Overview of Hoarders’ Rights and Hoarding Laws in Southern California

Thanks in part to a number of relatively popular television programs featuring people who hoard, hoarding has become widely known by people across Southern California, and elsewhere in the country, even without any direct contact with an actual hoarder. On the other hand, each and every day, people in Southern California encounter situations in which a family member, friend, neighbor, or other individual is hoarding. If you find yourself in that position, you may have a number of questions, including wanting to know if hoarding is illegal, what are hoarders’ rights, and how to report a hoarder in Los Angeles or another city.

What is Hoarding?

Before diving into the legalities surrounding hoarding, you must first have a basic understanding of the condition itself. Hoarding is a clinically defined mental health disorder, according to the Mayo Clinic. A number of symptoms identify a person afflicted with hoarding disorder:

  • Excessive acquiring and accumulation of items (including things that are not needed, have not value, and for which there exists no reasonably available space to store)
  • Persistent inability to part with or throw away items (regardless of actual value or utility)
  • Experience an overwhelming need to save and maintain these items
  • Being highly upset or emotional at the thought of parting with these items
  • Building up of clutter to the point where a residence becomes unusable, unsafe, unsanitary, and unlivable
  • Overall tendency toward avoidance, indecisiveness, perfection, procrastination
  • Problems with organization and planning

Is Hoarding Illegal?

If you are concerned about a hoarder, you may wonder ask yourself “is hoarding illegal?” In the state of California, the act of hoarding itself is not illegal. However, depending on the specific facts and circumstances surrounding a hoarding situation, the consequences may result in violation of state statutes and local ordinances.

As hoarding progresses, the scene of the hoard may reach a point at which it legally can be classified as a public nuisance, both under state law and local ordinances. If a public nuisance is created and not rectified, a person can be charged with a crime under California state law. State statutes enumerate the situation in which a person can be charged with a crime arising out of hoarding:

  • Maintain, create, or commit a public nuisance
  • Willfully fail to perform a legal duty to remove or eliminate a public nuisance
  • Maintain, permit, or allow a public nuisance to continue to exist on property that a person owns or controls

A feature of California law is that not only the person creating a hoard may be criminally liable for creating a public nuisance, but another party may be as well. In a rental situation, the property owner or landlord potentially could face criminal prosecution for public nuisance because of the action (or inaction) of a hoarding tenant.

Ordinances in Los Angeles governing public nuisance are similar to those found in nearly all cities in Southern California. Thus, the Los Angeles ordinance provisions are utilized to illustrate how hoarding can reach the level of a being classified as a public nuisance.

Municipal ordinances generally define “public nuisance” as anything that is:

  • Injurious to health or that is indecent or otherwise offensive to the senses
  • Interferes with or obstructs the free use of property
  • Interferes with the comfortable enjoyment of life or property by the community at large, a neighborhood, or a considerable number of individuals

A person charged with creating or maintaining a public nuisance under state law or local ordinance (or both) faces the prospect of being convicted of a misdemeanor. A jail sentence is possible and a fine is likely if a person is convicted of maintaining a nuisance.

With that noted, a person who faces nuisance charges for the first time because of a hoarding situation is not likely to face jail time. A hoarder facing criminal prosecution for creating a public nuisance is more likely to be provided a set period of time to eliminate the hoard and nuisance it creates. A judge is also likely to mandate that a person charged with creating or maintaining a nuisance as a result of hoarding seek professional assistance, including from mental health providers.

If a hoarder is charged a subsequent time for creating a nuisance, penalties are far more likely to imposed. In addition, if the individual charged with creating or maintaining a nuisance has been hoarding pets or animals, that person is very likely to face charges involving cruelty or abuse of animals.

Hoarding, Public Nuisance, and Landlords

As mentioned previously, state law and local ordinances can place a legal burden on a landlord to address the conduct of a hoarding tenant. If a property owner utilizes a fairly standard rental agreement with a tenant who ends up creating a public nuisance by hoarding, a landlord best protects his or her legal interests by serving an eviction notice on the tenant for failure to comply with the terms and conditions of the lease.

Pursuant to California landlord and tenant law, the notice gives a tenant a specific period of time to remedy the lease violation. In this type of situation, a tenant would be given a specified number of days to eliminate the described public nuisance. What this really means is the tenant has a set time frame to eliminate the hoarded items at rental property and restore the premises to an appropriate condition.

The alternative to eliminating the hoard is for the tenant to vacate the premises within the same time period specified in the notice. If the tenant neither eliminates the hoarder property and associated public nuisance or vacates, the landlord is then in the position to be able to file an eviction lawsuit against the tenant and have the renter removed from the premises, if necessary.

A landlord also needs to bear in mind that he or she might face civil responsibility for the nuisance created by a hoarding tenant. California landlord and tenant law has a provision known as “quiet enjoyment.” This element of California landlord and tenant law places at least some responsibility on a landlord to ensure that a tenant does not interfere with the ability of other tenants or neighbors of the rental unit to enjoy their own properties. If a landlord knows of a situation in which a tenant is interfering with the ability of other people to fully use and enjoy their own homes, a landlord exposes himself to the prospect of facing direct legal action from these other individuals.

Professional Hoarder Property Cleanup Assistance

Because of the truly challenging and even potentially dangerous nature of hoarder property cleanup, professional assistance is highly recommended in dealing with a hoarding situation. As a hoard develops, a house can end up being contaminated with everything from garbage to rotting foodstuffs to human and animal waste. This situation presents a health hazard, not only to the person with hoarding disorder but to anyone who becomes involved in the hoarder property cleanup process itself.

Therefore, the best course to take is to retain the professional services of an experienced and compassionate hoarder property cleanup specialist. In addition, the necessity of engaging a professional hoarder property remediation specialist that has an understanding of applicable California laws and local ordinances is also a crucial consideration.