Hoarding has long been a challenge in the city, where many live in small quarters and in proximity to neighbors. The telltale leaks and odors — and the hygiene and safety concerns that go with them — quickly become everyone’s problem. In recent years, however, it’s become apparent that the condition may be more widespread than previously believed, and that dealing with hoarders requires not just caution and care but special expertise. Which is why many building managers and co-op boards confronted with this problem are now turning to clinicians for help.
The American Psychiatric Association estimates that 2 to 5 percent of the population could be classified as compulsive hoarders, people who suffer from a disorder that impedes their ability to discard things, regardless of value. (Once a subcategory of obsessive-compulsive disorder, hoarding received its own designation in the 2013 Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the go-to reference book for mental health professionals published annually by the American Psychiatric Association.) But “it’s likely there are more people with hoarding tendencies than the often-cited figure,” said Randy O. Frost, a professor of psychology at Smith College in Massachusetts.
As the illness often manifests behind closed doors, it’s difficult to get an accurate count. But out of the 4,071 evaluations conducted by Adult Protective Services in the 2016 fiscal year, about 7.7 percent, or 308 people, were diagnosed with a hoarding disorder, said a spokeswoman for the New York City Human Resources Administration.
“Some are collectors and compulsive buyers,” said Dr. Frost, who has studied the illness for about 20 years and is the co-author of the book “Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things.” “Some are perfectionists and environmentalists.”
Although some have obsessive-compulsive tendencies, not all of them have that trait, Mr. Frost said. One common thread is the importance hoarders place on each item they possess: “The item usually has an experience or emotion attached to it. They think, ‘If I get rid of it, I lose that memory or feeling.’”
Or they might be sacrificing an item’s potential, as Sharon Begley writes in her book “Can’t Just Stop: An Investigation of Compulsions.” Any piece of clothing could potentially be recycled in a craft project. Empty cardboard boxes could be used to store things in the future. A newspaper article must be saved because it has vital information that a friend might need.
Frank Durant, who works for Charles H. Greenthal Management and is the general manager of the Seward Park co-op complex on the Lower East Side, said he deals with about five to eight such cases a year.
“I’ve seen places where you can’t walk in the front door,” he said. “Walls filled with pizza boxes and Chinese takeout containers.”
When confronted with a situation like this, what is the best way to proceed?
The building management and board should be notified if a tenant with a hoarding problem is discovered because the clutter is the source of a leak in another apartment, causes a foul odor or is the epicenter of a rodent or insect infestation, said David L. Berkey, a partner at Gallet Dreyer & Berkey LLP. In this case, the tenant is breaking an agreement (whether it is the proprietary lease, house rule or rental agreement) to keep the apartment in good living condition and is legally required to clean the home to the point where the nuisance ceases to exist.
Before taking any formal legal action, Mr. Berkey said, boards and landlords should first confirm that the tenant is aware there is a problem and should look for family members who can help. The goal of the board or landlord is to maintain a safe space for all the building’s residents, including the hoarder, so finding a social services agency, a civic or religious organization, or a nonprofit to assist should also be a priority. And if the tenant is elderly, a geriatric care manager could be called on as well.
If the tenant is unresponsive and the home is in serious disrepair, Mr. Berkey added, calling the city’s Adult Protective Services agency to get a legal guardian appointed is another possible course of action.
“Since you are dealing with someone’s behavior, it is one of the most difficult problems a board can face,” said Eva C. Talel, a partner at Stroock & Stroock & Lavan LLP, who recommended taking legal steps to evict the hoarder — a process than can take a year or more — only as a last resort.
Because hoarding is a mental illness, residents are protected under the federal Fair Housing Act. Landlords and boards are therefore required to provide reasonable accommodation, like giving the resident enough time to clear out the apartment, said Marc H. Schneider, a managing partner at Schneider Buchel LLP.
“Your best-case scenario is that a letter asking the tenant to clear his or her home prompts action,” Mr. Schneider said. “But most hoarders don’t respond to the first notice.”
If the clutter is not causing any building-wide issues but could be considered a fire hazard, he added, the landlord or board must also take action.
Getting adversarial, however, is not the answer.
