The Elephant in the Room – Highrise Hoarding

Elephant in the room

Highrise Hoarding – A Tipping Point

By Wendy Campbell and Fionnuala Martin

As described by Wikipedia, “Elephant in the Room” is an American English metaphorical idiom for an obvious problem or risk that no one wants to discuss.” Controversial yes; however, very necessary conversation(s) here at Riskboss Magazine. In every publication, Riskboss Magazine will address the latest Elephant in the Room to clearly answer hard asked questions.

We love collecting interesting, beautiful or useful things; but there’s a point when collecting reaches a tipping point. Anyone facing a move knows the feeling of nostalgia but sometimes dread that accompanies opening closets, cupboards and drawers far too full of outgrown and unwanted treasures.

Our society places a huge emphasis on possessions, but the excessive accumulation of seemingly useless objects and the inability, or unwillingness to discard them, can become problematic in any place such as freehold homes and townhomes. It is especially problematic in residential condominium and high rise apartment environments. This is primarily because of the higher density of people. A host of problems are associated with hoarding, from specific health and safety issues to adverse effects on relationships with family, friends, neighbours and fellow employees. Fire hazards, infestation, irritating smells and the health and safety of the hoarder and neighbours are of primary concern.

Why do people hoard? What’s the attraction for things that seem worthless or excessive? There is a big difference between someone who clutters, a hobbyist collector and being a hoarder. Hoarding is a psychological/emotional disorder that can be accompanied by anxiety, or depression, or Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), or Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD).

Hoarders usually have little insight into their behaviour, don’t see it as a problem and find the thought of getting rid of their objects emotionally agonizing despite their actions being the cause of their own personal crisis. Hoarders can collect both possessions and animals.

According to Dr. Sam Klarreich, B.A., M.A., Ph.D., Psych.

“A hoarding disorder, although uncommon and usually not a serious problem at the outset, can become a major hurdle to overcome, if other emotional problems such as anxiety, depression or OCD become part of the mix. With the presence of COVID-19, the likelihood of that occurring is a distinct possibility. So, early intervention with the right type of resources is invaluable to ensure the building remains a healthy and safe environment.”

Hoarding

Unless the behaviour clearly creates undue hardship, is dangerous or threatens the health and safety of the hoarder or the community, forcing the hoarder out of the community is never an option. Reasonable steps to mitigate risk and accommodate a balance between the rights of the hoarder and other residents, who are entitled to the peaceful enjoyment of their homes, may be very difficult to accomplish.

However, condominium lawyer Gerry Miller of the law firm Gardiner, Miller, Arnold LLP points out that his firm has been asked to intervene in numerous hoarding situations after property management has been unsuccessful in mitigating or resolving a unit owner’s hoarding to an acceptable level for the condominium corporation. He points out that his firm has been forced, on rare occasions, to seek court assistance to force a hoarder to leave their unit, sell their unit and to have the unit owner’s property disposed of and often family intervention is required.

Property managers who have successfully responded to hoarding in their communities have received effective training and support, generally from property management head offices. They have been provided with resources to respond with empathy, to use de- escalation techniques that may involve calls to public health and 911 emergency services (if appropriate), and, if possible, assistance identifying helpful friends and family members as well as community and social service resources.

Condominium corporations and owners of residential apartment properties need to have appropriate policies and procedures in place to support requests for accommodation and effective training on identifying and responding to events when they occur.

Hoarding incidents when not acted upon in a prudent manner may not only affect the unit owner’s insurance but the insurance of the corporation and/or property owner. The unit owner’s mortgage may also become null and void.

Acting imprudently to hoarding events has the same impact in law as not acting at all when required to do so. The following action plan is highly recommended:

  • Training & Awareness
    • Train all staff to identify possible incidents of hoarding.
  • Inspections, Identification & Reporting
    • During routine fire and mechanical inspections hoarding incidents will become readily apparent and should be reported immediately to property management.
  • Reporting, Documenting & Record Keeping
    • Contemporaneous reporting, documenting and record retention of all hoarding incidents are critical success factors in risk mitigation strategies.
    • All documents (including emails) should be backed up and kept as a formal record as this may be required for court and other purposes.
  • Notification
    • Formal notification to the hoarder must be made as soon as possible.
    • Benchmarking and keeping records of such communication is important.
  • Privacy
    • Releasing the private information about a hoarder to anyone without authorization is strictly prohibited.
    • This includes family members. Requesting permission from the hoarder in writing to engage family and friends is always prudent prior to engagement.

It is important to dispel misconceptions about hoarding:

Myth: Older people hoard more than younger people.
Fact:     It could be anyone.

Myth: People with lower incomes hoard more than those with higher incomes.
Fact: This impacts all income levels.

Myth: People with lower education levels hoard more than those with higher education levels.
Fact: This impacts all education levels.

Myth: Women hoard more than men.
Fact: The rate is equal between women and men.

There are numerous regulations in Ontario that impact hoarding situations, including:

Human Rights Code Occupational Health & Safety Act Condominium Act Residential Tenancies Act Fire Protection & Prevention Act Insurance ActPrivacy Legislation Mortgage Act Mental Health Act Local Bylaws Animal Protection Act

Hoarding disorders are inherently challenging to everyone. However, because of its growing presence in residential communities, condominium corporations and property owners need to be able to respond to it by addressing any crisis that might occur, moving quickly to action, and moving to enforcement tools as a last resort where accommodation is no longer possible.

Whether actions that were taken were timely, reasonable and appropriate are three tests that will be analyzed well after the fact quite thoroughly.

Getting basic training and understanding the need, options and process, will give condominium corporations and owners of residential apartments a good foundation for responding methodically and compassionately to mental health situations such as hoarding.