There are a lot of safety concerns related to hoarding disorder. In this post I want to give you some things to think about, and give you an outline for what to expect if a housing inspector becomes involved with the hoarded home. [Property managers/landlords likely will have expectations about their specific property, and they rely on the housing inspector checklist to make sure that the apartment/ condo/townhouse is safe.]
All cities and towns have a housing inspector – multiple inspectors depending on the size of the city. Housing inspectors have a safety checklist they refer to in making sure that homes are safe not only for the homeowner/family, but also the neighbors and public in general. If a hoarded home is inspected by the city, a letter of what the inspector found with a list of requirements to be met in order for the home to be deemed safe and ok to live in. If those requirements are not met, and there is no willingness on the part of the homeowner to meet those requirements, the inspector may cite the home as condemned and begin the eviction process. I have met housing inspectors from all over the country, and their practice is the same everywhere – they don’t want to evict anyone, they want people to have a home. AND, they have a responsibility for public safety, so they will do everything they can to work with the homeowner to come to a solution that allows the homeowner to stay and keep the public safe at the same time. But they have a time limit, so this process can’t go on forever. Usually, housing inspectors will give a timeline for completion of the requirements and come back to the house at the stated deadline to re-inspect. If they see that the homeowner has made good faith attempts to bring the house in line with the requirements, they will extend the deadline. Remember, housing inspectors want to work with you to come to a good resolution. Try not to see them as the enemy – they want you safe and healthy in your home. A hoarded home is not safe or healthy. That’s the bottom line.
All cities have a housing inspection checklist. All cities require certain general things (we’ll get into that in a minute), and each city will have specific items on their checklist related to climate, geography, city requirements. To learn the specific checklist for your city or town, go to the city website and download the checklist. Here’s the list of requirements all cities across the country (and in other countries) will have:
- Working smoke alarms – most hoarded homes do not have working batteries in their smoke alarms because the homeowner can’t reach the alarm. Local fire departments will often come out to help homeowner’s change their batteries. Most people who hoard do not want the local firefighters in their home. I could imagine that a majority, if not all, cities are also now requiring a carbon monoxide detector in each home, as well.
- Clear entrances and exits – this includes first and second story windows (for the homeowner to get out and the firefighters to get in), entryways, and outside doors that can be opened all the way to enter or exit. Most hoarded homes do not have this entrance/exit capacity. The saddest stories around hoarding are those of hoarded homes that caught on fire and the homeowners were unable to get out due to the stuff in the doorways. Firefighters need to access the home in order to help rescue and in order to fight the fire. Without accessing the home, fire departments are hamstrung in their ability to do their job.
- 3 foot pathways throughout the house – this requirement is about safe walking through the home and, just as important, the ability of emergency responders to get a gurney into a home. Gurneys need 3 feet. Note I said “pathwayS” not just one pathway.
- No flammable material in the home – you need to think beyond turpentine and chemicals. Think about this possibility: boxes and stuff are pushed up against a furnace and there is a problem with the pilot light, it catches the stuff or the boxes and pretty soon there is a fire in the basement and soon a fire in the entire house. Also, dryer lint. Also, old electrical that is prone to sparks.
- Which leads us to the last item on the list – electrical outlets. This is a fifth requirement in Minnesota – it may not be in every state, but should! You cannot have anything pushed up against an electrical outlet (see d.), especially if the electrical is old and not up-to-date – a spark that catches on the couch or chair pushed up against the outlet means a fire.
There’s a lot of talk about fire in this post. That’s because fire is a huge safety risk in hoarded homes. I’ve heard too many stories, been interviewed by too many local news reporters, and talked with colleagues in other states about similar situations. A fire in a hoarded home spreads so quickly because of the amount of stuff in the home. I’ll tell you one story – this happened in a St. Paul suburb between Christmas and New Years a few years ago. The homeowner was a single woman whose furnace wasn’t working and she couldn’t have a repair person come look at it – both because the furnace wasn’t accessible and she didn’t want anyone to see the stuff. Well, MN in December is cold and she was cold. She set up shop in the kitchen – opened the oven door for heat and lit candles. And a fire started and spread quickly – she couldn’t get out of the house, firefighters couldn’t push the doors or windows open for all the stuff. She died 10 feet from the door. This is tragic and is repeated far too often.
Depending on what is hoarded, there will be a certain amount of dust, dirt and detritus that can’t be accessed and cleaned. This can create a respiratory problem for the person/persons living in a hoarded home, as well as the pets in the home. Mold – black mold especially – creates a dangerous environment for breathing. Rotten and spoiled food can gather fruit flies as well as be unsafe to be eaten. Fruit flies can lead to other insects which can lead to small animals which can lead to larger animals. Human and animal waste can create a hazardous material problem in the home.
One last thing I want to talk about related to safety is the structure of the house. Homes aren’t built to hold floor to ceiling stuff. Heavy possessions stored in upper stories can create damage to the floors/ceilings. When we think about how many years and decades some homes are filled, it is no wonder that we need to be concerned about structural integrity. A housing inspector told me of a home he was to visit – walking up the sidewalk to the home he noticed that the outer walls were beginning to cave in – there was too much heavy stuff in the attic and upper floor, the house was literally falling in on itself.
You may think this kind of thing would never happen to you or your family member. The thing is that this does happen – hoarded homes are not safe places to live for many reasons. Something needs to be done to address safety issues . . . next post!
Janet Yeats is a marriage and family therapist and writer who specializes in issues of trauma, grief and loss. Janet consults, speaks and writes on hoarding disorder as well as other trauma and loss-related topics. Visit her youtube channel (Janet Yeats) to see videos and webinars on these topics.