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Are You Helpless Against Hoarders? No. Practical Steps for Dealing with Them

Ronda Kaysen in Board Operations on July 9, 2013

New York City, Great Neck, Long Island

July 9, 2013

A condo board is more limited than a co-op board in what it can do, but the first thing is to adopt house rules that make hoarding difficult. As an example, consider restricting the hours and ways residents can bring large objects into a building.

With co-ops, which have the benefit of a proprietary lease, the board must pass a resolution spelling out the problem and then have the building's attorney send a letter to the shareholder putting him or her on notice and giving 30 days to comply. If the problem isn't resolved, the board can take the shareholder to court to start eviction proceedings.

Judges Reluctant

Judges, however, 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 Ellen Kornfeld, a vice president at The Lovett Group, which manages properties.

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 attorney James Samson, a partner at Samson Fink & Dubow

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. Bram Fierstein, president of Gramatan Management, convinced the hoarding couple in this 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. 

Cleanup Crew

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. 

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 or she 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."


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