Working with Mentally ill Tenants

Some multifamily property owners and managers dread the prospect of working with a mentally ill or mentally disabled tenant, particularly if it looks like situations involving violence could arise.

However, managers and other experts around the country agree that working with these tenants is usually more rewarding than otherwise. Disturbances, altercations and arrests can usually be avoided, and a manager who works with mentally ill or disabled tenants can develop goodwill and a positive reputation throughout the community.

In general, if you have tenants with mental challenges, keep these rules in mind:

• Don’t try too hard to solve the problem yourself.

• Coordinate as soon as possible with the tenant’s family and caseworker.

• Acquaint yourself with someone on your local police force who has had relevant crisis intervention training.

Joseph W. DeCarlo, CCIM, CPM, CRE, managing partner of JD Property Management in Costa Mesa, Calif., explained that his experiences with his autistic son gave him a particular interest in tenants who have various challenges, both mental and physical.

“You don’t go looking for that sort of tenant; you don’t have to,” he said. “We manage properties for the local mental health association, which has bought properties and rents them out to people with mental health issues, because they had had problems with landlords who were reluctant to rent to people with mental disabilities.”

Thus, many of the properties DeCarlo manages are entirely occupied by people with mental disabilities. DeCarlo said the most important piece of advice he has for property managers in similar situations is to remember that they’re not psychiatrists or psychologists.

“You shouldn’t try to solve a tenant’s problems,” he said. “Usually there’s a doctor or caseworker you can go to. We had a tenant one time who called us and said, ‘I need a whole new sink and stove tomorrow, or I’m going to commit suicide.’ Our first call was to the caseworker, who was able to defuse the situation. You have to be very sensitive and do everything the correct way.”

De Carlo said he works with the Dayle McIntosh Center for the Disabled (DMC), an independent living center based in Anaheim, Calif. He advises managers and developers to seek similar organizations, and work with them to get grants for improvements on the property that will accommodate people with various physical and mental disabilities.

“Independent living is very important to these people, and our work with the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development on Section 8 housing has been very productive,” he said. “It’s a good idea to ally yourself with organizations like McIntosh, because they have the resources and expertise. You’ll find similar centers all over the country.”

As for working with tenants who you fear might become violent, or with situations that you fear might escalate, DeCarlo said it’s sometimes necessary to involve the police, but a manager can often work with the police to avoid having the tenant arrested and jailed. It’s usually not effective to try to evict a tenant because you fear he might be violent, and you can get yourself in trouble by accusing a tenant of something you can’t prove, such as spousal abuse. Instead of looking for ways to get rid of tenants with mental issues, DeCarlo urges managers to work with them.

“It helps us as a management company if we can do good things for people,” he said. “We accentuate the positive; the tenant’s relatives and friends are happy when they see that we’ve helped to get this person his own place.”

Another organization worth knowing is the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), a grass-roots organization that offers education and advocacy programs through chapters all over the country. NAMI works with law enforcement officers to provide crisis intervention  training (CIT) that can help police deal with mentally ill people by using a minimum of force, and in ways that won’t damage their lives going forward.

Given with permission from the M/A 2017 issue of Journal of Property Management (Volume 82, Number 3).