We live in a condo complex. One of our members has his unit filled
to the ceiling with all kinds of debris, mostly combustible. According
to our management company the HOA can do nothing to get him to clean up
his unit and put it in a safe condition. Only after something happens
in the unit, such as a fire, can anything be done. Is this correct?
: You don't need to wait for a fire. Addressing the issue, however,
will be difficult and may require litigation depending on whether the
person is a hoarder or merely a poor housekeeper.
The courts have already decided that associations cannot expect
judicial relief if someone is merely a poor housekeeper. One association
inspected an owner's
unit and found it in disarray. The board demanded that he cease using
bathroom for storage, clear his bed of all paper and
books, remove boxes and papers stored in his unit, and remove all
clothing he had not worn in the past five years. Books that were
considered "standard reading material" could, however,
remain in place. The matter ended up in court.
Although the association claimed the clutter was a fire hazard, the fire department disagreed and so did the court. The
judge scolded the association for its "high-handed
attempt to micromanage" the owner's personal housekeeping. "Particularly
galling" to the court was "the presumptuous attempt to lecture
Cunningham about getting rid of his old clothes, the way he kept his own
bedroom, and the kind of reading material he could have." (Fountain Valley Chateau Blanc v. Dept. of V.A
The lesson from the case is that the clutter in a unit must represent a
true health and safety issue before an association can take action.
Such is the case with hoarders.
. Hoarding is a mental illness sometimes referred to as "Collyer Syndrome" after two brothers who
lived in Harlem in the early 1900s. They were compulsive
pack rats who collected junk for decades. Both
were found dead in their 4-story brownstone surrounded by 140 tons of
junk and debris. (See Wikipedia article
As it was with the Collyer brothers, hoarding can be life-threatening
not only to the hoarder but to other residents in a condominium
The debris in
unit will attract and breed roaches, ants,
silverfish and rodents that then spread to the common areas and other
units. In addition, the damp, unsanitary conditions become a breeding
ground for mold and bacteria that migrate into common area walls and
HVAC ducts. Finally, the mountains of debris in a hoarder's unit become a
fire hazard. If the association becomes aware of the problem and does
nothing, it can be liable for damage to surrounding units and health
injuries to other residents.
Inspecting the Unit
A board might learn of a hoarder's presence when tracking down a water
leak, looking for the source of insects or from complaints of foul
odors. When such problems are traced to a particular unit, the
association has a duty to investigate. All condominium CC&Rs have
(or should have) an inspection provision allowing
the association to enter a unit to inspect and repair the common areas
surrounding a unit.
the suspected hoarder grants access, the person making the inspection
should be accompanied by a witness to guard against claims by the
hoarder of harassment, theft, damage to property, etc. The witness can
also help document (and testify to) the condition of the unit.
ore often than not an inspection request will be denied. Hoarders are often reclusive and embarrassed about their living conditions or, worse, the sickness has reached a level where the person is paranoid the
association will steal their treasured
possessions. If access is denied, a disciplinary hearing should be held
and daily fines levied to encourage cooperation by the hoarder. If
the hoarder continues to block access, a court order may be needed.
. If the inspection reveals health and safety hazards, the condition of the unit will
need to be thoroughly documented (preferably with photographs). Demands can then be made to clean the unit. A hoarder's sickness
often prevent him from complying with the demand. At that point,
city/county health services and the fire department should be contacted
. Public agency documentation of the conditions in the unit will be useful if subsequent litigation is warranted.
A hoarding case in Tennessee is instructive. The grossly unsanitary
conditions and extremely offensive
odors in a unit in the Windsor Tower Condominiums created a nuisance and
posed a threat to the health and safety of other owners. One witness
who had been allowed in the unit testified that "the odor was so strong
and offensive that he had to cover his mouth and nose because it caused
him to gag." There was testimony of "rotten food on floors and
furniture, cabinets covered in rotting food, and a bathroom with a
buildup of scum and urine." In addition, mold was growing on windows,
walls and curtains.
association became concerned about the airborne bacteria and mold
circulating from the hoarder's unit into the building's shared HVAC
system. After protracted unsuccessful attempts to resolve the problem,
the association filed suit. The CC&Rs had a provision that allowed
the association to take possession of the unit and sell it. Accordingly,
the board sought judicial sale of the condominium.
The court ruled for the association. It
held that a forced sale of the unit was appropriate
because of "Ms. Harris’s continual denial that
any odor existed, the Association’s repeated and generous efforts over
more than a year to help remedy the problem, Ms. Harris’s continuing
failure to remedy the situation, and the gravity of the nuisance created
by Ms. Harris and its impact on the other residents." (4215 Harding Road HOA v. Harris
Because hoarding is an illness, associations cannot expect a quick,
inexpensive solution when it discovers a hoarder in their midst.
Accordingly, they should budget for extra legal expenses since court
intervention will likely be needed to force resolution.
: Associations needing legal assistance can contact us
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