Manassas Changes Definition Of Family
Wednesday, December 28, 2005
The inspector slid into his Crown Victoria, a police radio on his belt, addresses in hand. It was after 5 p.m., and he and his interpreter rolled into Manassas, down a street of benign ranch houses strung with lights. They parked, walked to a door and knocked.
"Mrs. Chavez?" Victor Purchase asked in the quiet evening.
There had been a complaint, he said. The city needed to know not just how many people lived there but how they were related. He handed Leyla Chavez a form and explained that she could be prosecuted for lying.
"Okay," she said and, in a mild state of shock, began filling it out.
There was Chavez and her husband. Their two sons. A nephew. The man who rented downstairs. His girlfriend.
"Your nephew, under our law, is considered unrelated," Purchase said, then delivered the verdict: Two people had to go.
That is because a zoning ordinance adopted this month by the city of Manassas redefines family, essentially restricting households to immediate relatives, even when the total is below the occupancy limit.
The rule, which has alarmed civil libertarians and housing activists, is among a series of attempts by municipalities across the nation to use zoning powers to deal with problems they associate with immigrants, often illegal, who have settled in suburbs, typically in shared housing to help with the rent or mortgage.
"It is not only unfair; it's racism," said Edgar Rivera, an organizer with Tenants and Workers United, a Northern Virginia group that advocates affordable housing as a solution to overcrowding. "It's basically a way to just go after certain communities."
Kent Willis, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, said the new rule is "constitutionally questionable" and pointed to a 1977 Supreme Court ruling that struck down a similar law defining family passed by the city of East Cleveland, Ohio.
Even so, other municipalities have passed similar ordinances or are considering them.
Reacting to a swell of pressure from residents, the town of Herndon restricted its definition of family last year. Prince William County and Richmond are studying the Manassas ordinance. And Fairfax County is seeking authority from the state to impose criminal fines and jail time on landlords who rent houses to more than four unrelated people, typically immigrants.