Renting hell in New York City: how my hoarder landlady ruined my life


Steven W Thrasher paid $1,000 a month for a Brooklyn renters dream a sprawling apartment on a beautiful tree-lined block that was too good to be true

For five years, I lived on the most beautiful block in the five boroughs of New York City, occupying two full floors of a brownstone on a tree-lined street in downtown Brooklyn. It was the kind of block where the gingko trees turned the evening light gold every October, around the same time families dressed up their stoops with jack-o-lanterns for Halloween. Think the idyllic exterior of the Huxtables house from the Cosby Show. Think the hood of Spike Lees Shes Gotta Have It a black creative mecca before the onslaught of gentrification ran every black person out of it.

If my street was picture-book worthy, the house itself was not. I lived in a pre-war building and it chilled me to consider that when it was built, my ancestors were chattel slaves. The facade was crumbling, the iron fence was falling apart. When glass had broken on the front parlor windows, my landlady had replaced them with cheap plastic.

But the house was near many subway lines, the most cutting-edge arts venues, and the best dining in the greatest city on the face of the Earth. For all of this, I paid just $1,000 a month for some 2,400 square feet across two upper floors the kind of bargain which is the stuff of New York legend.

To get the apartment, I made a two-part devils bargain.

First, I had to accept that my landlord was a compulsive hoarder who didnt want to get rid of things that were trash, if not Level 4 biohazards. She held on to everything as if her life depended on it (and psychologically, it did). And second, I would have to take care of her animals when she went out of town a few weeks each summer. She had a mangy mutt named Timmy*, nearly blind with cataracts and six cats (one had a leg missing, and another only had one eye).

Honestly, I thought I could manage the situation. And regardless, my apartment was going to be so big and so clean. Id have nine rooms and two bathrooms all to myself. I could fill it with tasteful second-hand mid-century furniture. I could have a full-sized Christmas tree each winter and I could have a boyfriend and cook with him. I could even put up friends and family in one of the guest rooms (thats guest rooms, plural).

Besides, living upstairs from a hoarder wasnt so unusual. According to a 2013 article in Scientific American, Between five million and 14 million people in the US are compulsive hoarders. Hoarding seems like a logical symptom to appear in a world sick from consumer capitalism, after all. I could deal with it.

I was wrong.

I had met my landlady through friends of friends from my hometown. She was a white woman who had become a Sai Baba Hindu in the 1970s and had an inappropriate sense of her connection to Indian culture. She was older and looking for a tenant whod shovel her walk when it snowed and help out here and there.

I knew she was kooky, but the first sign that something was seriously wrong didnt come until I called her when she wasnt home and her outgoing message breathlessly referred to her blind dog:

Thank you for calling Timmy Enterprises. We are not in right now, please leave a message for Timmy after the beep.

That alone should have tipped me off. She also had pictures of her dog all over her house and referred to him as my soulmate.

VinI had thought taking care of her pets would involve walking her dog and feeding her cats when she went out of town. But periodically, she’d call to avail myself of your mortuary services (said in a breathless faux Victorian accent that convinced me I was living in the upper quarters of Grey Gardens). The cats often brought gifts dead birds, mice, crows and rats which I was expected to dispose of.

Sometimes, there was a feline carcass to contend with.

I think Muffy* has died, she said one morning through sobs. I wasnt quite sure how she could not know if her cat was dead or alive, but it turns out she had thrown a blanket over the poor dying animal. I was worried she might die during the night, and I cant bear to look at anything dead!

She then left the room and yelled, OK, can you see if shes dead and if so, put her in a bag so we can bury her in the backyard?

When I lifted the blanket, Muffys eyes were bulging out of her head and her tongue was sticking out of her mouth like she was being strangled. It was as if the Kitty Grim Reaper had slipped his bony hands around her neck and Muffy, abandoned by her caretaker under a blanket, had left this world screaming, DEATH, DONT TAKE ME!

Once my landlady knew her cat was safely out of sight in a bag, she said she wanted to watch Muffys burial. Digging into the hard earth, my $1,000-a-month apartment started seeming more expensive than the bargain I thought it was. And I should have started looking for a new place when I hit a flat rock with the shovel and my landlady took it from me, thinking it was slate and saying through tears that she could make a cheese plate out of it.

Over the years, I noticed that most of my landladys few friends stopped visiting her. I also grew increasingly concerned for those animals, who had no choice to live in such squalor. When I tried to bring it up with her, she admitted she hadnt vacuumed in ages because the vacuum cleaner was broken. But, when she had taken it to a repair shop to get it fixed, the owner rudely told me to get it out of his shop because it smelled like cat piss!. Which it did like her entire house.

