When the hoarder moved in next door several years ago, Sharon and Richard Collins felt bad. The woman’s home filled with piles of acquisitions and her husband moved out.
Then came the cars that didn’t run – four in all – in the front and back yards of the Spanaway home on 17th Avenue East. The vehicles were crammed with bulky black trash bags.
Then three pianos appeared in the driveway, and a fourth in the back, rotting under tarps.
When the entire home became surrounded by black trash bags, and the deck off the back door grew neck high with more bags, neighbors offered to help the woman clear it away. She declined.
One night last week, the motion-detecting light went on between the hoarder house and the Collins’ home. Sharon Collins, 73, got out of bed to take a look. She is, after all, the captain of the block watch.
She’d seen vermin outside the hoarder house before, but nothing like this.
“She started counting rats – she got to three, then five – and I finally got out of bed to look, too,” said Richard Collins, 78. “They were coming out of the car sitting between our houses.”
Sharon kept counting.
“There were 11 of them, just playing out there,” she said.
That was enough. The Collins had lived in their home more than 30 years, seen neighbors come and go in the pleasant tract. But living next to the Spanaway House of Rats was more than they could stand.
“We bought traps the next day,” Sharon said.
By this time, the house had been abandoned. The couple had reached out to any city and county agencies they could think of. That was months ago.
The rats keep coming. And when Richard hired his gardener to lay out traps and put poison down the holes, they started catching four or five a day.
“I’m disabled, I can’t do it myself, any more,” said Richard, who served with the Air Force in Korea and Vietnam. “It’s not my responsibility to catch them, but no one else will. It’s getting expensive.
“Trying to get something done is like talking to trees.”
Last year, the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department opened a file on the Spanaway house and began the process mandated by law. Officials tracked down the woman who owned it and urged her to clean it up. They put a legal claim on the property in the form of a lien.
“These kinds of homes are an issue for lot of neighborhoods,” said John Sherman, the department’s environmental health liaison.
It’s a sign of the times that the department received 1,115 such complaints around the county last year, and handled them with a field staff of four.
“We’ve had more abandoned houses because of the economy, with so many foreclosures and people just walking away,” Sherman said.
The average number of days a case was open last year was 39. The house next to the Collins will not be resolved as quickly because it was sold in the last six weeks to a man in Chilliwack, B.C.
The health department lien on the property was circumvented because the deal didn’t go through a bank or lender; the new buyer paid $49,000 cash.
“He came down and said he’d bought it sight unseen,” Richard Collins said. “He looked at it and said he thought he’d have to bulldoze it to the ground. We haven’t seen him since.”
Sherman said the sale automatically transferred the lien to the new owner.
“It does complicate the process with an out-of-county owner, and we have to allow due process with the new owner,” Sherman said. “We have to notify him, work with him and hope he acts to take care of the problem.
“If he doesn’t, we work with Public Works and Utilities and send the case to the county prosecutor for an abatement action.”
At that point, the property would be cleaned up – abandoned vehicles and all – with the owner charged for the cost. Typically, it can take from two to six months from the opening of a case to an abatement action.
That’s a long time to live next door to the House of Rats.
“This case is not the norm, thank goodness,” Sherman said. “We just got the formal change of ownership information on Jan. 17. We don’t have to start from scratch – we already have seen that the house qualifies.
“We’re a few weeks from the point of referring the case to the prosecutor, and we’re optimistic the new owner will act before it reaches that point,” he said. “Hopefully, we can get a resolution quickly.”
Richard and Sharon Collins and their neighbors would be glad about that.
“One of our neighbors isn’t exactly Martha Stewart, he’s a biker,” Richard said. “Even he’s disgusted.”
Larry LaRue: (253) 597-8638