On a recent episode of Hoarders, the A&E series on compulsive collecting habits, a woman in Maryland nearly died from a virus she contracted in her garbage-filled home. Earlier in the season, a hoarder went without heat and running water for two years as her condition spiraled out of control.
For property managers in the New York area, situations like these are more than the stuff of television.Over the last decade, Jonathan Cohen, a senior vice president at Goldberg Realty Associates, a management company based in West Caldwell, NJ, has handled about a dozen extreme hoarding cases.
“There are people that are dumpster divers, who collect what they can and see value in these items,” he said. “Other people don’t like throwing things out,” and leave rotting food, tissue papers, and other items scattered around their apartments.
Then there are the shopaholics. In one of Goldberg Realty’s buildings, a relatively affluent tenant couldn’t control her spending habits.
“She had to remove hinges from the front door to climb over boxes,” Cohen said. As in many hoarding cases — there an estimated 700,000 to 1.4 million hoarders in the United States, according to the International OCD Foundation — the problem had gone unnoticed for months.
In a horror tale submitted anonymously to the popular real estate blog Curbed, a Murray Hill resident said it took six years before a neighboring hoarder’s apartment was cleaned out. Often, tenants with compulsive collecting habits are reluctant to allow in exterminators or repairmen.
Though hoarders don’t perceive their habits as a problem, Cohen said, they’re aware that others don’t approve. According to a recent study conducted by Cornell University, which found that 10 percent of elderly Manhattan residents they surveyed were afflicted with the condition, social workers encountered hoarders with broken toilets, sinks, radiators, and air conditioning units.
“Afraid of eviction, they failed to get needed repairs,” the report explained. Rather than rush to kick hoarders out, Cohen’s team steps back and assesses the risks. “Is it a health hazard? Is it a fire hazard? What safety issues are involved?” Cohen’s team asks. “We work as much as we can with people. If we’re not able to resolve it, ultimately we end up going to court.”
The shopaholic was threatened with eviction if she didn’t clean up her act. She tossed out most of her packaged items, filling up entire dumpsters in the process, and then left of her own volition, Cohen said. But other hoarders need prodding by the Health Department or relatives.
“Many times we try and get local authorities involved, the Board of Health, or a social worker. We are not necessarily experts in the psychological aspects of this,” said Cohen, who is a member of the New Jersey Apartment Association. Though not classified as a disability under the Fair Housing sarily experts in the psychological aspects of this,” said Cohen, who is a member of the New Jersey Apartment Association.
Though not classified as a disability under the Fair Housing Act, mental health experts generally consider hoarding an illness, often an extension of OCD, dementia, or alcoholism.
At a panel discussion on hoarding held by the New Jersey Apartment Association last month, Steven Majewski, a behavioral healthcare expert at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, stressed that hoarders need a support system of professionals as well as family members to encourage them to seek help.
When Cohen discovered that a tenant in her 20s sheltered a handful of dogs, allowing the pets to defecate all over the apartment, he called the young woman’s mom and sat her down with a health official. The messy floors had attracted rodents, flies, and even snakes, putting the entire building at risk of an infestation.
“We did not force her to move, but we told her we would be inspecting the apartment every month,” he said. “We were in constant communication with the girl’s mother.”
Together, mother and daughter scrubbed the apartment. But for those that need more than the help of relatives, there are support groups like Hoarders Anonymous, which has been offering counseling services since the early nineties. And a handful of cleaning companies work with hoarders, including the New Jersey-based firm Clean USA.
About ten years ago, the company’s chief of operations, Paul Benson, received a call from the Jersey City health department. A man had kept a menagerie of dogs, cats, and parrots in his house, and was threatened with fines unless he paid a cleaning company to remove litter and feces from the floors. Three firms bid for the job, and Clean USA was chosen. Since then, Benson’s team has handled about six cases a year, each job costing anywhere between $12,000 and $75,000.
At the home of an elderly hoarder, whose son worked for a local police force, cleaners donned protective suits before burrowing through five feet of garbage blocking the front door. In extreme cases like these, “the most powerful department is not the police, it’s the health department. They don’t need a warrant to enter,” said Benson, whose company also cleans after floods or fire damage.
The woman, who was living in a small nest surrounded by trash, was given psychiatric treatment after all the junk was removed. “When the police officer was there he was mortified. We said, ‘this is a sickness,’” Benson said.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Benson worked with a man he calls “the cleanest hoarder ever.” The client kept his expensive Fort Lee townhouse spotless – except for a room that Benson initially mistook for an extremely cluttered closet. “What we thought to be a closet was a room 20 by 30 feet,” Benson said. The space was packed from floor to ceiling with garbage and other items.
“Because he came from means he was able to mask [his condition],” Benson explained. In situations like these, conditions can go on for years. “Normally it’s the smell that attracts the neighbors, and they call police,” Benson said.
Cohen, of Goldberg Realty Associates, finds that it doesn’t take much for neighbors to complain. Often, he gets calls about problems refreshingly petty compared to hoarding.
“The nature of multi-family is that people are living in close proximity,” Cohen said. “Often times there are issues about something as minor as cooking smells, or someone whose schedule is different, someone who works at night versus the day.”
The team at Goldberg Realty only meddles if the situation is within its scope. “We don’t get in the middle of personal issues,” Cohen said. “That’s not what we do.”