Jackson Sherratt, a licensed clinical social worker and the director of Project ORE at the Manhattan-based nonprofit Educational Alliance, warns that the more adversarial a board or a landlord is in dealing with an individual who has hoarding tendencies, the bigger and more protracted the battle. He has worked on 100 or so hoarding cases on the Lower East Side and in the East Village over the past several years, he said, many that required wearing a hazmat suit and a respirator to clean out an apartment.
“You can’t be threatening if you want a sustainable result,” said Mr. Sherratt, who warned against using disparaging or stigmatizing language — including words like “hoarder,” “garbage,” “dirty” and “disgusting.”
Hiring a professional cleaning crew, which can cost several thousand dollars depending on the size of the apartment, he added, is also a mistake. The resident needs to feel some control over what gets discarded or donated and how things are organized in the cleared apartment, he said, “Otherwise you have people fetching things from the garbage, and it comes right back into the apartment.”
Mr. Durant from Seward Park said he enlists several nonprofit groups, including Educational Alliance, which provide social workers to help. He makes sure his staff is available to assist with the cleaning. And after the clutter is removed, he said, “I like to offer something in return, like painting the kitchen.”
At the Penn South co-op complex, the board and staff also decided to seek help from an expert: Catherine R. Ayers, an associate clinical professor in the psychiatry department at the University of California, San Diego, who specializes in hoarding. Dr. Ayers not only conducted seminars for Mr. Keany’s crew and the staff, but also held a workshop on hoarding and decluttering that more than 70 residents attended. (Some had hoarding tendencies themselves, Mr. Keany said, and others wanted to learn how to help their friends and neighbors.)
The board then hired a part-time social worker to visit each hoarder’s apartment with building staff, to prepare the space for repairs. And the board passed a new house rule permitting Mr. Keany’s staff to enter the homes of shareholders who had previously denied access, to complete the pipe-replacement project.
“We played good cop, bad cop,” Mr. Keany said. “I came with a letter from the board, but the social worker helped start the conversation and set realistic goals.”
“I wasn’t familiar with the issue, but now I’ve learned that it’s not unusual,” said City Council member Helen Rosenthal, whose district covers the Upper West Side and whose office receives two or three calls a month from constituents who are afraid they might be evicted for hoarding — calls from “all kinds of people, regardless of age, race and income,” she said.
Not all of those people may be stereotypical hoarders. Some might be like Kenneth Furie, who worried that the clutter in his one-bedroom rental in Washington Heights was getting out of control and wondered what would happen if someone discovered it.
Mr. Furie noticed that he didn’t clean up unless the cable guy was coming. He let dishes sit in the sink. Newspapers and magazines piled up. He didn’t consider himself as bad as the hoarders depicted on reality television shows, but he knew he had a problem.
So he began attending “Hoarders No More: NYC,” a self-help group organized through the online service Meetup that holds regular meetings in Midtown Manhattan. Several years later, Mr. Furie, 68, is pleased with his progress. He still has about 30,000 LPs, 20,000 CDs and hundreds of VHS tapes, LaserDiscs and DVDs, but he has managed to sell some of his records. He has thrown out old audio equipment that was sitting unused and broken, and whenever he notices a pile of magazines, he gets rid of it.
He sets small, realistic goals, like spending 10 minutes decluttering a few times a week, and often ends up doing more. And it’s easier now to get rid of things he knows he won’t use.
Before learning these skills, Mr. Furie would try to clean, but it paralyzed him. “It caused anxiety,” he said. “Then you feel like a failure for not being able to do it. You feel shame.”
Nathan David Blech, who organizes the Meetup group that Mr. Furie attends — there are currently 393 members, or “future neatniks” — said he keeps close tabs on his own battle against hoarding. A meticulous note taker, he uses worksheets to track his progress, documenting, among other things, which items he has taken in and out of his home and which surfaces are clear or messy.
He also uses the group’s buddy system, where members declutter at the same time in their respective homes, with a brief phone call beforehand to reiterate goals and one immediately after to share compliments and stay focused.
Speaking on behalf of the members in his group, Mr. Blech, 50, said, “Acting with others gives many of us motivation.”
His tidy one-bedroom apartment in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, speaks for itself.