Buried Alive Hoarding in Alberta's condominiums

From the perspective of an association there are a number of concerning elements attached to Hoarding Disorder. Risks to medical safety, fire hazard, odors and nuisance are all combined into a psychological condition that is very difficult to deal with. There are avenues for condominium associations to deal with hoarding, but largely they centre around the remediation of the problems associated, not finding long term solutions.

The narrative of hoarding

There is a clear picture that people see when they think of hoarding. A person on the edge of needing assisted care who is being swallowed by a mountain of accumulated garbage. Old newspapers, cans and trash that litter every square inch of livable space. Slowly the piles move further and further into their livable area. Blocking rooms, hallways and finally swallowing everything in poorly organized piles until only barely passable trails exist among the filth. Odors of long buried decay permeate the air. Pests have infested every corner, to the point where their decaying generations only add to the piles of horror. This is the final stages. This is when the association steps in.

Usually at this point Condominium Associations will interject citing a variety of Bylaws and the Condominium Property Act to access and remediate the situation. There is a short laundry list of ways to make this interjection:

Through the Alberta Condominium Property Act:

Section 33 of the Alberta Condominium Property Act sets out the minimum language to be present in a set of condominium Bylaws. These Bylaws include the Duties of the Owner that outline granting access to the corporation and its representatives access to their units for the purposes of

“(iv) ensuring that the bylaws are being observed,” and “(c) shall maintain the owner’s unit in a state of good repair.”

And shall forthwith

“(i) carry out all work that may be required pursuant to these bylaws or as required by a municipal authority or other public authority in respect of the owner’s unit, other than any work for the benefit of the building or parcel generally.”

Typically in Alberta, this means contacting one of three resources:

1) Local Fire Departments

Having been granted municipal authority municipal fire departments are generally the best resource for entering potentially hazardous situations. Calling a non-emergency number for a fire department and having an inspector arrange a time to visit the property will normally provide an order for amelioration which the corporation can use in its next step.

2) Alberta Health Services

Courtesy of Alberta Health Services

AHS supplies runs the Environmental Public Health programs, including Public Health Inspectors. These professionals can enter and assess as situation with similar authority to other officers of the government. They can provide similar situational assessment as Fire Departments. Unlike Fire Inspectors, Public Health Inspectors are also charged with assessments of patient ability. A Fire Inspector can order remediation of the space, a Health Inspector can also address the mental health of the individual involved.

3) SAGE and CCHC

get more information about sage from www.mysage.ca

There are two additional options in Alberta’s main cities. In Edmonton, the Seniors Association of Greater Edmonton (SAGE), provides outreach to those who are concerned about hoarding. In Calgary, the Calgary Community Hoarding Coalition, is also taking on the role. Neither of these organizations can provide court mandates for remediation, but both are deeply concerned with helping the individuals affected by Hoarding Disorder.

If the goal of the condominium is to remediate hoarding, clear up the mess and insure the long term mental health of owners, it is not easy. As recently as the summer of 2016 assessments on hoarding and its costs in Alberta were brought to the attention of the Alberta Government. The assessment proved that the programs that currently exist are not well funded, overloaded and lack integration with government resources to back them.

Perhaps the most disturbing statistic in all of this is that the narrative of hoarding presented at the outset of this article is almost entirely false. It is estimated that between 2 – 6 per cent of the population is affected by Hoarding Disorder. There are no concrete reports on who is most affected by the disorder, it is understood that seniors often have the greatest difficulty in managing their illness. Now most the emergency resources needed to help are being allocated to seniors, but hoarding affects people of all ages equally.

What to do

Document everything. From the first reports by neighbors and onsite contractors keep making notes of allegations against the units. Bring these allegations before the board and suggest that they ask as politely as possible for entry into the owner of the unit to provide assessment. At this point you may want to involve the corporation’s legal representation as well.

Do not be discouraged when this method fails. Most people who are hoarding are aware of their affliction according to the American Psychiatric Association. If the Board is granted access, be sure to enter the units with at least one other witness to avoid allegations of theft or property damage.

Retaining a lawyer is always a good idea

If you are not able to gain entry then you’ll need to obtain legal representation. Draft a letter to the owner with your lawyer, as well as contacting the above services to schedule a time for the assessment of the property.

Once you’re able to have access to the unit you’ll need to abide the resolution of the professionals involved. Both Fire and Health Inspectors can issue notices for the amelioration of the situation, which become legally binding. At this point in time the owner becomes responsible for compliance with the findings.

If the hoarding isn’t dealt with, now the corporation can take steps to deal with the situation. Be cautious, stick purely to the advice of the corporation’s attorney and begin the legal proceedings for a court order to repair the property.

If you can obtain the order the corporation will want to deal with cleaning companies who are well versed in dealing with hoarding situations. There are many health and safety risks that can be present in these situations, so experience is key. Instruct the cleaners to throw away only recognizable clutter – used tissue, empty boxes, spoiled food etc. – but store the rest. Give a timeline for the owner to reclaim their property when the cleaners are finished.

Once the cleaners have been through the obligations of the corporation become more subjective. Hoarding is an illness that requires ongoing treatment or it will reappear. Is it in the best interest of the corporation to simply allow the owner to continue to struggle, occasionally charging them with the bills associated with their illness? The resources mentioned above through SAGE and CCHC are able to provide some relief to the afflicted. There are not however, sufficient resources for the between 85 and 250 thousand Albertans that are currently hoarding.

What not to do

Do not ignore hoarding allegations. Lauren Blumas, author of “Buried Alive: The Human Rights Implications of Compulsive Hoarding in the Landlord-Tenant Context” cites case law examples in both Ontario Court and the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal of landlords who were liable for damages to neighboring units in situations when there is sufficient evidence the landlord knew of the activity within the unit and did not take steps to eliminate threats to the safety and health of surrounding unit holders.

Do not proceed without expert opinion. The board at Fountain Valley Chateau Blanc, a Californian HOA, decided to clean a residence and charge the owner with the remediation costs. They took the appropriate steps of having a fire investigator onsite for an inspection. But when the fire department disagreed with them on the fire risk posed, the association was hit with a penalty of nearly $200,000 in legal fees and fines.

Do not assume that hoarding means “things”. There are a growing number of cases coming for Alberta of pet hoarding. Pet hoarding causes enormous damage to a unit, but can lead to all of the issues of standard hoarding as well.

Here is a hoarding infographic from the NAMI Institute

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