Building Equity Management

Dealing with Hoarders


All good landlords in New York City are regularly frustrated by the asymmetry between landlord and tenant responsibilities in the eyes of the housing authorities and court system. One area where this is most pronounced is when dealing with tenants who are bonafide hoarders. Hoarding is now seen as a “disease” first made famous in NYC by the Collyer Brothers who were found dead in their Harlem brownstone in 1947, buried under their own clutter. There was even a recent article in the New York Times on the issues related to estate sales of the apartments of hoarders.

I unfortunately have had two run-ins with hoarders, neither of which is quite resolved yet. One involves a building we purchased about 10 years ago. Several months after our purchase, my partner had our super at the time remove a number of empty flower pots that were sitting on the first floor window sills of one of the units as they posed a hazard of falling on someone’s head when they took out the garbage.

Shortly after, I received a very strong letter from the tenant in that apartment about the theft of her “priceless More clutterAsian flower pots.” She also went on to tell us that she had a number of repairs that were needed in her apartment. As the new, “good landlords,” we told her we’d be happy to make any necessary repairs, and scheduled a date to visit her apartment to inspect. When we arrived, the first thing we noticed was the hot water in her bathroom sink running. She claimed to have called the super six months prior but he couldn’t fix it. So apparently, it had been running 24/7 for several months! (I’m not making this up)

After calling our plumber, we proceeded into the apartment to find a narrow path that allowed us to enter an apartment filled with boxes several feet high with sheets thrown over the top. The repairs that the tenant wanted were related to water damage in two areas of her ceiling. I had to explain that to make the repairs, we needed someone to be able to get on a ladder, and to do that, she would have to clear out enough clutter so that we could access the floor below the damage. She agreed to try to have this done in a month or two.

Time passed and nothing happen. Each correspondence from us was met with another excuse. We finally ran out of
energy and decided to let it go. That was until there was a gas leak report and firemen had to break in the tenant’s door to shut off her gas meter. When a photo from my super revealed that the clutter was up to the front door of the apartment, I figured it was time to go to court.

The kitchenWhat followed was a 2.5 year process, wherein the State eventually started an Article 81 proceeding to assign the tenant a legal guardian, after she was diagnosed by the courts as being schizophrenic. In the final several court proceedings there was the tenant, her attorney, a representative from the not-for-profit that was proposed as the guardian, an attorney for the guardian, two Social Security specialty lawyers trying to get disability payments for the tenant (a long story involving inability to get an original birth certificate because the tenant was born on a U.S. military base in Germany during WWII that no longer exists), my attorney, a judge, a court officer, and a stenographer. Of the 11 people in the courtroom, I was the only one being billed for being there.

Though I really wanted the apartment back, the City doesn’t have anywhere to place people with mental handicaps, so they go to extraordinary means to keep them in private marketplace housing. Thus, in the end, the guardianship was granted and the court supervised a heavy duty clean-up, a euphemism for “let’s go in and throw out all this useless stuff.” The guardian was charged with visiting the tenant at least 4 times a year and paying her rent. I lost out on two years of rent increases, but  all seemed well for a while.

Two years after the settlement, other tenants started to report bird noises coming from the apartment. Then I started to get complaints of unusual cockroach presence in the apartment above my hoarder, then the apartment above that, and then the apartment above that. We discovered that she had accumulated some 13 bird cages with multiple birds in each, open bird food all over the place, and a hoard of roaches. After pushing on the guardian, the tenant got rid of most of the birds and let us come in and exterminate.

Flash forward another year to the present. All of the sudden we’ve had multiple leaks, months apart, coming from our problem apartment. When I finally got access to inspect, there were no signs of plumbing failure (making me think the leaks were from a deliberate or accidental overflow), but there were sheets hung up so one couldn’t see into the apartment. I suspected a new hoarding binge had commenced and called the guardian.

It turns out, though contracted by the City to look after this woman, the guardian hadn’t been to the apartment in months. I scheduled a meeting with the guardian present and went into the apartment. The main corridor was half obstructed by plastic crates of “stuff,” a clear fire hazard. The tenant tried to make excuses why we couldn’t see the rest of the place, but we persevered. One room had several large garbage bags filled with belongings, but that wasn’t so bad. The next room required us to wade through hanging clothes, almost like passing through a bamboo forest without a machete. In that room, there was so much stuff that I couldn’t really walk into the room. When I asked about the bedroom, whose door was closed, the tenant wouldn’t let us in, claiming someone she had taken in off the street was sleeping there. I’m 99% sure that that room was actually filled to the brim with junk and the tenant didn’t want this to be discovered.

I’m now working closely with the legal guardian who is going to try to do a new heavy duty cleaning. Still, it’s insane to me that the courts insists on forcing us to house a woman who continues to pose a hazard to my building, my tenants, and to herself.

Part II of this story will report on the two colored photos I’ve posted, another apartment in the same building where I’m currently working with Adult Protective Services to try to “declutter” other hoarder in the same building. It’s such fun being a landlord!