Understanding the Mind of an Apartment Hoarder

About 15 years ago, hardly anybody was talking about hoarding in the multifamily industry, or few other places for that matter. Few connected the dots that hoarding is far more serious than the perception of a cranky, messy-haired old man or woman who has way too many cats or newspapers stacked up on the front porch.

Today, media coverage and television shows such as TLC’s “Hoarding: Buried Alive” have focused attention on hoarding behavior and the psychology behind it. Google “hoarding” and you’ll find countless stories of people who have become impaired by their cluttered living conditions and the impact it has on friends, family, and neighbors.

I guess you could say that hoarding has gone “main stream.” It’s also on the verge of becoming recognized as a mental illness (it will be classified officially as a disorder in 2013 by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual).

And the more you understand the condition, the better you’ll be able to handle a hoarding situation on your property.

The Growing Problem of Hoarding

There is no official data kept on the number of hoarders in the U.S., but some research suggests that 2-5 percent of the population exhibit some form of excessive hoarding, including compulsive-obsessive tendencies. Roughly, there are six to 15 million hoarders in the country, and the number is expected to rise with people living longer these days.

Seniors make up a large portion of hoarders, according to D.J. Ryan, who spoke at June’s National Apartment Association conference in Boston on “The Epidemic of Hoarding,” and that demographic is expected to increase dramatically.

“Conditions are ripe for growth,” said Ryan, Fair Housing Specialist and Director of Client Education for the California law firm Kimball, Tirey & St. John, LLP. “The senior population is expanding, especially since the baby boomers are soon going to be elderly and most hoarders are elderly.”

Another theory behind the growth of hoarding suggests that technology is enabling hoarding behavior. With the Internet, people are more easily entertained without the company of others and have a virtual big box store in their living rooms. A credit card and computer monitor are that a hoarder needs to accumulate mounds – literally – of belongings.

Understanding the Mind of a Hoarder

Hoarding can be symptom of a number of disorders, including dementia, brain lesions, autism and learning disabilities, genetic disorders, eating disorders, OCD, Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder and other physical and mental disorders.

Dr. Paul Chafetz, who practices clinical psychology for adults and seniors in Dallas, says there are a number of reasons why people hoard, among them are difficulties in processing information, becoming emotionally attached to possessions, lack of discipline, and self-esteem issues.

He argues that hoarding is not limited to the elderly; it’s a process that can start early in life.

“Hoarding is not a disorder of later life,” said Chafetz, who was a featured speaker at the Mental Health America of Greater Dallas’ second annual hoarding conference in June. “Hoarding begins early in life, like in the teens and 20s. Most elderly people are completely fine from a psychological and mental point of view. We cannot blame age for any of this.”

Working with Hoarders

Kimball, Tirey & St. John LLP, which has represented owners and managers of residential and commercial properties since 1977, has handled more than 250 Fair Housing hoarding situations for landlords in just the last several years.

A hoarder at a multifamily property can go undetected for months or years. Hoarders usually don’t let anyone into their home and often don’t call maintenance to address problems like a broken appliance or toilet for fear of being evicted based on the condition of their unit.

By the time a property manager discovers a hoarding situation, an already tricky situation can get worse in a hurry if not handled properly.

“The common thread that we see is that management didn’t act soon enough, and when they did act, they didn’t do the right thing, they made it worse,” McMahon said. “By that time, you’ve got not only the hoarding situation, you may have a Fair Housing agency breathing down your neck and an attorney on the other side working against you.”

Ryan adds, “If you don’t understand what (hoarding) is, you’re going to be like a bull in a china shop. And you’re very likely to make it much worse than when it started out.”

Representatives at Kimball, Tirey & St. John LLP’s real estate business development group and fair housing department related a number of stories about the hoarding cases they’ve worked in multifamily settings.

Attorney Kathy Belville recalled the story of an apartment resident who was afraid she would forget her possessions so she refused to keep them behind closed doors.

“We had a situation we dealt with where a woman had things out all over her unit because she really needed to see them all the time,” Belville said. “In working with her to resolve the problem, we recognized that if management took the cabinet and closet doors off she could put things where they belonged and still be able to see them.”

McMahon said just because a hoarder gets help doesn’t mean the problem gets solved long-term.

One of the firm’s clients enlisted the help of children, spouses and grandchildren to clean out the apartment of a hoarding family member.

“The situation was solved in one day — the dumpster was completely filled,” McMahon told attendees. The on-site manager was delighted. While the clean out was going on, she and her husband went over to the pool to put together new patio furniture. “The next day the dumpster was empty and all the stuff was back in person’s apartment, including the old patio furniture. He had eight sets of patio furniture in there because he didn’t think they needed to be discarded.”

Handle a Hoarding Situation with Sugar not Spice

McMahon said property managers should be proactive in handling a hoarding situation and that a non-abrasive approach is usually best.

“Your approach can mean the difference between success and failure,” he said. “Threatening eviction is rarely the solution. Avoid using the terms ‘junk’, ‘trash’ and ‘mess’ when approaching the resident.”

While the pile of possessions is an eyesore to a property manager, it’s important to the hoarder. McMahon suggests that on-site personnel should try to establish trust and gain cooperation.

Also, establish a plan of action and determine if that plan includes avoiding an eviction (it is far less costly for the resident to clean up the apartment than to hire someone to do it); to help the resident to the extent possible to live in a clean, healthy environment; to protect the property and other residents; to avoid a Fair Housing complaint; to prevent the loss of a housing subsidy; and to provide referrals to the resident to get help.

Most of all, settle in for a long process. Overnight results are hardly to be expected.

Chafetz has treated adult clients since 1982 and has only been working with hoarders in the last five or six years. Treatment takes about six months before making noticeable improvement. Chafetz suggests to patients that they can recycle, sell, give away or donate, or trash the clutter.

He is currently working with one resident by conditioning her to focus on cleaning up one mess at a time. The first order of business was to clean up her vanity.

“We talked about focusing on one area, cleaning it up and moving on to the next,” he said. “She very quickly took to the suggestion to work on one little corner at a time. She took before and after pictures and they are night and day. It’s really worked.”

Have you encountered a hoarding situation on any of your apartment properties? How did you handle it? Did you contact a behavioral specialist our licensed counselor to assist you?

 


Contributing Editor, Property Management Insider
President, Ballpark Impressions, LLC

author photo two

Tim Blackwell is a long-time publishing and printing executive in the Dallas/Fort Worth area who writes about the multifamily housing and transportation industries. He has contributed numerous articles to Property Management Insider, and worked as a newspaper reporter in the D/FW area. Blackwell is president of Ballpark Impressions, and publishes the Cowcatcher Magazine. He is a member of the Fort Worth Chapter/Society of Professional Journalists.

  • Would love to share this piece in our member magazine (Houston Apt. Association) — please contact me if you are interested.

  • Chafetz is absolutely right that hoarding is not confined to older people. I help people all over the world declutter and create homes they love (I provide a free masterclass at http://www.mygreenandtidylife.co.uk) and I have yet to pin down a profile for a ‘typical hoarder’. It’s also my experience that there is more than one type of hoarding, including hoarder with collections that have got out of hand, people who are constantly acquiring, people who struggle to let anything go, and people who can’t generate the motivation or energy to do any tidying or cleaning and so end up living in squalor. These categories are not, of course, mutually exclusive. It’s important , when working with someone who exhibits hoarding behaviour, to really listen to them to understand their attitude to stuff and their current situation.

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