Internet Explorer 11 is not supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

Houston Passes What May Be the Nation’s First Anti-Hoarding Law

Echoing the format of reality TV shows, the city hopes to address not just safety hazards but the mental illnesses that drive people to hoard.

Thanks in part to reality TV shows like “Hoarders” and “Hoarding: Buried Alive,” the issue of hoarding -- and attendant concerns about anxiety disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) -- has gained national prominence. For cities, it can be an extremely complicated problem.

When clutter consumes a living space, it can create health and safety hazards not only for an individual, but for neighbors as well. Addressing residents’ concerns is tricky, though, as public safety agencies must be sensitive to a person’s mental illness, and local laws are often vague.

Houston recently passed what may be the nation’s first big-city ordinance specifically addressing hoarding. After residents and homeowners’ associations there clamored for help, the city council recently passed new regulations allowing police to inspect apartments receiving hoarding complaints. The police may refer hoarders to mental health services and, as a last resort, charge them with a misdemeanor carrying daily fines up to $500.

Most of Houston’s complaints stemmed from condominiums where residents suffered ill effects of living near hoarders, says Tom Allen, a city attorney who advised the city council on the ordinance. (Right now, the measure only applies to multiunit properties.) Those ill effects have included rats breeding, bedbugs, fleas and other unsanitary conditions.

Determining just what constitutes hoarding, however, presents a challenge. Sgt. Mike Hill, who works in a city police unit responding to nuisance and other code violations, says existing fire and building codes provide a baseline, but police will handle each case individually. Their top priority is to get help for those suffering from mental illnesses. “[Hoarding] needs to be treated with the same level of compassion and concern as some of the other more recognized illnesses,” Hill says.

Multiple city departments are now working through the details of just how the new law will be carried out. Police will enforce the ordinance. The health department might be called in to assess mold or other health concerns. Public works staff may evaluate the structural integrity of units weighed down by piles of junk. The Mental Health and Mental Retardation Authority of Harris County and other outside agencies will also be key players. The city plans to begin enforcement no later than October. Allen says that if the initial law goes well, the city may look to broaden it to include single-family homes if adequate funding exists.

Jeff Szymanski, who directs the Boston-based International OCD Foundation, says some aspects of the law could have been crafted better. “We had no issue with a public safety ordinance, but to call it an anti-hoarding ordinance stigmatizes the issue.” Cleaning out homes or threatening hoarders with hefty fines fails to change their underlying behavioral issues, he says.

Some communities have developed formal hoarding task forces, a coalition of multiple public agencies that respond to hoarding cases and work to improve public education. The OCD Foundation has identified 75 communities nationwide with such task forces in place.

Mike Maciag is Data Editor for GOVERNING.
Special Projects
Sponsored Stories
Sponsored
In recent years, local governments have been forced to adapt to a wildly changing world, especially as it pertains to sending bills and collecting payments.
Sponsored
Workplace safety is in the spotlight as government leaders adapt to a prolonged pandemic.
Sponsored
While government employees, students and the general public had to wait in line for hours in the beginning of the pandemic, at-home test kits make it easy to diagnose for the novel coronavirus in less than 30 minutes.
Sponsored
Governments around the nation are working to design the best vaccine policies that keep both their employees and their residents safe. Although the latest data shows a variety of polarizing perspectives, there are clear emerging best practices that leading governments are following to put trust first: creating policies that are flexible and provide a range of options, and being in tune with the needs and sentiments of their employees so that they are able to be dynamic and accommodate the rapidly changing situation.
Sponsored
Service delivery and the individual experience within health and human services (HHS) is often very siloed and fragmented.
Sponsored
In this episode, Marianne Steger explains why health care for Pre-Medicare retirees and active employees just got easier.
Sponsored
Government organizations around the world are experiencing the consequences of plagiarism firsthand. A simple mistake can lead to loss of reputation, loss of trust and even lawsuits. It’s important to avoid plagiarism at all costs, and government organizations are held to a particularly high standard. Fortunately, technological solutions such as iThenticate allow government organizations to avoid instances of text plagiarism in an efficient manner.
Sponsored
Creating meaningful citizen experiences in a post-COVID world requires embracing digital initiatives like secure and ethical data sharing, artificial intelligence and more.
Sponsored
GHD identified four themes critical for municipalities to address to reach net-zero by 2050. Will you be ready?