Seven Tips for Dealing with Clutter in Common Areas
In warmer weather, many residents find it hard to resist the temptation to use their fire escapes for recreation, often filling them with grills, chairs, plants, and the like. But for most sites, dealing with clutter or debris that obscures common areas is an ongoing, rather than seasonal, problem. Residents' belongings frequently spill out into public hallways, stairwells, and breezeways, which can create a fire or safety hazard, downgrade the appearance of the property, and violate local health, safety, and building codes. If an inspector reports the violation to the IRS, your tax credits could be in jeopardy.
What should you keep in mind when dealing with residents who obscure common areas with clutter? “Remain cool, calm, and collected,” says Gianna Solari, vice president of operations for Solari Enterprises, a full-service property management firm with numerous tax credit sites in California.
“It can be very frustrating dealing with the situation,” Solari says. “We, as management, know how important it is to keep the common areas free of clutter and other items. In our view, it could impair emergency services getting to a unit, or block someone who needs the space to gain access to where they're going. But in the residents' eyes, it's a minor infraction. They see the common areas as an extension of their unit. So it helps to stay calm and break down the specifics as to why the resident needs to adhere to the rules.”
The following tips will help you to emphasize to your residents the importance of keeping your site's common areas clear and free of obstacles, and will outline steps to take with those who disregard this basic safety requirement.
Tip #1: Educate Residents on Fire Safety
If residents understand the reasons behind your common area policies, they're more likely to adhere to them. Educating residents on fire safety will help to increase their awareness and help to gain their support.
When Solari Enterprises took over the management of a property in downtown Los Angeles last year, it found that most residents had plants on their fire escapes. “The residents had never had a fire in the building, so they didn't really think about fire safety,” Solari says. “We had the fire department visit and explain fire safety procedures and the importance of having clear fire exits.”
Tip #2: Set House Rule for Common Areas
Establishing a house rule that prohibits residents from storing items in common areas is a fundamental step in resolving the issue. While some sites include language in their leases that ban residents from placing, storing, or leaving items in common areas, it's also a good idea to further emphasize the policy by restating it in your house rules, says Solari.
Tip #3: Be Detailed to Avoid Misunderstandings
When drafting your house rule, be as detailed as possible to avoid misunderstandings. Be sure to list the specific items that are banned (such as bicycles, strollers, shoes, garbage, etc.), as well as the common areas that are included, such as hallways, breezeways, staircases, and fire escapes. Consider reinforcing the house rules regarding fire escapes in italics or bold-face type. Finally, make sure that you state that the prohibited items are not limited to those that are listed.
Common Area House Rule: Residents may not place, leave, or store shoes, bicycles, strollers, plants, furniture, trash, recyclables, newspapers, shopping carts, housekeeping tools, or other items in hallways (even immediately outside the individual unit's entry door), staircases, breezeways, fire escapes, elevators, or other common areas of the property. No items are at any time permitted to be stored on the fire escape.
Tip #4: Reserve Right to Remove Items
To ensure that residents take your common area house rule seriously, spell out the actions that will be taken against those who disregard it. For instance, include a statement warning residents that you may remove an item left in a common area and charge them for storing it.
In the event the resident leaves items in hallways, staircases, fire escapes, or other common areas, management reserves the right to remove and store such items at the resident's expense.
Tip #5: Send Notice to Residents Who Don't Comply
If a resident has left items in a common area, you may be able to resolve the issue with a simple notice, says Solari. She suggests sending residents a written reminder that they have violated the house rules and that the item must be removed in 24 hours. The notice also states that failure to remove the item will result in some type of action by management, whether it is removing the item or locking it, such as with larger items like bicycles. Our Model Letter: Warn Residents Who Don't Comply with House Rules offers an example of a notice that includes these elements.
Tip #6: Be Prepared to Enforce House Rule
In most cases, Solari says, residents will comply after receiving the initial notice from management. If you find that a resident doesn't follow through with the request, then you must take action. Remove the item and notify the resident that you have done so.
Depending on where you are located, you may have the option of putting your own lock on the item and notifying the resident that she must contact you to have it unlocked. This is often a better option, Solari says, because if you confiscate the item, and the resident does not get the notice, she is likely to assume that it has been stolen and will file a police report. Be sure to check your local ordinances first, though, to make sure that this course of action is available to you.
Practical Pointer: If you have been forced to remove a resident's belongings from a common area, consider charging the resident a nominal fee for returning the items. “In our tax credit properties, we impose a minimal $5 fee for violating the lease,” Solari says. “We're not trying to pinch them in their pockets, but we find that people tend to pay more attention if there is the possibility of a fee.”
Tip #7: Document the Problem
It's always critical to document any violation of your lease or house rules in an issue log with the date, time, and description of the event. In addition, Solari recommends taking photographs of any items that are left in hallways, fire escapes, or other common areas. Use a digital camera, and be sure that it is set to the correct date and time in case you need to produce the photos as evidence in court, she stresses.
What to Do When Resident Doesn't Respond
While most owners and managers will be able to resolve problems with clutter in common areas by a warning or fee, some residents may need special assistance—for instance, residents who are hoarders. Hoarders suffer from an obsessive compulsion to stockpile large accumulations of items in their homes (see “Take Steps Early to Deal with Hoarding,” Insider, February 2010, p. 1). But that clutter often exceeds the interior of their unit, says Solari.
Since hoarding stems from a mental condition, warnings and notices are typically ineffective. “We take a hand-holding approach because the person is going to need additional help. However, it's still a household violation and could lead to safety issues, so depending on the number of items that are left out and the number of times that the items are left out, we continually notify the resident,” Solari says. “We'll offer to help him with the removal of the items, and we also contact a local agency, such as adult protective services; Catholic Charities, which does a lot of social service assistance; or the housing department, which will conduct an inspection.”
Bringing in an outside agency to meet with the resident may help him to understand that he's not being unfairly targeted by the site owner or manager. “People who hoard tend to think that they are being treated poorly by management by making them remove their personal belongings,” she says. “It's a very personal issue for them.”
It's important to fully document each step that you take to help the resident remove the items from the common areas. Keep in mind that, despite your efforts to help residents adhere to common area rules, continual offenders pose a safety risk to others, and you may be forced to evict.
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|Warn Residents Who Don't Comply with House Rules|