Cluttering up the news

Several years ago I got a call out of the blue from Sheila Woody, a UBC Psychology professor, asking if I might be interested in working together on some hoarding research.  Fortunately this came about less due to an inspection of my office and more because she’d stumbled across my research profile and discovered I had an interest in housing and the making of home.  This is one of those collaborations where, even though I found real potential in the research that overlapped with my own interests in intriguing ways, I was drawn to the work in no small part by how much I enjoyed working with the colleague involved.  Sheila and her team (now also including Christiana Bratiotis) are a lot of fun, and I’m delighted to report that some of our first findings are now out and have just been covered by both the Vancouver Sun and the CBC (where they also have nice pictures of Sheila and some team members).

Looking at two waves of inspections data provided by a collaboration with the City of Vancouver, we estimated the prevalence of problematic clutter in the SRO rooms regularly inspected by the City.   We wrote up the results and published them in Housing Studies with the title:

How much of too much? What inspections data say about residential clutter as a housing problem.

.  Here’s the abstract (Full study here):

How big of a housing problem is residential clutter? In this paper, we draw upon inspections data in Vancouver to both estimate the size of the problem and detail how it is observed and constituted through municipal regulatory processes. We contrast the inspections approach to residential clutter with the mental health approach, which focuses on hoarding disorder. Inspections data indicate the problem of residential clutter is potentially larger than might be expected by the epidemiology of hoarding disorder, and also point toward the many risks associated with clutter. Using our best estimate, approximately seven per cent of low-income, dense, single-room occupancy (SRO) housing units inspected were identified by inspectors as problematically cluttered, indicating a sizable problem. Larger buildings and those managed as social housing were more likely than other buildings to have many units identified as problematically cluttered. Strikingly, for given buildings, estimates of problematic clutter tended to remain relatively stable across time, inspector, and inspection method.

The big takeaway for me is that residential clutter is a real housing problem.  That seven percent covers a lot of rooms, creating big headaches for housing managers  and neighbors as well as the residents of cluttered rooms themselves.  Indeed, in some buildings we studied, up to a third of rooms were problematically cluttered with possessions.  It’s not clear that all of this is the result of hoarding as a mental health issue, but it fits with broader evidence of the epidemiology of hoarding.  It also squares with the informal feedback I get when I touch base with many people working in the social housing sector in Vancouver.  Even without prompting, they regularly point to hoarding as a big obstacle they face in keeping people housed and healthy.  So I’m really happy that we’ve put this on the academic radar, not just as a mental health issue, but also as a broader housing issue.  I’m also happy I get to keep working with Sheila and the team toward better understanding what’s going on.

Incidentally, Vancouver’s Hoarding Action Response Team (HART) is broadly recognized as a leading collaborative resource enabled to coordinate responses for those struggling with hoarding.

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