When Timmy finally died, she changed her outgoing message: Timmy Enterprises is now closed, she said in a voice that sounded suicidal. Our founder and CEO has died. Please leave a message after the beep. (The blind mutt was soon replaced by a deaf shih tzu named Maple Mandy*.)

The day of my landladys 70th birthday, I got the phone call that would change my life (and which would have ended my landladys if I hadnt answered).

It was from one of her few friends she hadnt alienated. Please go downstairs and check on her, she begged me. I think she is dying! And she wont go to the emergency room!

There was no answer when I knocked downstairs so I let myself in. Her apartment was worse than I had ever seen it before. Stepping over animal feces, I followed the sound of moaning to my landladys bedroom, where I found her sprawled on a pile of trash, with several mangy cats roaming over her body. She was grasping her abdomen, which was swollen and looked like it was going to burst. In the dim light from a spartan naked bulb, I could actually see roaches and spiders crawling over the mass.

My landlady was clearly in pain but didnt want to go to the ER. She had not been to a doctor or taken any western medicine in 41 years. I suspected she was on the verge of dying and insisted she go. She refused. Our argument grew heated, and I called her friend and described what I was seeing. My landlady became terrified that I would call 911 and that paramedics might see inside her house; it was then that I realized I was one of very few people who had been in her home in a long time.

We compromised: a friend agreed to drive us to an urgent care facility. The car ride was traumatic she moaned like a dying animal, screaming that she would never go to an ER. But when the urgent care physician quickly recognized that she was within hours of dying, they threw her in an ambulance for the nearest hospital.

Having not been to a doctor in four decades, she had no insurance nor medical history to help the medical staff. The doctors quickly diagnosed her with a condition which, if not treated, can kill someone and she’d already been having symptoms for a day and a half, hoping chanting and herbal tea would fix it.

I decided to postpone a surgery I was supposed to have myself to attend to her instead. She was hooked up to a ventilator and had a tube shoved down her throat. Unable to talk, she wrote on a pad that she wanted me to be her healthcare proxy and I accepted. What followed was a terrible meeting with her, a patient advocate, and the hospital attorney to go over her end-of-life and do-not-resuscitate directives.

Eventually I tracked down her estranged brother in the midwest, who had no interest in coming to help. So over the course of a week, her friend and I held ice to her forehead and dabbed moisture on her lips to try to keep her mouth from drying out. For days on end, fever racked her body, and infection threatened to kill her.

I worried constantly about her and, selfishly, also worried about what was going to happen to me. Long term, she’d left no will and had no heirs, so I could be out on the street. Short term, it was winter, the oil was almost out of the furnace, and I had to figure out how to pay for a new delivery.

The hospitals social worker had begun to assess her case, too. My landlady was facing weeks in the hospital and months of recovery: did she have a caretaker and a safe environment? Her friend and I bluntly told the social worker that the house was a biological hazard. Between the animals, the feces and the bugs, the house would kill her.

I took Maple Mandy out for a walk the next day, and when and I bent over to pick up after him I recoiled in horror: his poop was moving, writhing with dozens of pink and white worms. The turd looked like Medusas head. It was the most disgusting thing I had ever seen.

I immediately took the dog to a vet, who explained that Maple Mandy needed to be dewormed, that he was probably living in a vermin-infested home, and that there was no point in taking him back to that environment until it had been fumigated. I slapped my credit card down to board him and get him human-priced treatments at the animal hospital then went to see my landlady at the human hospital.

Fortunately, the social worker had just been to visit and had put the fear of God in her. Given her age, the social worker had explained, and given she had no family to care for her, the hospital would have to do a home inspection before she would be released. If it was as bad as it had been described to her, the social worker said, my landlady might be deemed unable to care for herself. Animal Control could remove her pets and she could be placed in a city facility.

This news had snapped my landlady into a rare moment of clarity.

I cant believe I let the house get that bad, she said. I knew it was bad, but I cant believe I didnt see how bad it really was.

I seized the moment for an intervention. I told her that she was abusing her animals through neglect. That they were filled with worms. That I couldnt let her go back there.

And then she begged me: Ill give you the money, she said. You’ve got to get the house professionally cleaned, before they inspect it so I can go home.

She gave me a few thousand dollars, told me to call someone in her church to help hire cleaners, and said, The house has to be clean.

It was a descent into madness, and I am afraid I went a bit mad along the way, too.

I went about it, with the help of about a dozen paid professionals who said it was the most disgusting apartment they had ever cleaned. Everyone wore gloves, goggles and masks.

