Hoarding: Dealing with the Legal Issues

By Rose Scheid, Hotline Intern

By TheDoctorMo (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Hoarding as a disease has jumped into the spotlight partly because of the popularity of several TV shows depicting people living with the disorder. However, hoarding is not new, though its designation as a disorder is. The most famous example of hoarding is that of the Collyer brothers in New York City. These two brothers, from a wealthy and aristocratic family, took to collecting mounds of junk in their Harlem home. The two were eventually discovered dead. One brother was killed by the falling piles of junk and the other starved to death.

In 2013, hoarding was classified as a mental disorder in the DSM-V. It is defined by the Mayo Clinic as “a persistent difficulty discarding or parting with possessions because of a perceived need to save them.” Hoarding is a particularly difficult disorder to treat as most of its sufferers don’t recognize they have a problem. Hoarding typically starts when the patient is a teenager and worsens as the patient ages. Some common symptoms or signs of the disorder according to the Mayo Clinic are:

  • Persistent inability to part with any possession, regardless of its value;
  • Excessive attachment to possessions, including discomfort letting others touch or borrow them or distress at the idea of letting an item go;
  • Cluttered living spaces, making areas of the home unusable for the intended purpose, such as not being able to cook in the kitchen or use the bathroom to bathe;
  • Keeping stacks of newspapers, magazines or junk mail;
  • Letting food or trash build up to unusually excessive, unsanitary levels;
  • Acquiring unneeded or seemingly useless items, such as trash or napkins from a restaurant;
  • Difficulty managing daily activities because of procrastination and trouble making decisions;
  • Moving items from one pile to another, without discarding anything;
  • Difficulty organizing items, sometimes losing important items in the clutter;
  • Shame or embarrassment;
  • And, limited or no social interactions.

As hoarding becomes more visible in the public eye, the legal issues associated with hoarding are also becoming more prevalent as well. There are several legal problems associated with hoarding. If you own your own home, you can face problems with the fire or zoning code, and if the worst comes to worst the possibility of your home being condemned. If you rent, you may have disputes with your landlord that can lead to you being evicted. This is particularly problematic if you live in public or subsidized housing.

If you have children, you may have difficulties with social services, and those with pets may have their animals taken away by Animal Control. For the most part, the best way to address these legal problems is to address the disorder itself.

Since hoarding was recently classified as a disease by the DSM-V those who suffer from the disorder and rent have the option of requesting a reasonable accommodation from their landlord. Under state and federal laws, discrimination in housing based on disabilities is prohibited. Under these laws, the landlord must give you a reasonable exception or adjustment to the lease to accommodate your disability. You can get a reasonable accommodation at any time during your lease by submitting a written request. In the case of evictions, this could be more time to clean up your apartment. Be sure to sign and date the request and keep a copy for yourself. Your landlord should grant your request unless it is a fundamental alteration of the lease or an undue hardship on the landlord. If your landlord is unable to meet your specific request, he or she should try to find an alternative. If you are unsuccessful in getting your reasonable accommodation you should consult with an attorney or legal aid.

There are several resources in Michigan to help those who have a hoarding disorder. According to the Mayo Clinic, the best approach to treating the disorder is two pronged. The first prong is getting help through therapy. There are many counselors in Michigan who specialize in helping those with the disorder as well as support groups for hoarding. Several organizations in Michigan that help those with the disorder include the Tri-County Hoarding and Cluttering Task Force and the Hoarding Task Force of Washtenaw County.

The second prong is making lifestyle changes and cleaning up the mess in your home. The clean-up of your home should be done in conjunction with your treatment plan. In addition, there are several companies in Michigan that specialize in the clean-up of the homes of hoarders with sensitivity. These are XS-Trash and Clutter Cleaner which provide service all over Michigan.

Though there are legal problems associated with hoarding, the most difficult problem faced by hoarders is a sense of isolation. It is important to remember that there are people who care about you and who can help you in treating your disorder.

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