Evicting hoarders

Excessive collection of stuff is a mental disability, but legal protections for these renters are often ignored

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An anonymous San Francisco hoarder has been unsuccessfully seeking help to deal with her cluttered home.
GUARDIAN PHOTO BY LINDA MAN

news@sfbg.com

People who collect massive amounts of stuff in their apartments often suffer from a mental disability that causes them to become hoarders. Even so, they can face eviction — despite state laws that protect renters with disabilities. And when hoarders get evicted, they usually become homeless.

"Hoarding behaviors may result in a landlord issuing an eviction notice on the basis that the tenant has created a nuisance, fire hazard, or other danger in the building. If the tenant is diagnosed as disabled, the tenant may notify the landlord of the disability and request the landlord provide a reasonable accommodation to enable the tenant to remain in the apartment rather than being evicted," reads a recent report from San Francisco's Mental Health Association, which is seeking to educate renters, landlords, and the general public on the issue.

Evictions in San Francisco are on the rise. Between March 1, 2010 and Feb. 28, 2011, 1,370 evictions were filed, an 8 percent rise from 1,269 evictions the previous year. The Federal Fair Housing Act (FHA) and California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) offer protections to those who have a disability, but landlords say there are liability issues associated with excessive hoarding.

Tenants can fight evictions by asking their landlords for a "reasonable accommodation" whose duration depends on the situation. A reasonable accommodation could be a plan that requires 30 days of cleaning and support service for hoarders in an effort to avoid eviction.

According to Mayoclinic.com, hoarding is labeled an obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). But many researchers consider it a distinct mental health problem that can be treated with therapy or counseling. California law defines a disability as a physical or mental impairment that limits one or more life activities, such as walking, seeing, hearing, working, learning, or caring for oneself.

Sandra Stark, 66, hasn't allowed anyone in her home for five years. She collects kitchenware and antiques. Like most hoarders, she started collecting after a traumatic event. It occurred when she was in her 30s and was gaining weight. Stark had never heard of the term "hoarder" until she watched a special on The Oprah Winfrey Show.

She claims her hoarding is a symptom of depression and disability, not OCD. "I feel like, with my weight, the clutter is a barrier between me and the world that hurt me," she told us.

Before TV shows uncovered the lives of hoarders, family and friends often were the ones to call for help. These days, hoarders often seek help themselves. A&E's Hoarders receives 1,000 submissions every month. After we spoke to some hoarders, they were all willing to seek change.

MHA recognized the problem and created a task force in 2007. Its goal was to build a plan of action to combat compulsive hoarding in San Francisco. The task force puts the costs of compulsive hoarding at more than $6 million per year. In 2009, the task force completed its report and estimated that between 12,000 and 25,000 residents in San Francisco struggle with this condition.

Most landlords try not to evict hoarding tenants right away. "Landlords may be compassionate and, in many cases, I believe, try hard to prevent evictions. However, they still have liability insurance and strict guidelines to follow," said Tim Ballard, a social work supervisor for the city. "It is their responsibility to protect the other tenants, and the painful result used as a means of harm reduction is often the legal option of eviction proceedings."

He said the heavy cleaning required on a hoarder's home can cost between $6,000 and $8,000 and can include removing trash to create safety in their home. The largest amount spent was $16,000. Currently, Ballard has 300 clients who are hoarders or clutterers in San Francisco.