HABITAT

BOARD OPERATIONS

How to Handle Hoarders: Step One is Understanding What You're Dealing With

Ronda Kaysen in Board Operations on June 13, 2013

New York City

Illustration by Danny Hellman.

June 13, 2013 — Utter the word "hoarder" to any New York City property manager or co-op / condo board and you're likely to hear the story about the resident who wouldn't stop collecting newspapers, trash or cats.

Dealing with these troubled residents — and make no mistake, we're talking about a mental illness over which they have little if any control; it's not just some eccentricity — can cost a building thousands of dollars in legal and cleaning fees and take years to resolve. The first step to dealing with it is to understand as best as possible the very specific nature of hoarders and hoarding.

Hoarding, often called Collyer Brothers Syndrome after two brothers who were found dead in their junk-packed apartment in 1947, is the compulsive need to collect possessions and the inability to discard them. It affects as much as five percent of the general population. And in a city like New York, where neighbors share walls, a hoarding resident becomes a particularly serious collective problem.

Building management and boards often first become aware of a hoarder when staff needs to access an apartment for repairs. It's then, when the super opens the door, that he finds papers or trash piled to the ceiling. At times, clutter can be so severe that the plumber cannot get to the bathroom or kitchen to repair a leak. An overly crowded apartment attracts vermin and creates fire and safety hazards. If the city becomes aware of the issue, your building can be slapped with health and safety-code violations. Once confronted with a hoarder, building management has no choice but to respond.

"It's very expensive and nobody wants to alienate their neighbor," says Ellen Kornfeld, a vice president at The Lovett Group, which manages properties. "But when you know it exists you have to act."

Condo Quagmire

Co-ops have the clearest path to resolution because the co-op board can turn to the proprietary lease to enforce proper behavior. But for condominiums and buildings with rent-regulated tenants, the road is a legal quagmire that can take years to navigate.

A luxury condo on the west side of Manhattan has been battling one hoarder since 2009. The resident's apartment was so cluttered with trash and junk that she showered in the building's gym rather than use her own. The building has spent more than $150,000 on legal fees and appeared in court 23 times to deal with the issue. It took the condo two years to get a court order forcing the woman to clean her apartment. They hired a cleaning service to come with a police escort, who had to restrain her while they cleaned. Now, the building has spent another two years trying to get her evicted. The judge awarded the condo half of its legal fees, but it will have to pay the remaining $75,000.

"Clients don't understand and appreciate the difficulty of these cases," says attorney Elliot Meisel, a partner at Brill & Meisel. "It should take 30 days and cost $5,000, but it ends up taking two years and costs $150,000."

Remembering It's an Illness

Ultimately, hoarding is a mental illness and the courts may simply not be the best place to resolve the problem. "This is a mental health problem. That doesn't mean that it doesn't have legal consequences, but if we view it solely as a legal issue then we're missing the boat," says David Tolin, director of the Anxiety Disorders Center at the Institute of Living and author of the book Buried in Treasures. "These are people who are suffering from a diagnosable mental disorder who have limited awareness of the issue and a limited capacity to control it."

For specific, practical steps boards can take to deal with a hoarder, read part 2 on Tuesday or pick up the June issue of Habitat.

 

Illustration by Danny Hellman. Click to enlarge.

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