Q: How should I handle a tenant who is a hoarder? His studio unit is filled from floor to ceiling with books, boxes, and other clutter; there is barely room to move. I’m specifically concerned for the potential cleanliness of the building (rodents, smells, etc.) and of the fire hazard.
A: Although landlords should respect their tenants’ privacy and lifestyle differences, issues of hoarding and cleanliness should be taken seriously as a matter of health and safety. Pest infestations can spread from unit to unit, and a fire hazard can be threatening to everyone in the neighborhood. Landlords must do their part with repair and extermination services, but tenants have their own legal obligations as well.
California Civil Code § 1941.2 requires tenants to keep their units “clean and sanitary”, including disposing of garbage properly, cleaning their plumbing and utility fixtures, and not otherwise damaging the property or using the premises in an unintended way. If you notice that a tenant is storing food or hazardous materials improperly, you should inform your tenant of this obligation. Many form leases also include similar language, and should also be referenced as a reminder, if applicable.
However, enforcing these statutory and contractual obligations to prevent tenant hoarding is often challenging. The San Francisco Rent Board has published links to Adult Protective Services, the Mental Health Association of San Francisco, and Legal Assistance to the Elderly here. We recommend that landlords exhaust all available services and remedies to the extent that they are applicable to the tenant. Each step should be documented as evidence of a good-faith effort to resolve the situation short of eviction or other litigation. Undertaking this process may also take many months.
If the tenant continues to hoard despite all other efforts at intervention, you should proceed with enforcement with the assistance of an attorney. The remedy for that situation is generally an eviction, which may be based on either a violation of a term of the lease (i.e. cleanliness), or nuisance (i.e. causing safety or health hazards.) You should consult with your attorney to determine the best course of action, since more than one option may be available. In either case, San Francisco law requires that the tenant receive a formal warning before they are given a legal notice to quit (vacate.)
Your chance of success at trial depends on the quality of your evidence. But even when it seems you have rock-solid proof, it is notoriously difficult to convince a San Francisco jury to rule against a tenant, especially if their illness makes them appear sympathetic. Litigation should be a last resort for a dangerous or intolerable situation that has no other possible resolution.If the tenant’s unit is simply cluttered without being a hazard, there is likely nothing a landlord can do. Similarly, if a tenant’s carelessness or clumsiness occasionally (but not routinely) damages the property, the landlord should be dutiful in making repairs, with costs deducted from the security deposit. If the tenant has no security deposit, the landlord can sue the tenant in small claims court to recoup their costs, if they can prove the damage was the tenant’s fault, and not ordinary wear and tear to the unit.
Copyright © 2017 by Fried & Williams LLP. All Rights Reserved. The information in this article is general in nature and should not be considered legal advice. For any specific matter, please consult with an attorney.