Houston’s Anti-Hoarding Ordinance Gives City Room to Move
Someone who hoards in an apartment unit in Houston will have to answer to a higher authority than the landlord.
In April, the Houston City Council passed an ordinance making it a misdemeanor to hoard in an apartment, townhome or condominium. The ordinance makes it unlawful to accumulate objects or substances in such quantity that it creates a health or safety hazard for the resident or neighbors.
Houston police will enforce the ordinance and violators could be fined up to $500 a day until the mess is cleaned up and the person gets help.
The ordinance was drawn with help from the Houston Apartment Association in response to problems with hoarding largely at individually owned condominiums that have no on-site representation from a resident association, said Andy Teas, HAA’s Vice President Public Affairs.
“Apparently, it was a huge problem trying to do anything about it because Texas is a property rights state, and the hoarder is the owner,” he said. “But it’s an ownership situation where they are sharing a wall with somebody.”
The same kind of walls that apartment residents share.
Ordinance Puts Hoarders on the Hook—Not Property Owners
With probable cause, police can enter a property with written or verbal permission of an occupant or by a warrant. The enforcing officer may even consult with non-profit mental health organizations to determine whether or not a case falls within the definition of the ordinance.
Teas said HAA was asked for its input when the city first drafted the ordinance just after the first of the year. The association, which represents 540,000 units in the greater Houston area, was careful to make sure that onus of a hoarding investigation isn’t placed on the property owner.
“We were looking to make sure to avoid unintended consequences, we wanted to make sure that the ordinance didn’t place some kind of additional liability on property owners for something over which they have no control,” Teas said. “And while the ordinance didn’t set out to do that, there were a couple of cases where we wanted to make it more clear that it was the hoarder who was on the hook, not the owner in a rental situation.”
The ordinance essentially gives apartments in the city some firepower for reducing a potentially dangerous situation that has been on the minds of apartment owners and operators the past couple of years.
Ordinance Enforcement Poses Challenges
Enforcement of the ordinance, which arrives almost a year to the date that the American Psychiatric Association (APA) proclaimed hoarding as a mental disorder, will bear watching, says California attorney Lynn Dover of Kimball, Tirey & St. John, LLP.
She questions whether the fine will resolve a hoarding situation. “I can easily imagine a resident with hoarding issues simply paying the fine, or refusing to pay it, and continuing the hoarding behavior,” Dover said.
She wonders to what extent the landlord will end up being responsible if the resident doesn’t remedy the hoarding situation. Because the resident doesn’t own the property, and therefore could not feel the full effects of a condemnation should the situation escalate that far, it could ultimately be the landlord who is placed on the hook.
“In a homeowner situation, if someone doesn’t comply with code enforcement, there is legal action that can be taken and the homeowner can end up having his or her home condemned and/or taken away,” Dover said in an email. “With a renter, what is the ultimate result? They don’t have that kind of power with a renter and it would fall back on the landlord’s shoulders to do something about the problem.”
Anti-Hoarding Ordinance Isn’t Perfect, But It Is Progress
While the city ultimately could condemn a unit, a hoarding situation likely would have to get to a point where both the resident and property owner don’t comply. Those incidents could be far and few between considering the amount of attention that hoarding has generated in recent years.
HAA seldom hears about hoarding at apartments in the city because, Teas says, association members have been successful handling the situations at the property level. He believes landlords will continue to find common ground for protecting the asset and being respectful to a resident with the disability and neighbors.
“It is a balance,” Teas said. “You have to make sure you’re doing what you have to do to take care of your assets, and protect the health and safety of neighbors but also with someone who hoards in a way that’s sensitive to their psychological condition.”
And Teas thinks the city really isn’t looking for any battles.
“From the city’s perspective, in terms of enforcement, I think they will take this on a case by case basis, and they are not looking for excuses to intervene,” he said. “They just wanted to tools to intervene if they have to, if there was a situation, particularly with a condo, where you don’t have an actively managed property with an eviction sort of tool that other properties will have.”
Dover says her firm will closely watch what goes on in the Lone Star State. And you can bet others in the property management industry will have their eyes upon Texas, too.
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