We’ve all watched those TLC reality shows before, right? Hoarding, which is typically defined as a mental disorder, involves the gross obsession over seemingly valueless or trash, so that the situation in one’s domicile becomes functionally unlivable. Generally, this is seen as only a personal issue, as it would appear logical that only the persons suffering from hoarding is the hoarder himself. While this may often be true of single family houses, the same cannot be said for condominiums, apartments, duplexes and townhomes, among other living arrangements. When people live in such close conditions, the carelessness of one resident easily becomes gross negligence that could harm neighbors and other innocents. Whether this be unsuitable odors, fire risk or pest infestations, neighbors are easily affected by hoarding on the part of others.
Accordingly, the Houston Chronicle reports that on Wednesday the City Council considered a proposal to limit the damage done by the hoarders. Among those provisions in the proposed ordinance would make it easier for police to enter residences without a warrant, impose more stringent fines on hoarders and increase opportunities for treatment for the offenders. Councilmember Richard Nguyen (R-District F), concerned about the possible criminalization of a mental disorder, tagged the measure (Editorial note: A “tag” is a dilatory tactic on the Houston City Council in which a Councilmember may unilaterally delay any piece of legislation for one week).
For the life of me, I have not been able to find a draft of this ordinance, so I cannot say I know exactly what the fine entails, or just how easy it would be for the police to barge into your place. Specifically in the latter, this could be a major fourth amendment issue. The bill of rights, of course, protects you against warrantless searches, and the Fruit of the Poisoned Tree doctrine, codified by Mapp v. Ohio, suppresses any evidence obtained as a result of such a search. I suppose this issue could be resolved if it was made clear that any police presence be purely for the purpose of facilitating cleanup (e.g., the cops don’t bust you for the dime bag on your counter).
The other big complaint I could find about this ordinance was Nguyen’s big critique of the measure, that it shuns a mental disorder. That is where the third major provision, in my opinion, comes into play. Fines should not be used are a punitive measure, per se, but rather as an incentive to get these hoarders into treatment programs and inevitably accept help to make sure they are not a danger to themselves and others. Many individuals legitimately need help, and I hope that is where the opportunities for treatment may come into play. It is certainly a sensitive subject when it comes to public policy affecting psychological disorders, but there is a needed balancing act when it comes to protecting others from harm.
Homeowners associations representative interviewed by the Chronicle expressed a strong desire that this ordinance be extended to single family homes sooner rather than later, though color my skeptical. At that point, arguments about other people being negatively affected fall flat.