Hoarding as a Fair Housing Issue: Beyond Reality TV

By Elizabeth Gray, FHCO Intake Specialist

  • Hoarding behaviors affect housing
  • FHCO’s ongoing participation in Multnomah County Hoarding Taskforce
  • Hoarding as a disability
  • Resources online and locally

A fire or ambulance crew can’t safely respond to a medical emergency in a single family home because the resident has belongings stacked up to the ceiling and blocking many windows or doors. 

A tenant living in an apartment faces eviction when he or she fails to pass a follow-up inspection after several warnings about lease violations related to items that create a tripping hazard, fire danger, or limit access to the maintenance worker. The tenant then contacts their case manager in a panic. 

These are just two examples of what could be hoarding-like behavior. Hoarding is distinct from simply building a collection, which is usually displayed with pride, or letting a few days of dishes and laundry pile up when life gets busy. A person who has been diagnosed with hoarding has a disability under the Fair Housing Act. Hoarding has been added to the DSM-5, the latest version of the American Psychiatric Association’s classification and diagnostic tool, and is now recognized as diagnosable independent of other mental health conditions. 

FHCO had received a few calls about potential hoarding situations by the time an invitation came in the spring of 2013 to participate in a countywide conversation about the issue. Two graduate social work students serving as interns in the Multnomah County office of Aging and Disability services convened various agencies to meet for a “community assessment”. Attendees included representatives of several nonprofit and for-profit housing providers, Aging and Disability and Adult Protective Services, Legal Aid, FHCO, Animal Control, and Assessments and Tax. The group has continued to meet regularly as the Hoarding Task Force, researching resources and bringing in experts to assist in coordinating services and developing best practices. The group is now beginning the process of staffing cases and developing a more formal protocol.

Participation in the task force has increased FHCO’s capacity to assist renters or HOA members with a diagnosis of hoarding disorder who are at risk of losing their housing. Since hoarding disorder is a disability under the Fair Housing Act, these individuals have the right to request a reasonable accommodation from a housing provider. This might include providing a reasonable amount of time for bringing in a professional cleaner/organizer to help clear pathways, reduce height piles, clear materials in front of heating vents, etc. More will probably be needed than a single deep clean. There may be several steps to the RA request, prioritizing the most immediate safety needs and then allowing a more gradual time line for reducing other clutter, in conjunction with a professional organizer or mental health provider. The good news is that there are new cognitive behavioral therapy models that can be successful in treating hoarding 

As with any reasonable accommodation request, a housing provider would need to evaluate the request and the verification of disability and respond in a timely manner. Housing providers would also be wise to consult with their attorney when making a decision on a reasonable accommodation request

A sample reading list:

  • Bratiotis, Christina, et. al. "The Hoarding Handbook: A Guide for Human Services Professionals" New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.
  • Hoffman, Jan. “Task Forces Offer Hoarders a Way to Dig Out” – The New York Times. May 26, 2013.