Overflowing Fairfax Homes Split Neighbors
Issue Stirs Debates Over Economics, Race
By Bill Turque and Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, May 13, 2007; Page A01
Harry Gault doesn't think of the small ranch home next door as a hot-button political issue in this year's Fairfax County election or realize how frequently his complaint is heard throughout the region.
“I don't mind an Hispanic neighborhood,” said Gault, 73. “But they've turned a three-bedroom, two-and-a-half-bath home into a nine-room boarding house.”
Long a source of tension in the suburbs, where high prices force many immigrants to pool financial resources and share housing, residential crowding has generated a surge of complaints in Fairfax, a county where one in four residents is foreign-born.
With the entire Fairfax Board of Supervisors up for reelection this year, this issue, which has raised ire in communities across the Washington area, has taken on a hard edge among voters riled by single homes that have been converted to house eight or 10 adults. Suddenly, multiple cars clog driveways designed in the 1950s for one or two vehicles. Trucks park on narrow streets, making them difficult to navigate in the morning and evening. And in the 24-7 service economy — where nine-to-five is only one of several shifts and workdays begin and end at all hours — workers and their vehicles are in the streets day and night.
“These are changes in neighborhoods, and change is sometimes hard to manage,” said Fairfax Supervisor Penelope A. Gross (D-Mason), whose district includes large communities of Koreans in Annandale, Vietnamese in Seven Corners and Latinos in Baileys Crossroads. “It's a different model. A transition from the nuclear Caucasian family to the ethnic extended family.”
Gross's Republican opponent, Filipino business executive Vellie Dietrich-Hall, has been relatively quiet on the subject. Neighborhood groups have not. One recurring theme is that the supervisors turn a blind eye to crowding because they depend on campaign contributions from real estate interests.
“Enough is enough. These frauds need to go!” Rick Gordon of the Lakewood neighborhood, said in a statement he distributed to his neighbors.
Under pressure to respond, Fairfax County Executive Anthony H. Griffin formed a multi-agency “strike force” of inspectors last month to tighten enforcement of overcrowding laws as part of a larger crackdown on zoning violations.
“We have the tools. We need to get our knuckles bloody using them,” said Supervisor T. Dana Kauffman (D-Lee), an outspoken critic of the county's enforcement effort.
Others fear that the enforcement could harm law-abiding immigrant families. An investigation by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development last year found that the city of Manassas's attempt to curb crowded housing did just that.
“We'd be concerned about civil liberties and racial profiling,” said Jon Liss, executive director of Tenants and Workers United, a Northern Virginia nonprofit organization that organizes low-income families around economic and social justice issues. “In general, this kind of stuff is targeting immigrants who have bought their homes and who are in pursuit of the American dream.”
The growing anger on both sides is palpable.
Elsa DeLeon, a Honduran immigrant, was cited for overcrowding in February by county inspectors who found that her basement on Hanover Avenue in Springfield had been illegally divided into four bedrooms. She said the county is interfering with her right to care for her large extended family.
“If I buy this house, I can put my family in the basement,” she said.
County officials concede that ethnic and racial animus is a factor in some neighborhoods, but those unhappy with the change say that is nonsense. Laws are being broken, and the quality of their lives, they say, has been compromised.
“I'm not an idiot,” said Gordon, 37. He said he has complained to county officials about an illegal boarding house of between eight and 10 men in his Falls Church neighborhood of Lakewood for more than a year and a half. Two trucks and as many as nine cars park in front. He said a Fairfax zoning inspector told him that the resident of the house on Birchwood Road probably has “lots of drinking buddies.”
Gordon, who works as a homeland security consultant, said it was especially galling when Gross told him that the county's hands were tied. He warned that she might pay a political price in November.
“We're not some right-wing Nazi community,” Gordon said. “Everybody is a liberal Democrat. In my community, without a doubt, people will not vote for her unless this problem is solved soon.”
In Fairfax and most other Virginia localities, no more than four people unrelated by blood or marriage can live in a single-family home. Families can have no more than two non-members in permanent residence.
But the regulations are more elastic than is generally understood. Occupancy limits are based on the dimensions of certain rooms, not the overall size of a house. Bedrooms used by one person must be at least 70 square feet. Those with two or more people must allow 50 square feet for each occupant. Living rooms have to be a minimum of 150 square feet, dining rooms 100 square feet and kitchens 60.
This means that a three-bedroom suburban house with 1,200 square feet of above-ground living space could legally accommodate more than a dozen people. Immigrant families tend to be large and far more likely to include extended members, such as aunts, uncles and cousins.
The volume of complaints has thrust Fairfax's zoning inspectors, more accustomed to measuring setbacks and fence heights, into the role of determining family relationships in homes where English is often not spoken. Of the county's 21 inspectors — roughly two for each of the 400-square-mile county's 10 magisterial districts — only one speaks fluent Spanish. Contract interpreters are available but not always in a timely fashion.
“It is a problem,” said Michael R. Congleton, senior deputy zoning administrator.
In cases where the county has clear documentation of overcrowding, Fairfax tries to secure “voluntary compliance” from violators, using a series of written notices. Only a handful of cases are sent to county district court for prosecution, which Kauffman said is part of the problem. The homes' owners, not the occupants, need to be held accountable.
“There's a lot of people making a lot of money off the backs of desperate people,” he said.
The situation on Harry Gault's street, Dana Avenue, illustrates the conflicting stories and perceptions that often swirl around crowding disputes.
Gault and his neighbors complained that the house was noisy. Folks came and went at all hours. Cars jammed the driveway and the street.
Fairfax health and zoning inspectors responded 13 times from 2003 to 2006, according to records. In 2004, officials found that the owner, Raimundo Guevara, had converted the garage to an apartment, a zoning violation. But, inspectors said, everyone there was related to Guevara — even though there were deadbolt locks on some of the bedroom doors.
The garage apartment was eliminated, but the complaints continued.
Finally, in April 2006, Fairfax police placed the home under surveillance for five days. They found that although lots of people came and went during the day, there was no hard evidence that too many were living there.
“There is innuendo but no factual basis for some of the different allegations,” senior zoning inspector W.B. Moncure concluded in a memo in August.
Guevara, a well-known businessman in Springfield's Honduran community, was asked in a brief interview why the house drew so many complaints.
“Bad neighbors,” he said.
According to county records, he purchased 6306 Dana four years ago for $260,000 after a series of complaints — again unsubstantiated, county inspectors said — about crowding at the house he owns, and lives in, directly across the street at 6305 Dana. In 2002, a Fairfax zoning inspector found 14 people in residence but said 11 of them were related to Guevara.
Gault said inspectors never pressed very hard for proof that all the houses' occupants were family.
“Raimundo would give them a list of names and say they're related,” Gault said. “Well, they're all Hondurans and speak Spanish; that's the end of the relationship.”
Gault and his wife, Peggy, said the neighborhood of small, single-family houses was not designed for the volume of people who live there. Where evenings on the street were once quiet, they are now filled with music and traffic.
“This is a whole different world at night,” she said. “It's difficult to get down the street.”
Fairfax Board Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D) said there is no easy solution.
“Every neighborhood has a clear balance of harmony to it,” he said, “and I have some obligation to respect that harmony if I move there. But neighborhoods also have an obligation to expand that harmony to accommodate different cultures.”
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