Despite all those cats, there was an infestation of mice between the floorboards, along with fleas, roaches, spiders and spider eggs. We started with one of two fumigations. We then took all items that could be salvaged (papers, jewelry, books, utensils, tools) and put them in clear plastic 30 gallon bags so that my landlady could sort them and put them away when she returned. There were about 100 of these bags.

HoarderSpot1Everything cloth had to be sent to an industrial cleaner for washing; much of it had to be run through twice. I personally picked up all the cloth from the floor, and I filled some 30 gallon bags, weighing about 1,500lb in total.

But perhaps the most horrid place was the kitchen. There were hundreds of roaches inside the refrigerator. There were moths and mice feces in dry food containers. There were canned goods that were more than 10 years past their expiration dates. Her box of teas (which, Im afraid, I had been served from) was crawling with bugs. Many of her cooking utensils were caked with rust. She had been cooking meals for the homeless once a month from that kitchen, and I wondered what kinds of rancid food those poor people had been subjected to.

Many disgusting items were hidden from sight. If a chair was peed on by a cat, a sheet would be thrown over it. If another cat vomited on that sheet, another sheet would be thrown on top of it. Then another. It wasnt unusual to find 10, 15 layers of cloth on any given surface.

Around this time, the fifth version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) of Mental Disorders was published, and for the first time ever, it included hoarding as a mental illness. It doesnt take a PhD in psychology to understand that a person who literally wallows in shit doesnt feel very good about themselves. But consulting my sister Sharron (she had a PhD in psychology) helped me understand exactly why it is delusional and why the DSM believes hoarding behavior has harmful effects.

Symptoms of the disorder cause clinically significant distress or impairment. These behaviors can often be quite severe and even threatening. Beyond the mental impact of the disorder, the accumulation of clutter can create a health issue.

I would also reluctantly emphasize that hoarding is incredibly social. Untrained to really help her, I had enabled my landladys hoarding, and had gone a little crazy in pretending like it wasnt as bad as it was.

The dozen workers worked around the clock. I missed Christmas and New Years with my own family trying to get the house in order. But somehow we managed to make the house clean and somewhat orderly. Maple Mandy was able to come home. And when the city checked out the house, it passed inspection.

My landlady returned to her dewormed dog and her cats. She had a brand new mattress, bed linens and curtains. Perhaps for the first time in years, she could see her floor, which was shiny with Murphys Oil Soap. She thanked me, apologized for the mess she’d put me through, and promised to hire a housekeeper to keep things in order while she recovered.

But the honeymoon didnt last long.

She was now expecting me to bring her food several times a day, and refused to hire a nurse. I was nervous that she was further going to consume my life. After a few days, I stepped in something when I came in to bring her food. The cat turds started piling up on the floor again, and I reminded her that she needed to get a house cleaner. When they were still there 24 hours later, I told her that until she picked them up, I wouldnt be coming back.

We really only spoke one more time after that, when she summoned me down a few weeks later to go over a list of missing items.

There were three can openers, I can only find two! She screamed at me.Wheres my fourth tennis ball? I told her to go through all the clear plastic bags, but that the cleaning crew had cleaned everything that could be salvaged and thrown out what couldnt.

I told you to get the house cleaned! She yelled at me. Cleaning does not mean throwing things away!

She never spoke to me again after that. Part of me was relieved. I grew to have a newfound understanding about people in abusive relationships who dont leave realizing that I with some education and some money and no children to support felt paralyzed about even trying to find another home.

And then one day, a man rang my doorbell. He was a process server, giving me my eviction papers to put me out on the street. I had 30 days to vacate. I had never been so ashamed and frightened in my life.

I hired a lawyer to buy myself a couple more months. I could have probably staved it off for another year or two in court but ultimately I would have lost, and I would have been living above a toxic environment. I was lucky there had never been a fire.

I decided to leave to leave my apartment, and to leave New York City.

Nothing but good came to me once I left spiritually, financially, physically or professionally. I lived for a year with my sister, who had been living with cancer, which turned out to be the bulk of the last year of her life. I applied to six PhD programs and got into all of them. I got a fantastic new writing job (this one, in fact). I eventually moved to Manhattan.

I dont regret my years in that house. I have wonderful memories from my time there of parties and dinners and love and sex. Two friends marriage and family blossomed from a meeting in my kitchen. I left with a full heart ready to be filled by new adventures.

But I am glad that, unlike my landlady, I am emotionally well enough to know when to move, when to let go, and to understand that people and relationships are much more valuable than even the most prime New York real estate.

* Names have been changed to protect innocent and abused pets.

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Renting hell in New York City: how my hoarder landlady ruined my life