WOODSTOCK — When a landlord in Winchester asked to go into the house of one of the people who was renting to him, the tenant would always refuse.
One day, the landlord learned that the woman had died. But he couldn’t get through her door. The house was stuffed with liquor bottles the woman had consumed without discarding.
That was one of many stories featured in a forum on hoarding held at the Shenandoah County Government Center this week.
In the forum, Mahalia “Mally” Dryden-Mason, a fair housing training specialist at the Virginia Fair Housing Office, which is part of the Department of Professional and Occupational Regulation, discussed some issues surrounding hoarding — from mental health components to the legal implications on landlords.
Since 2013, Dryden-Mason said, hoarding has been considered a legally recognized disability, called disposophobia. As the name suggests, hoarders are distinguished not only by their excessive collecting but also by their inability to throw anything away.
“If you go to the house of a hoarder, this cup, even if it’s empty, they will say to you, ‘I can’t throw it away; I could use it,’” Dryden-Mason said. “Are they going to use it? No. But they just can’t throw it away.”
Meanwhile, hoarders also often have other mental health conditions. Fifty-three percent of all hoarders have major depression, Dryden-Mason said, while many others have mental illnesses like anxiety or obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Hoarding often comes after people have faced tremendous traumas. During the forum, Dryden-Mason told stories about people who began hoarding after their loved ones had died.
One person, for instance, bought three rats — two male and one female — after his wife had died.
“I said, ‘Oh boy, poor female, every which way there was a man,’” Dryden-Mason said. “Those three rats became 3,000 rats.”
Because hoarding is recognized as a disability, it has major implications for landlords who are required to follow the federal Fair Housing Act and the Virginia Fair Housing Law, both of which prevent landlords from discriminating on the basis of disability.
Those laws mean that landlords have to make reasonable accommodations for tenants with disabilities.
For the purposes of hoarding, that often means giving a hoarder more time to clean the apartment before being evicted than a resident who is not a hoarder would receive. That’s because of how difficult it is for hoarders to throw out their things.
“You’re going to give them more time if they agree to work with you,” Dryden-Mason said.
Dryden-Mason also said that landlords should inspect their units once or twice a year so they can catch hoarding early. Bigger hoarding problems, where entire houses fill up with garbage, don’t happen overnight, she said.
Then, once they notice a hoarding problem, landlords should work with the tenant to address the problem, setting them with concrete deadlines and telling the tenant who is hoarding how addressing the hoarding will help them.
“You have to bring it to them,” Dryden-Mason said. “Talk to them.”