File a Neighborhood Complaint
How does one go about filing a neighborhood complaint? My wife and I live in a medium-sized city in a nice neighborhood. Most of the houses are 1920s Craftsman bungalows. Every house except one is owner occupied, and almost everyone keeps up the property nicely.
One guy at the end of my street screened in his front porch about five years ago. Ever since he proceeded to stack newspapers, car parts, boxes, and every type of junk on the porch. If it wasn't junk when it was put there, it is now.
Some neighbors asked me to coordinate a response with city hall. What should I expect?
The reaction at city hall is really unpredictable. It depends on factors including these: (1) your city's general attitude about enforcing any laws it may have about appearance of property in general and hoarding behavior in particular, (2) whether your neighbor is known and respected in the community (we're sorry, but yes, there can be considerable favoritism in code enforcement matters), (3) what is going on with the person you happen to talk with at the city, and (4) whether your city has any specific laws that would cover the situation.
For the best leverage with the city and also for the clearest idea for yourself of how the city is reacting, we suggest a personal visit to city hall if there are regular business hours.
As we know in our personal lives, it's harder to turn down someone face-to-face than it is over the phone or by e-mail.
A personal visit also means that your request for information and action won't sit around for days and days before you have some type of response. Granted, all you are likely to know in terms of a conclusion when you leave will be, "We'll look into it." But that is satisfying in and of itself.
When you do complain to city hall by whatever method, make sure that you have the correct address of the property in question. It's surprising how many times people making a code enforcement complaint forget this.
If you are complaining in person or by e-mail, having a couple of photos of the situation will be helpful, and these days it's easy for most people to supply those.
Listen carefully for all four points we listed. Take some notes so that you can convey the results to your neighbors. Ask questions about when it would be reasonable for you to inquire again about the results of their inspection, if they say they will send an inspector.
You asked what to expect, so we say you should expect to be treated respectfully and listened to carefully. If you don't get that, quietly assert that you think you have the right to assistance with neighborhood problem solving.
Never get in an argument on this first neighborhood complaint though. Arguing might come later, if the follow-up results seem unreasonable, but there's no justification for being anything other than kind and patient on the first contact.
Although you say you were asked to coordinate a response with city hall, be aware of two other possibilities.
If no one has done so, you should first attempt to talk directly with the property owner about the fact that many neighbors are concerned and asked you to contact the city. It's somewhat unlikely, but it's definitely possible that the property owner is just a bit eccentric, has something of an unrecognized hoarding problem, and doesn't think his or her behavior is bothering anyone.
Of course if you know this person is mentally unstable or has any tendency at all toward violence, feel free to ignore this advice and go directly to the city.
Another possibility we feel we should mention is that you could investigate whether there are any deed restrictions that run with the land in your subdivision that might apply to this situation.
If you aren't familiar with the term Deed Restriction, you can find a link to our article explaining it on the navigation bar on this page.
Deed restrictions aren't enforced by a city government though. They have to be enforced by action of the homeowners association through fines, penalties, or litigation.
The last comment is that as disgusting as it may seem, it's distinctly possible that your city doesn't have any ordinances that pertain to this exact situation. Many times the junk pile or outdoor storage has to be on the "exterior" of the house, and a screened-in porch may or may not qualify as exterior in your local definition.
Other times, of course, the city just hasn't enacted any laws that would pertain. In that case, you're back to personal negotiation on behalf of all the neighbors.
Good luck with this.