This Stinks! The Minefield Created By Hoarders
This week’s column was authored by my law partner Keith Nichols , a member of our firm’s Litigation Practice Group. They say one person’s trash is another person’s treasure. For those who are members of a condominium or townhome owners’ association, one person’s trash (or treasure) is often another person’s headache. A “hoarder” may be defined as one who accumulates material things for preservation or future use, often in a hidden or carefully guarded place. With the average American having access to approximately 200 cable television channels, reality shows featuring compulsive hoarders have surfaced over the past few years and have shed light on the issue that has affected a number of condominium and townhome communities throughout the country. Oftentimes, maintenance personnel will be the first to stumble upon a hoarding situation. The first signs of hoarding (in its worst form) might be noxious odors emanating from the unit, or flies or other insects infesting the unit that are visible in the unit’s windows. It is often past a critical point when an association becomes aware of the fact that hoarding is taking place inside a particular unit. Dealing with hoarders in an association setting is complicated. In an apartment complex, for example, eviction proceedings can easily be commenced against a renter who is an excessive hoarder. That is not the case when dealing with condominiums and townhomes, since HOAs generally have no authority to evict owners or their tenants for violations of the community’s rules. Nor can the association or its management company simply break down the door and begin the process of disposing of private property. Fortunately, it is common for the governing documents of associations to require each unit owner to maintain his or her unit in a good and clean condition, and to refrain from unreasonably disturbing the other association members. Similarly, there are often written prohibitions against noxious or unusual odors that permeate to other units or the common areas of an association. Governing documents may also contain language that prohibits individual members from doing anything that causes an increased risk of fire or other casualty, or which causes the association’s insurance premiums to increase. It is believed by some medical professionals that compulsive hoarding may be a symptom of, or related to, mental illness. Therefore, the least intrusive means for dealing with the issue should be explored first. This might include contacting the unit owner in person, by mail, or simply by taping a letter on the owner’s door. If that route is unsuccessful in eliciting a sufficient response, the HOA may try to contact a friend or family member of the hoarder to advise them of the situation. In some instances, municipal housing inspectors can issue violations resulting from the buildup of junk and debris, including that which affects egress or creates a dangerous situation for the unit’s occupant. If the situation is extreme enough, an association may have to turn to the courts to obtain relief. We have encountered instances where courts enter an order directing the unit’s owner to clean the unit and dispose of the hoarded property within a fixed time period. And, if compliance is not achieved, the unit owner can be held in contempt of court and face civil and criminal penalties. In other cases, the association has levied fines against the unit owner and, after those fines went unpaid, proceeded to foreclose upon the unit and sell the unit at a public sale. Of course, for multiple reasons, these extreme measures are typically taken as a last resort. The association often incurs the cost and expense of the legal proceedings leading up to a sale, and few potential purchasers, if any, will want to buy a unit that has been publically declared to be in poor condition. In such instances, the association is typically the highest bidder, has to clean the unit at its expense, and takes title to the property subject to any existing mortgages or other liens. Ignoring compulsive hoarding or letting it fester while decisions are made could have serious consequences, including property damage, or injuries to the unit’s occupants, other unit owners, or first responders. While those dealing with hoarders in the context of condominium and townhome associations should tread lightly, they should not be afraid to involve governmental officials or the court system when necessary. This column was originally published in the Charlotte Observer on May 14, 2016. © All rights reserved.