Today animal and other hoarding cases are mainstream news and the stuff of television reality shows. Early in my career, I worked for a group of self-insured cities and experienced my first case of animal hoarding, if you consider a rat an animal.
In a small Bay Area apartment complex, fellow tenants walked by an apartment unit and noticed a rat sunning itself once in a while on the windowsill. No biggie, they thought. “Live and let live” is a Bay Area core value. Eventually as they passed, however, they noticed the curtains were chewed at the bottom. Still not a big deal. Until one morning, lots of rats were hanging out on the sill and the neighbors decided to peek under the ever-shortening curtain hem. What they saw freaked them out. There were many, many rats, hundreds in fact, scampering about or chillin’ on the furniture, maybe even watching Animal Planet. Neighbors called the management company which turned to the city for help. As the city’s claims representative, I arrived right after a Hazmat team.
Sure, it started out innocently enough – two rats that bred. Then those rats bred. Then the tenants turned their bedroom into the “rat room” and moved into the living room. Soon, rats were everywhere, hundreds when I arrived, as city workers in respirators caged and counted.
“Domestic squalor” is a term used by professionals to define people who slowly destroy their own living quarters. Those who stockpile may experience extreme loneliness after the death of a partner or may have a mental disorder. However, despite the reasons one begins to hoard, landlords must proactively manage these issues to reduce liability. After all, others have to live near these blighted properties.
If you own a rental unit, you probably have a hoarding story or two of your own. Tenants who store papers, hoard animals or even cook meth may be in your story repertoire. Managing the general factors that encourage or discourage these types of problems and others in housing risks can help you to avoid contending with a big, big mess. Those factors are environmental, biological and equipment-related.
Environmental factors include crowded hallways, inadequate lighting which encourages acts like using dark areas as toilets, overgrown landscaping and floors in poor condition.
Biological factors include not treating vermin infestations, such as roof rats we harbor in inner city Phoenix. These pesky creatures destroy wiring and bring a host of other problems, including mites, rat waste and odor. Bedbugs, too, have become a national problem.
Equipment factors like leaking boilers and other poorly maintained equipment are frequently the root cause of other injuries and incidents like mold.
Only by frequent condition assessments of your tenant-occupied properties can you hope to discourage hoarding and other problems. Here are some tips to help you reduce the exposure to hoarding losses.
- Try to develop relationships with repair people. Use them to report on the general condition of that property when making repairs, for example a plumber who replaces a leaking faucet or a heating specialist who repairs the heater. They can tip you off to any problems.
- Put language in your lease agreements allowing monthly property inspection. Use monthly maintenance calls to replace heater filters as the time to eyeball the property condition. This monthly visit helps you both ensure your equipment is well maintained and that hoarding or filthy conditions are nipped in the bud.
- Hoarding is a difficult situation. Do not let situation get out of hand. If you never faced this problem as a landlord, visit this URL to see what can happen when hoarding runs wild. Your city or county health department may offer guidance, as the city I represented did in the rat affair. Local social service organizations can often assist with the human element, which may be the hardest piece to manage.
- If you do run across a case of domestic squalor, you may need to marshal outside resources before safely deploying workers. Many companies now specialize in cleaning up after hoarders. Beware, though, coverage for hoarding-related losses may be dicey under your insurance policy.
Landlording is never simple, but with many living alone without family support, hoarding behaviors are on the rise. Take proactive steps to address problems head-on before they escalate to save you repair costs and potential liability.