We’ve all heard the hoarder horror stories. The nice teacher who had a spotless classroom, but an apartment filled to the ceiling with piles and piles of clothes, books, paper and knickknacks. The older couple that had 70 cats in their one-bedroom unit. And, if you live in Toronto, you might remember the 2010 six-alarm fire on Wellesley St., caused by a tenant’s hoarding that put more than 1,700 residents out of their homes for weeks and months.
About 5% of the population – which translates to almost 140,000 in Toronto – fit into this category, according to the Toronto Hoarding Coalition (THC). Not only can hoarding can raise risks to the hoarder, but it can also endanger the other tenants in the rental building. The accumulation of old newspapers, boxes and other paper can increase the risk of fire, especially if the piles collect near baseboard heaters. In the event of a fire inside the unit, first responders often find that the excess clutter reduces emergency access and cuts off exit pathways.
As well, some hoarder’s apartments can be filled with rotting garbage, animal waste or other debris that can lead to mould, vermin and unsanitary living conditions.
The What and Why of Hoarding
Hoarding is a psychological condition that was recognized in 2013 as a distinct mental illness. It is sometimes associated with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). However, where OCD patients are often aware of their own condition, hoarders are not aware that they have a problem, making it difficult for them to seek treatment. Other symptoms include compulsive collecting and irrational decision-making about what is useful, leading to them collect and keep items of little to no value. Psychological assessment and treatment is needed to help these individuals to get rid of items and manage their behaviour.
How Can a Landlord Deal with a Hoarder?
Unfortunately, there is no easy answer. It’s illegal to evict a person for being a having too much stuff. Under the Ontario Human Rights Code, every person has a right to equal treatment with respect to the occupancy of accommodation, without discrimination because of disability. As hoarding is a mental disorder, the landlord has an obligation to work with the tenant to try to eliminate excess clutter.
However, if the act of hoarding increases the risk of fire or affects the quality of life for other residents, the property management company, landlord or owner has options. Section 33 of the Residential Tenancies Act states that a “tenant is responsible for ordinary cleanliness of a rental unit subject only to any condition in the tenancy agreement requiring the landlord to clean it.”
Communicate and Document
The first course of action should be written communication with the tenant, citing fire or other concern. Outline how you became aware of the state of the apartment and how you would like it to be cleaned, with a timeframe. Be clear that the tenant has the obligation to keep the unit to a standard of ordinary cleanliness under the Residential Tenancies Act. And, if the lease or condo board regulations include any similar provisions — for example, an obligation to keep the balcony free of any boxes — you may wish to also cite that part of the lease. Work with your tenant to address the problem and offer a reasonable amount of time to comply with clean-up requests before taking further action. You may want to include a list of local resources that can help your tenant take on this challenge.
Tenants need to be given prior notice before a landlord or property manager performs repairs or enters their unit. Only in an emergency situation can owners take the legal route or call the police to get access.
Contact the fire department, public health, animal welfare organization and your provincial body that oversees landlord-tenant relations to find out how you can work together when there is a problem. Call in a specialized cleaning company that may already work with your local public health agency to help hoarders clean up.
Be sure to document all communication, including emails. (A communication portal can ensure a digital trail of all back-and-forth messages. You can manage every step of the legal cycle from the first notice to the eviction notice, right through to any sheriff and/or court dates. All legal and collection data resides in one convenient place). In the event that you will need to prepare an eviction notice (in Ontario, an N5 form is required), you will need to have everything documented. Remember: The landlord must first serve notice of lease termination and then apply to the Landlord and Tenant Board for the eviction order. Your resident can’t be evicted without an order from the Board.