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Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Mason District forum addresses hoarding

All the photos posted with this article are from Fairfax County
If you know someone whose house looks like the ones posted here, Fairfax County’s Hoarding Interoperability Committee can help. The committee investigates complaints, determines whether there are safety or housing code violations, and refers the hoarder for counseling services or other assistance.

Susan Epstein of the Department of Code Compliance gave a presentation on hoarding, and Sgt. Earit Powell spoke about animal hoarding at a March 24 session for neighborhood leaders sponsored by Mason Supervisor Penny Gross.

The committee dealt with 40 hoarding cases last year, but Epstein estimates there are 4,000 hoarders in Fairfax County. In some cases, you can’t tell from the street that a house is occupied by a hoarder. Other times, there are clues, like an overstuffed garage, a yard piled with junk, or windows covered so you can’t see inside.

Gross described a situation in the Mason District where two sisters in their 80s had a house overflowing with stuff they’d collected, some with the price tags still on them. “They were compulsive shoppers,” she said, and one of them thought she was going to restore the 1960s-era car in the front yard. There was no room to sleep in the bedrooms, so they slept in a “nest” they carved out of junk in a hallway.

Governmental intervention is necessary to address hoarding, Epstein said, because it can be a fire hazard, lead to structural collapse, attract rats, or cause other health and safety concerns. Because neighboring houses could be affected, too, “it’s really a community issue,” Gross said.

County code inspectors determine whether there are violations of property maintenance, fire, zoning, animal, building, or health codes. Properties must meet certain safety standards. For example, doors cannot be blocked so allow people can get out easily in case of fire, Epstein said. Stairways must be accessible. Bathroom plumbing must be in working order. Kitchens must be functional and must have an adequate food preparation area. Combustibles must be stored properly. Interior pathways must be wide enough for two people to walk side by side.

County officials might require the occupants to leave immediately if the house is deemed unsafe. Otherwise, they’re given a chance to comply with the codes. If they fail to meet the deadline, they’re subject to a court order.

Fairfax County was contacted by the producers of the “Hoarders” TV show, Epstein noted, but “we said no. We’re not interested in publicizing someone’s misfortune.” 

Fairfax County Animal Control, which is under the Police Department, has already dealt with 10 to 12 animal hoarding cases this year, Powell told the group. 

The most notorious case he’s seen dealt with a woman and her daughter who had 398 cats in their Mount Vernon house, most of them dead, and more than 200 in a townhouse in Annandale. “She picked up dead cats on the road and put them in her house and yard,” he said. “A year later, the house still smelled. It was eventually gutted.”

Then, there was a case in Annandale in 2010, where two women kept about 180 cats in a small house on Village Drive. It was hard to know the exact number because some of them stayed outside.

“We try to get them into mental health counseling,” Powell said. “If you don’t keep your eye on them, they’ll go back to their old ways.”

The session also included a presentation on litter prevention by Jennifer Cole, executive director of the Clean Fairfax Council. She urged people to use their own bags for grocery shopping and washable net bags for produce and bring their own  reusable cups to fast food places.

“The world uses 500 billion plastic bags a year. That is equivalent to 12 million barrels of oil,” Cole said. And plastic water bottles are huge waste of resources when “Fairfax County has some of the best water in the entire country.” 

Gross acknowledged that the police don’t have the time or resources to arrest a lot of litterers. They have to actually see someone throwing trash from a car, she said, and if they issue a citation, “it takes four or five hours of paperwork and six or seven hours of court time, and the judge usually throws out the case, so it is a matter of priorities.”

Gross encouraged organizations and individuals to “adopt” a section of roadway and take responsibility for picking up litter there four times a year.

Clean Fairfax helps set up communitywide clean-ups and provides supplies like trash bags and gloves. There are two large efforts planned for the Mason District: The Annandale Clean-Up on April 21 (meet at the George Mason Regional Library at 9 a.m.) and the Culmore Clean-up April 28 (meet at the Woodrow Wilson Library at 9 a.m.).

Nearly all the questions from audience members were about litter. A resident of Barcroft Mews complained about grocery carts and trash from businesses in the Barcroft Plaza shopping center blowing into the neighborhood.

Ron Debnam and several of his neighbors in the Overlook community raised issues about unmowed grass in the median at the intersection of Edsall and Braddock roads and the potential for a mess in a dog park proposed for the Bren Mar area. Gross said VDOT is supposed to take care of the grass mowing but the state “refuses to step up to their responsibilities on roads.”


  1. I know of a number of houses in Annandale where they are hoarding illegal aliens...

  2. Governmental intervention is necessary to address hoarding? If there is nothing visible from the outside then it's none of the County's business. People are entitled to their privacy. This is another prime example of Penny Gross' penchant for wasting resources on trivial matters while failing to address the major problems that have plagued Mason for years.

  3. If a resident of a townhouse or apartment has piles of trash that cause a fire, it can spread to other units. Same thing for rat or bug infestations.

  4. HA. Yes i agree. Hoarding? Please, how about addressing other issues besides old ladies and newspapers. Waste of taxpayer money. I do think that if it is in a townhome or condo and could pose a threat - that is one thing. But please. Face the illegal immigration problem with these funds code "compliance"