Utter the word “hoarder” to any New York City property manager 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 can cost a building thousands of dollars in legal and cleaning fees and take years to resolve.
“Almost every building that we manage has at least one hoarder,” says Bram Fierstein, president of Gramatan Management. “Unfortunately it’s more commonplace than one would like to believe.”
Hoarding, the compulsive need to collect possessions and the inability to discard them, is quite common, affecting as much as five percent of the general population. With the success of reality shows like Hoarders, the ailment has gotten more attention in recent years. But in a city like New York, where neighbors share walls, a hoarding resident becomes a collective – and serious – problem. In fact, hoarding is so synonymous with the city that one term for the disease, “Collyer Brothers Syndrome,” was named after two Harlem brothers who were found dead in their junk-packed apartment in 1947.
Building management often first becomes of 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 a fire and safety hazard. If the city becomes aware of the issue, the 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.”
Co-ops have the clearest path to resolution because the board can turn to the proprietary lease to enforce proper behavior. But for condos and buildings with rent-stabilized or rent-controlled tenants, the road is a legal quagmire that can take years to navigate.
“I have true sympathy for condo buildings in this situation. They have no ability to control it. None. Zero. Nada,” says attorney James Samson, a partner at Samson Fink & Dubow.
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. When a plumber was unable to access a leak in her bathroom, the building had to shut the water off for an entire line of apartments for an extended period. 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.”
No Easy Fix
A condo can adopt house rules with monetary charges against residents who break them. But collecting those charges can require a court judgment. And fining someone doesn’t necessarily stop bad behavior. A condo can also adopt house rules that make hoarding more difficult by, for example, restricting the hours and ways residents can bring large objects into a building.
Co-ops might have the benefit of a proprietary lease, but that is no easy fix, either. The first thing a co-op board must do when it learns about a hoarding shareholder is to hold a meeting of all the board members about the specific issue. The board must pass a resolution spelling out the problem. After that, the building’s attorney sends a letter to the shareholder putting him on notice and giving him 30 days to comply. If the problem hasn’t been resolved, the board can then take the shareholder to court to start eviction proceedings.
However, judges are reluctant to evict a resident for hoarding, and even though a co-op can attempt to recoup its legal fees, there is no guarantee that it will. Often, if the resident is elderly, the Department for the Aging will get involved and the court may appoint an attorney to advocate for the resident. “The judge is never going to just evict somebody because they’re a hoarder,” says Kornfeld.
The process can take months. The building must present evidence, such as photographs of the apartment, and get neighbors to testify. But the same neighbors who complained exhaustively to building management about the lady with the 75 cats who lives next door are often reluctant to actually testify against her. “Suddenly, the neighbors get amnesia: why are you kicking the nice old lady out?” says Samson.
Even getting photographs is difficult, as hoarders frequently won’t admit the staff. A hoarding couple in a Yonkers co-op had so much collected trash that cockroaches were crawling out of the apartment. Gramatan’s Fierstein convinced the hoarding couple in his situation to let an exterminator in. When they opened the door, Fierstein came in, too, and began snapping photographs with his cell phone. “The people weren’t happy about it,” he recalls. And with good reason: five months later, they were evicted.
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.”
Tolin suggests that building management use the threat of possible legal action to convince the erring shareholder to go into counseling. Simply getting a court order to restrain a person while a crew cleans out his apartment may have the short-term effect of decluttering the space, but could actually exacerbate the illness in the long run.
There’s another benefit to delaying court action: it may save the building money. Kristin Bergfeld, owner of Bergfeld’s Estate Clearance Services, suggests a more gentle approach. “Getting things cleared up in a way that is empathic to the shareholder is a whole lot cheaper than going the route of eviction, which no building wants to do,” says Bergfeld, whose company specializes in clearing apartments of hoarders. “It’s expensive, it’s messy, and it’s nasty.”
Bergfeld suggests that building management attempt to negotiate with the resident by focusing on the health and safety issue and not the hoarding behavior. In one case where Bergfeld’s crew removed eight tons of magazines from an Upper West Side studio apartment, she explained to the resident that the magazines had caused the floors to buckle and were cracking the downstairs neighbor’s ceiling.
“Even though he didn’t want to get rid of this stuff, he was going beyond what the engineering of the building could tolerate,” she says.
But cleaning isn’t cheap either. Bergfeld charges $95 an hour for her services in addition to $40 an hour for her crew’s time. Cleaning a severely cluttered apartment can take anywhere from two days to two weeks. And, a building may have trouble getting a resident to pay, particularly if he does not have the funds. Even after an apartment is cleaned, building management must return regularly to make sure it stays that way.
Richard Wolf, vice president of Alexander Wolf & Company, takes a hands-on approach to the hoarders in his properties. In one recent case in Great Neck, Long Island, he visited the resident in his home several times and talked to him about the state of it. Eventually, the resident came around and began the process of decluttering.
“A lot of people like to start legal action but that just complicates things,” says Wolf. “Sometimes it brings it to a head, but other times it incurs legal fees.”
Still, with the Great Neck resident, Wolf began by sending a letter threatening litigation. It was only after the resident realized that he could lose his home that he was willing to listen. “The judge is not going to force him out of the apartment and we do not want to force him out,” says Wolf. “We just want to make his apartment a place where he can live that doesn’t harm the other tenants.”
Steps You Can Take
Hire a cleaning service to clean up the hoarder’s apartment.
Adopt house rules concerning hoarding, with monetary charges against residents who break them.
Adopt house rules that make hoarding more difficult to hoard by, for example, restricting the hours and ways residents can bring large objects into a building.
Get evidence, such as photographs of the apartment, and enlist neighbors to testify, two difficult tasks.
Use the threat of possible legal action to convince the erring shareholder to go into counseling.
Attempt to negotiate with the resident by focusing on the health and safety issue and not the hoarding behavior.