Is your neighbour a hoarder or just a pack rat? Is their excessive bounty, trash or treasure? When does the neighbour’s problem become the condominium’s problem? These are questions that are difficult to answer because as they say, beauty is in the eye or perhaps nose of the beholder. Neat freaks will be appalled and those sensitive to odours and dust may feel ill. But when does it cross the line into the unreasonable or even illegal.
Hoarding has been described in Wikipedia as the compulsive and pathological acquisition of possessions and failure to use or discard them in excess of socially normative amounts even if the items are worthless, hazardous or unsanitary. Compulsive hoarding may impair mobility and interfere with basic activities, including cooking, cleaning, hygiene, sanitation, bathing and sleeping.
Hoarding can be broken down into different areas such as aesthetics, physical safety, fire hazards and medical problems, all of which can have severe implications on the condominium community.
Most condominiums have bylaws and rules which govern the appearance of the buildings. They usually set a standard of conformity that is pleasant to most residents. Free spirits may wish to have a polka dot door but that would not be acceptable in shared community settings. Therefore, if the clutter (be it trash or treasure) is spilling out onto common areas such as the hallway, patios, storage areas or balconies, it will affect the other unit owners and the enjoyment of their homes. Careful attention must be paid to the Declaration, By-laws and Rules to ensure compliance with the uniform appearance of the community. Relief may also be found in your municipality’s by-laws and standards, if an owner is hoarding in public view.
In cases of hoarding, safety becomes an issue when clutter could cause an owner, guest or other unit owner to fall over items improperly stored. Extreme hoarding could even become a danger due to falling of improperly stacked items. Excessive weight, especially on balconies, presents a serious safety concern. Section 19 of the Condominium Act allows the Board and its authorized agents to enter the units and exclusive common elements to carry out the duties of the Corporation. If hoarding is suspected and safety is a concern, then the Board should take steps to enter the unit and to correct the problem.
Perhaps the most important issue is fire hazard. Excessive clutter of paper, boxes, rags and other flammable products produce a perfect accelerant for fire. It is even possible for this combination to spontaneously ignite. Combined with blocked exits and difficulties for fire fighters to control the fire; it is apparent that fire hazard due to hoarding can be a serious issue. Contacting your local fire department for assistance may be the most cost-effective and timely solution to correct this type of hoarding, as the fire department has legislative authority to enter the premises where there is a concern of imminent fire and related danger.
Medical problems related to hoarding are two-fold.
The first medical problem is the lack of general hygiene which could include infestation by germ-carrying animals and bugs. Mice, rats and various insects would be attracted to clutter for nests and possible sources of food. The question of bed bugs is also an issue of concern. Although poor housekeeping is not an indicator for bed bugs, hoarding of used objects such as sofas and cots certainly present an opportunity for bed bugs to be brought into a condominium setting.
The second medical problem concerns issues such as excessive dust, mould, odour and chemicals which may trigger allergies and other respiratory ailments.
Again, reviewing the governing documents, such as the declaration, by-laws and rules may help, along with the municipality’s by-laws. In addition, the local health unit may also provide assistance. Often, the board may rely upon a “nuisance clause” in its governing documents to address the myriad of complaints that hoarding may trigger. In addition, an “indemnification clause” in the governing documents may assist in the board’s ability to require an offending owner to reimburse the condominium for any necessary clean-up costs to rectify the hoarding problem.
Most unit owners agree that hoarding would be a major problem for the condominium and should be addressed by the board. Agreeing on what constitutes hoarding is a bigger problem and in the true case of compulsive hoarding the board may require assistance from the appropriate professionals trained in the treatment of a mental illness. Agencies like the Canadian Mental Health Association and Citizen Advocacy can provide counselling to an owner who is suffering from the effects of compulsive hoarding. In the end, most hoarding issues likely would be decided by the condominium’s declaration, bylaws and rules and a reasonable person test. In other words, is the problem one that is offensive to a reasonable person or is it a minor inconvenience that offends a sensitive person? Judging what is trash or treasure is not easy and may require a Court of Law to make that judgment. With the many local agencies available to assist with the ill-effects of hoarding, the Court should be the last resort to make that all-too-difficult decision of trash or treasure.