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While the phenomenon of hoarding is not new, the media scrutiny accompanying it has reached heights undreamt of even in 1947, when the living situation of the famous Collyer brothers became front-page news. Along with numerous recent newspaper and magazine accounts of the problem, and an increased focus from the medical community, the term “hoarding” has burrowed into popular culture through ubiquitous reality shows as one of those amusing extreme behaviors to which the human experience occasionally gravitates. However, in discussing hoarding, it is surprising how commonly we find that we know “hoarders,” either as neighbors, friends, parents of friends, coworkers, or even family members. It seems that everyone knows someone or knows someone who knows someone who could become a reality television star if only they bared their secret shame to an insatiable television audience.
The shame of hoarding behavior is one of the prominent aspects of the disorder; one that keeps the behavior hidden, prevents treatment, keeps individuals in a state of isolation, leads to a regression of social interaction, and eventually reinforces the behavior itself. In hoarding literature, the sense of shock at discovering a hoarder is palpable, whether displayed by a landlord, family member, or social worker. And such shock is not altogether inappropriate. Because of the very nature of hoarding, the individual often goes to great lengths to hide the problem, or at the very least, the extent of it. Furthermore, disgust and even anger are not unreasonable considering the serious health and safety risks severe hoarding can pose, not just to the hoarder, but also to those around them.
These health and safety risks have legal implications. And as in so many areas, the issue of mental illness and independent living in safe and affordable housing must be weighed against the needs of housing providers, whether private landlords or housing authority administrators. As touched upon above and explained more fully below, the needs of these housing providers are not just economic, they do not involve merely rents or the diminution of value in a property—instead, numerous local health laws may be implicated and the safety of other tenants may also be at risk. This creates a conflict above and beyond the already difficult process of finding housing for the psychiatrically disabled, a population already subject to stereotypes often as disabling as their condition.
This article will discuss the legal implications of hoarding behavior by providing a general overview of current psychiatric understanding of hoarding disorders, explaining the impact of tenant hoarding on local housing laws and safety concerns, surveying the Fair Housing Act (FHA) reasonable accommodation case law on eviction because of hoarding or other psychiatric disabilities, analyzing how reasonable accommodations can be used to prevent unnecessary evictions and homelessness of this population, and concluding by suggesting the use of collaborative services, such as those provided by local hoarding task forces, in creating reasonable accommodation plans. . . .