Katerina Steiger came to St. Paul City Hall to face an ultimatum: Get rid of the plastic bags of clothes and other debris cluttering her house or move out.
City inspectors had given Steiger weeks to take action on her own, but little had changed. Now Marcia Moermond, St. Paul’s legislative hearing officer, told Steiger that the city could set a hard deadline for her to vacate her condemned house.
“I am at a place right now where the whole thing needs to be cleaned out with some speed,” Moermond said at the hearing earlier this month, “Or, if you go slow, you live someplace else while it goes slow.”
St. Paul has been willing to take such drastic action to deal with hoarding. From 2016 to 2018, St. Paul issued condemnation notices to 63 owner-occupied properties with hoarding and gross unsanitary conditions, according to a Star Tribune analysis of condemnation records.
As city and county officials enforce codes designed to keep residents safe, they often confront underlying issues of mental and physical disabilities, aging and poverty. As awareness of hoarding grows, inspectors say they’re often working beyond their job requirements to keep people safe without forcing them to give up their belongings or leave their home.
“They’re human beings, and you have to treat them with some dignity and some respect,” said Joseph Jurusik, a supervisor with Hennepin County Public Health and a founding member of the Minnesota Hoarding Task Force. “But yet you’ve still got to get them to clean.”
And when they don’t, city officials say they have no choice but to take control.
St. Paul condemns properties deemed “unfit for human habitation,” citing issues ranging from a leaking roof to rodent infestations. Residents can appeal a condemnation — the course Steiger took — and attend a legislative hearing at City Hall, where Moermond often offers extra time to get work done.
For those unable to make fixes themselves, the best-case scenario is finding someone — often through a nonprofit or government agency — who can help.
That was the case for Sara Hunter, whose one-bedroom apartment on St. Paul’s East Side was packed with boxes of books, paper and art supplies collected during a lifetime of travel, earning degrees and making art. She’d inadvertently brought a cockroach infestation from a previous apartment and was feeling overwhelmed and ashamed.
In January, Hunter’s case worker contacted the Ramsey County program HouseCalls, which connected Hunter with a cleaning crew. Within days, her apartment was clean and she was no longer facing eviction.
“It was almost incredulity,” Hunter said of seeing her clean apartment for the first time, “and huge relief.”
Minneapolis has a similar Homeowner Navigation Program, where city inspectors refer low-income seniors, veterans and people with disabilities for help complying with city orders, whether it’s by finding a neighbor to mow their lawn or bringing in a nonprofit to fix their roof. The city can also refer them to other services, such as meal delivery or assistance for veterans.
“Our job is to go in and abate the orders, but we really try to connect them to other resources that will help them remain in their home,” said Rose Lindsay, manager of community engagement and grants for Minneapolis Regulatory Services. “Some of these folks, if we don’t help them, they’re going to be homeless.”
Both the Homeowner Navigation Program and HouseCalls are voluntary, so residents have to agree to receive help.
A referral from the fire department led to the condemnation of Steiger’s home on Feb. 19. At a March 5 hearing, Steiger read a statement scribbled on the inside of a cereal box. She had spent time with the Kennedys and the family of the late U.S. Sen. Alan Cranston, she said. She had a brother who was recovering from an operation and had developed amnesia, and she hadn’t seen him in 40 years.
Moermond warned that the city was losing patience.
“Do what you want,” Steiger said. “I’m up against the wall.”
On March 12, the third legislative hearing on Steiger’s case, Steiger didn’t show up. Moermond had referred her case to HouseCalls, and program supervisor Lauren Lightner provided an update, saying HouseCalls made referrals to cleaning companies but Steiger refused them.
“I don’t think she’s really absorbing what you’re sharing with her,” Lightner said. “She isn’t aware of what the concerns are.”
Steiger, reached by phone Thursday, declined to comment.
Even when residents agree to a cleanup, their house may be uninhabitable in the interim, Lightner said. HouseCalls has grant money to pay for up to a week in a hotel for low-income clients, and after that makes referrals to homeless shelters, she said.
Even those who manage to stay in their homes may still have unresolved problems, such as hoarding disorder, which was added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) in 2013. As a result, city officials, social workers and cleaning crews encounter the same people over and over again.
“You leave it and it looks good and you’re happy and you’re hoping and praying that that person will get their life in order,” said Schar Ward, whose cleaning service, Varin Enterprises/Domestic Engineering, contracts with Ramsey County. “But sometimes they can’t.”
Shoreview gives residents the option of signing a contract that allows periodic reinspections in exchange for help covering cleanup costs. That hasn’t seemed to stop people from hoarding again, said code enforcement officer Kyle Seifert.
“I think where the contract is helpful is it just lets us know that a situation is redeveloping, and that we have to get involved again,” Seifert said.
Steiger has paid all her taxes and utility bills, and Moermond said there were no gross unsanitary conditions in her house. But the St. Paul City Council on Wednesday listened to Moermond’s concern that a clear fire hazard existed at Steiger’s house.
Moermond said Steiger had agreed to work with a cleaning service but then changed her mind. Steiger said she wanted to move bags from her house to her garage and have them picked up from there. Moermond said that wouldn’t solve the problem.
“This has been extremely time-consuming, safety-wise, to be a month down the road right now with plans and failed plans and trying to address the circumstance,” Moermond said.
During the five minutes Steiger had to address the council members, she told them she is the daughter of immigrants and grew up in poverty.
“A lot of places here give away free clothes, so I thought, ‘Well, I’m going to start saving it so I don’t ever have to be threadbare,’ ” she said. “It was a bad decision. I didn’t think about code enforcement and that sort of thing, so I accumulated a lot of stuff.”
The City Council voted unanimously to order Steiger to vacate her property. They gave her until Friday to leave; she will be able to come in during the day to clean, and can move back in when 75 percent of the home’s contents have been removed.
In an interview Thursday, Moermond said police, code enforcement officers and social workers have already visited Steiger at her house and were scheduled to do so again on Friday. “I think the door is still open on providing those services and working with her,” Moermond said.
They will return on Monday to confirm that she has moved out.