How to manage animal-hoarding tenants to make your property sanitary & safe

Jason Van Steenwyk
Jason Van Steenwyk | 6 min. read
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Published on September 8, 2015

In 2013, we gave you some tips on cleaning up your properties after a hoarder moves out. This latest article covers a related problem that’s on the rise in 2015: pet hoarding.

A property owner in the historic and upscale Beacon Hill section of Boston, Massachusetts was concerned about a stench coming from his unit. It was so bad he thought a body was rotting inside.  In fact, there were 60.

Police entered the apartment and found five emaciated cats and a Great Dane, along with 60 dead cats. The owner naturally started eviction proceedings. You’d think he wouldn’t have any trouble with the eviction, but according to the Small Property Owners Association, the eviction process actually took months.

This happened even though the owner had done the following:

  • Acted quickly (The tenant moved in on September 1, the landlord was getting complaints of the cat odor by the 16th, and he filed to evict by the end of the month.)
  • Verified that this tenant had been convicted on animal cruelty charges before
  • Secured written complaints from the downstairs business and the neighbors
  • Had at least eight to ten visits from housing inspectors responding to multiple complaints of feces smell (with no action)
  • Filed for a court injunction to remove the animals immediately (pending eviction)

The judge visited the place and reported that the tenant had scooped up the cat droppings and put them in the bath tub! Tenants in three units had stopped paying rent because of the stench.

To make matters worse, the tenant acted as her own attorney in the eviction hearing, and the judge let her drag everything out for five full days. The judge took a month to issue a decision, finally ruling for eviction. Ultimately, the property owner was out five months rent from two tenants, legal fees, and $7,500 in biohazard cleanup charges.

Animal hoarding is a tough nut for the property owner and tenant alike, because owners who finds themselves renting to a pet hoarder of any stripe is likely dealing with not just with the potential property damage, but also with a tenant’s potential mental health issues. Eviction is clearly an option in most cases.

For whatever reason, reports of animal/pet hoarding today are on the rise. According to information from The Anxiety and Depression Association of America, reports of hoarding behavior have quintupled just over the past 10 years. There are about 3,500 cases reported annually to authorities, affecting 250,000 pets each year.

What is animal hoarding?

Clinically, animal hoarding refers to the practice of taking in so many animals that it overwhelms the hoarders’ capacity to care for themselves, much less for the animals. Hoarders will usually hide their behavior from property owners and managers and family and friends, and as a result, become socially isolated, compounding any depression, anxiety, or other mental health issues that may already exist.

Dealing with pet hoarders can be fraught with legal issues

 The federal government recently recognized hoarding in general as a disability, qualifying for protected status under federal law. Furthermore, the Fair Housing Act allows disabled individuals to keep a service animal and “emotional support”animals in a rented home — without regard to the generally applicable pet policy. (That means the tenant’s right to keep a service animal or emotional support animal generally trumps the owner’s right to ban or restrict pets!)

However, there is nothing in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) or the Fair Housing Act that requires property owners to tolerate unsanitary and hazardous conditions.

The best practice, of course, is to prevent getting stuck with a pet hoarder in the first place. Hopefully you can do this by checking references and running a background check. In the Boston case mentioned above, a background check would have uncovered previous legal issues associated with cat hoarding.

Additionally, you can include your pet policy in your lease, consistent with Fair Housing Laws, restricting the number, type, breed, and size of acceptable pets.

But if those measures fail, you can short-circuit the tenants’ possible raising of the “disability defense’ by focusing on the unsanitary and hazardous conditions, including the impact of stench, smell, and overall nuisance to the neighbors.

Can eviction be avoided?

Not every pet hoarding problem ends in an eviction. Short of kicking the tenant out of your unit, you may consider providing a referral to hoarding mitigation specialist vendors like “Address Our Mess.” Both are networks of clean-up vendors who will cart piles of refuse away, like most  haul-away companies, but they have found a niche offering follow-up and support services to people who struggle with hoarding. And because they’re experienced with the difficult psychological issues that go with hoarding, they make a point of keeping everything discreet.

If you think the situation can be corrected with a little help, and the tenant is paying some or all of the cleanup costs, this solution may be better than an expensive eviction and paying thousands in cleanup costs yourself. These companies can also refer your tenant to a network of therapists, counselors, and social workers who can work with your tenant and hopefully prevent the issue from getting even more out of hand.

Dealing with the aftermath of pet hoarding

If odor elimination is an issue, either with or without the old tenant still in the unit, you’ll probably need professional help cleaning up and getting rid of the stench. The Institute of Inspection, Cleaning and Restoration (IICR) certifies cleaning and HAZMAT technicians who undergo specific training on odor elimination techniques.

In addition to the two hoarding clean-up companies mentioned above, you can also locate IICRC-certified vendors here. The best solution, however, is to be vigilant and to enforce the terms of the lease so that no case of animal hoarding ever arises to the HAZMAT level.

Have you dealt with pet hoarders in your units? What were the warning signs, and how did you resolve the problem? Please let us know in the comments section below.

NOTE: This blog submission is only for purposes of disseminating information. It does not constitute legal advice. No attorney-client relationship is formed by virtue of reading this blog entry or submitting a comment thereto. If you need legal advice, please hire a licensed attorney in your state.

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Jason Van Steenwyk

Jason is a freelance writer and editor, as well as an avid fiddler. His articles have been published in a number of real estate publications including Wealth and Retirement Planner and Bankrate.com. He lives in Fort Lauderdale, FL with his cat, Sasha, and an unknown number of musical instruments.

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