Handling tenant hoarding in rental units
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, “Hoarding is the persistent difficulty discarding or parting with possessions, regardless of their actual value. The behavior usually has deleterious effects—emotional, physical, social, financial, and even legal—for a hoarder and family members.” To which we add landlords.
Rental property owners often encounter tenants who are pack rats and leave belongings where they don't belong. Normally, this behavior can be corrected by kindly bringing it to the unkempt tenant's attention, perhaps escalating the matter to a written warning if the clutter does not cease. Yet when the tenant goes beyond disorganization and blocks emergency exits and doorways, obstructs ventilation or sprinkler systems, attracts pests through unsanitary conditions and the like, it is a situation that must be met with proactive action.
Of course, maintaining the unit is both the responsibility of the landlord and the tenant. The landlord's obligation to provide a safe, sanitary and secure housing is known as California's warranty of implied habitability, and we have seen many landlords lose an eviction action for violating this covenant. Clearly, though, a tenant has their own duty under California Civil Code § 1941.2 to keep their units “clean and sanitary”, including disposing of garbage properly, cleaning their plumbing and utility fixtures, and refrain from damage. Hoarding creates a hazard for other tenants and interferes with neighbors' “quiet enjoyment” of the property, so this is normally a violation of the lease.
Taking compassionate steps is in order
Tenants with hoarding behavior may be entitled to increased legal protections because the American Psychiatric Association has classified this as a documented mental illness.
Extra caution is necessary when handling hoarders because, in the eventuality of a trial, their illness may easily win the sympathy of the jury. Worst yet, the landlord risks running afoul of fair housing laws and can invite a costly discrimination lawsuit unless they proceed delicately.
Patience and calling for help
Tenant attorneys commonly ask the landlord to provide “reasonable accommodation” to the hoarding tenant, reminding them failure to do so may be in violation of federal or state disability laws.
The storyline you want to recount is that you've done everything humanly possible to rectify the hoarding situation. Calling in Adult Protective Services and other mental health professionals will go a long way toward painting that picture.
Eviction a last resort
If the tenant continues to hoard, you can pursue an eviction, on the grounds of the tenant's breach of a term in the lease, or that they are causing a nuisance. This is best approached with the guidance of a skilled legal team, as there may be multiple causes to evict.
It's not helpful to judge the tenant but to concentrate on the health and safety concerns the hoarding is causing.