Madison Heights looks into ways to prevent hoarder situations

By: Andy Kozlowski | Madison - Park News | Published May 2, 2017

MADISON HEIGHTS — Last summer, concerned residents came to a City Council meeting with complaints about a potential hoarder home in the 30000 block of Longfellow. They spoke of the walled-off property cluttered with trash, its yard rigged with booby traps and littered with food attracting flies and all kinds of critters — raccoons, cats, rats. The stench of urine was nauseating, making it unbearable for neighbors to work outside on a hot summer day.

A police officer figured out probable cause for a search warrant, which confirmed what the residents had suspected all along: The owner was living in horribly unsanitary conditions. He was evicted and the home condemned, cleaned out by a crew in hazmat suits, and demolished.

Suffice it to say, it was a tough case for all involved.

“It was a lose-lose situation, not only for the neighbors who had to deal with those conditions, but also for the person in that home who was obviously suffering some kind of mental illness to live in that kind of environment,” said Madison Heights City Councilman David Soltis. “I saw the home from the outside. We had to make sure there wasn’t any more contamination leaching into the ground or surrounding environment.

We had to handle it very, very carefully.

“Again, it’s just such an extreme circumstance,” Soltis said. “Just so unfortunate for everyone.”

Since then, City Council has overseen the creation of a task force to deal with these kinds of hoarder situations on an ad hoc basis, involving multiple departments and senior city officials. At the April 24 council meeting, Mayor Pro Tem Mark Bliss formally requested that staff keep the group on standby in case issues like this arise in the future.

He said in an email that hoarder house situations, while rare, are difficult to address.

“This was an extremely challenging issue that, after a long and detailed investigation and litigation, ended up resulting in the need for the property to be demolished,” Bliss said. “Our city code for property maintenance is designed to protect the welfare of the community, and in most cases, violations simply result in the property being fixed up. In this case, however, the city had to take the extreme action of demolishing the property, as it was deemed unsafe and not physically salvageable.”

The primary aim of the task force is to address the situation before it reaches the point where eviction and demolition are necessary, Bliss said. The best resolution is always for the homeowner to willingly rectify the situation themselves; the majority of code enforcement issues in the city are resolved this way, Bliss noted. The city can connect homeowners to nonprofits and assistance providers who can help out in the event that they’re unable to fix it alone.

“Even in the most challenging situations, we’re there to serve the resident any way we can,” Bliss said.

The city learned a lot from the hoarder house on Longfellow, and it is currently in the process of detailing a report that will serve as an internal playbook to reference going forward.

“The playbook will be distributed to all the relevant staff so that everyone is aligned and ready to handle future scenarios like this one,” Bliss said.

The public can also play a key role in helping the city address hoarder house situations.

“I ask that the public please notify us of any potentially unsafe properties that they become aware of,” Bliss said. “These properties can seem fine from the outside, but inside it’s dangerous and potentially life-threatening in case of a fire or medical emergency.”

The city will also make efforts to help the hoarders themselves. 

“Aside from simply investigating the property, our staff will pass along critical information to those suffering from hoarding disorder,” Bliss said. “This will help them understand what aid and nonprofit organizations may be available to help them get the property back to a safe condition.”