Q&A: Living Next to a Hoarder

Q. I live in a condo and my next door neighbor is a hoarder. She constantly leaves the front door open. I complained to the buildings department many times. The smell is awful; she has mice, roaches, and water bugs. What can I do?

                  —Overwhelmed by a Pack Rat 

A. “Dealing with a hoarder is always a difficult situation for a condominium association,” says Eric F. Frizzell, a partner at the Glen Rock-based law firm of Buckalew Frizzell & Crevina. “However, it is a situation that an association must address if the condition of the hoarder's unit poses a life safety or health issue for other residents. Hoarding is a psychological disorder. Attempting to speak rationally with a hoarding resident in an effort to make them understand the gravity of the situation and to secure their agreement to remedy it is not likely to be effective. Therefore, the association must consider other options.

“One option is for the association to reach out to a relative of the hoarder and get them involved in cleaning up the unit with the hoarder. This is potentially the most cost-effective course of action.

“Another option—and in my experience generally the most successful one—is to enlist the assistance of the local health department, building department, municipal/county social services agency, or a combination of all three. The building department and health department can utilize their police power to compel the unit owner to remedy the hoarding that threatens the health or life safety of other residents. Working with social services and/or the association's property manager, they can arrange for a contractor to remove the hoarded items and clean the unit, with the cost being charged back to the unit owner. 

“In the event that these authorities are unwilling to address the situation, the association can file an order to show cause seeking a court order that grants the association and its contractor the right to enter the unit, remove all garbage and hoarded items, clean the unit, and charge back the unit owner for all expenses in doing so. Assuming that there are appropriate provisions in the master deed and bylaws, the association can also fine the resident for each day that the conditions remain unresolved. However, fines will not in themselves cure the problem.

“Finally, although a condominium association's governing documents may authorize it to enter a unit in an 'emergency,' or to otherwise perform maintenance to the unit that the unit owner has failed to do – such as removing the bags and piles of garbage that invariably are found in a hoarder's unit – the more conservative approach remains to obtain a court order that expressly allows the association to take such action. Otherwise, despite the association's best intentions, provisions in the master deed and bylaws that appear to support the association's self-help, and facts that seem to inarguably justify such action, the association may nonetheless find itself being sued for trespass, conversion and similar claims.”

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