No case has held that a tenant who is a “clutterer” (as distinguished from a hoarder) is entitled to a reasonable accommodation.

Hoarding is a problem to landlords because it presents a potential of fire, infestation, sometimes mold (from an accumulation of wet “stuff”) and disease. It was my practice, as a judge, to inspect apartments when I had evidence (testimony and/or pictures) of hoarding that seemed incredible. The evidence normally was, in fact, credible. I inspected apartments where I was unable to actually enter a room because of the trash. In those cases, I normally gave the tenant an opportunity to cure the problem, and I distinctly remember one case when the tenant came back on the adjourned date (after my inspection) and testified that the problem had been cured, but the landlord testified to the contrary. In order to resolve the disputed testimony, I inspected the apartment and told the parties to return to court and that I would put my findings on the record. The tenant did not return, and you can guess what the findings were that I put on the record; nothing had been removed!

What exacerbates the problem – both to landlords as well as the tenant’s family members – is the intransigence of the disabled person. The disability includes the resistance of the disabled person to remove the items that have been hoarded – usually over a long period of time, even though the items have not been used for extended periods, potentially will never be used, and almost invariably have no value.

The Law in New Jersey, found in the Administrative Code, Sec. 5:10-5.4 provides for responsibility of occupants of residential dwellings, as follows:

(a) Occupants shall place all garbage within the receptacles provided for garbage disposal.   Where janitorial service is not required, they shall place all containers with sufficient frequency to avoid an insanitary accumulation in the exterior area or areas set aside for the same. Garbage, rubbish and other refuse shall not be thrown out of windows or down dumbwaiters, nor shall garbage and refuse be set out on stairways or fire escapes or in common hallways.

(b) Occupants of each unit of dwelling space shall be responsible to the extent of their own use and activities for keeping the interior thereof safe and sanitary. Occupants shall prevent any accumulation of garbage or waste matter which may become a source of infestation.

(c) Every occupant shall maintain all plumbing fixtures used by him in a clean and sanitary condition, shall not deposit any material in any fixture or sewer system which would cause stoppage of or damage to properly maintained fixture or sewer systems and shall be responsible for the exercise of reasonable care in the proper use and operation of such fixtures.

(d) Occupants shall not damage, remove or destroy screens needed for the building.(e) Every occupant of any unit of dwelling space shall be responsible for removing conditions resulting from the occupants own activities or which may result in infestation conditions which are subject to and under his exclusive control.(f) No occupant shall cause excessive grease, soot or other foreign matter to accumulate on side walls, ceilings or other exposed room surfaces by improper use of heating or cooking equipment.   Cooking equipment shall be kept clean, free of garbage, food particles and grease.

The significant difference between a clutter and a hoarding, to you as a landlord, is that you can potentially, more easily, have a tenant evicted based on “clutter” if it constitutes a breach of the lease or rules and regulations contained in your lease agreement. But you must first, in that instance, have the tenant served with a Notice to Cease (opportunity to “cure”) the violation, and to comply with the terms of the lease or the rules, and then (after a reasonable period for the tenant to have complied) have the tenant served with a notice terminating the tenancy, if the tenant has not cured the violation.

This, then, requires your lease to include your right of access for inspection of the apartment after reasonable notice to the tenant, and at least the following “shalt not” clauses to let your potential tenants know their obligations. Those provisions should include prohibiting certain conduct, such as:

  1. a) “storing” items (anything) on balconies, near windows, doors, stairs, walls,                        air ducts and appliances;
  2. b) storing flammable, explosive or perishable items;
  3. c) housing animals without taking proper care of them;
  4. d) failing to properly dispose of garbage and recycling;
  5. e) maintaining more than a certain number of pets (a frequent sign of the                              hoarding characteristic – the inability to “let go”);
  6. f) denying access for extermination (and failing to prepare for extermination);

and

  1. g) if, as noted above, your tenant has access to a yard, then prohibiting the                           “storage” of outdoor equipment (out-of-season furniture, grills, vehicles,                            toys, bicycles, etc.)

The lease should also include the requirement to, at all times, comply with State laws and regulations, as they may from time to time require. (This will help to emphasize that compliance is objective, not simply your own arbitrary demands.)

If, after a personal inspection, you have determined that a tenant (and, under the law, the definition of a “disabled” person, includes all those who are authorized to occupy the unit) has become a hoarder, then you are obligated to extend a reasonable accommodation to the tenant. You may first want to reach out to a non-resident family member or friend of the tenant. If that is not reasonable or successful, then you should help the hoarder improve the condition of the apartment by suggesting a simple plan to declutter and clean the unit, at the same time pointing out the hazards of failing to remedy the situation. Your discussion may/should include the hazards that this tenant is subjecting other tenants to. (But your discussion should not be either accusative nor threatening – you would be challenging a recalcitrant person to withdrawal or become hostile.) (A reasonable accommodation does not mean that you have to assist the tenant in removing the detritus.)

Your discussion should include the most pressing issues and an effort to address those issues, first. Pressing issues include fire hazards, infestation, clearing blocked passages and other dangerous issues that appear to pose a risk to the health and safety of the hoarder, the hoarder’s family and all other residents of the building. (Although it may not be the most hazardous, disposing actual garbage is least likely to present hostility or sentimental challenges, is more easily accomplished, and if done may provide encouragement for the tenant to continue.) Suggest a reasonable time period for those issues to be resolved and then suggest other relevant measures to slowly improve the overall condition of the property. Remember that the result is not immediate “perfection,” it is improvement, compliance with the lease and the law, as the tenant proceeds.

Next, suggest less sensitive issues/areas, such as disposing empty food containers and decluttering the bathroom and slowly move on to larger decluttering and cleaning projects. Such “assistance” would be deemed to be a reasonable accommodation.

If you are unable to get help from family or friends, or your personal efforts are not effective, you may suggest that your tenant hire a professional cleaning service. If none of those efforts are effective, you will have to proceed with an action for eviction, but be careful not to make statements or take actions that could be called discriminatory. Keep a record of the efforts that you have made, and a timeline demonstrating your efforts to help the resident, your costs (if any) and the various lease and code violations that necessitate lease termination if your reasonable efforts have failed.

Dealing with a hoarder tenant is quite a delicate matter – you need to be patient and compassionate in order to help the affected/disabled person and also very careful not to trigger Fair Housing complaints in case you have to take formal action against the resident.

The answers to this problem are, once again, a properly drawn lease and diligent management. Inspect your tenants’ units frequently so that a clutter can be cured and prevented from becoming a hoard.

Mahlon L. Fast, J.S.C., Ret.  of the law firm Ehrlich, Petriello, Gudin & Plaza, P.C. headquartered in Newark, New Jersey. It is not, nor is it intended to be, legal advice. You should consult an attorney or other qualified professional to discuss your particular matter. The firm can be reached at (973) 643-0040 or on the web at www.EPGP-law.com.   

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