Va. City Suspends 'Family' Rule

By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 5, 2006

Manassas has suspended enforcement of an ordinance that makes it illegal in most cases for extended relatives such as aunts, uncles and cousins to live together as a family, city officials said yesterday.

The City Council is considering its options, including the possibility of repealing the ordinance, which was overwhelmingly affecting Latino residents and has been harshly criticized in recent days by civil rights and fair housing groups.

"Our responsibility is to protect the safety, health and well being of our citizens," council member J. Steven Randolph (I) said after a meeting with the city manager last night. "But how we do that is limited by a number of factors. We are sworn, and rightfully so, to support the state and federal constitution, and we have to make sure that what we do is reasonable and not arbitrary."

Earlier in the day, the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia announced it would challenge the ordinance, calling it "an unconstitutional government infringement" on the rights of families and a tool to target families based on nationality.

The ordinance, adopted Dec. 5, changed a definition of family in the city's zoning code so that with few exceptions single-family homes in Manassas were restricted to immediate relatives, even if the total number was below the legal occupancy limit. The council plans to discuss the ordinance at a public meeting Monday night.

The rule was being enforced only when complaints about infractions were received, and overwhelmingly, city officials said, complaints in the tidy, mostly white suburb were aimed at members of the city's rapidly growing Latino population, often immigrants living with extended relatives to help defray housing costs.

In a written statement, city officials have said the rule was devised to address problems associated with overcrowding. But Randolph and other elected officials have said it was designed to combat all sorts of problems associated with people assumed to be illegal immigrants -- including parking, tight school budgets and strapped social services.

"I'd rather do our best and try to do something than be like the federal government and the state government and ignore this," Randolph said. "We may not have crafted the best document, but I'm willing to work with it. If we need to make changes . . . we'll make the changes. It's good we're having this open dialogue."

In addition to the ACLU, other civil rights and fair housing groups have lined up to fight the ordinance. One, the Equal Rights Center, has called on the Justice Department to investigate possible violations of the federal Fair Housing Act.

Rabbi Bruce Kahn, executive director of the center, said his group, along with Tenants and Workers United, another fair housing group, would canvass the streets of Manassas today, passing out fliers informing Spanish-speaking residents of their rights and explaining how to fight the ordinance.

Meanwhile, on the Internet, the cause of the Manassas ordinance was taken up by a group called American Renaissance, which advocates white nationalism.

"I just emailed Mayor [Douglas] Waldron and the Manassas City Council to congratulate them on their COURAGE and INTEGRITY in defending their city against the Mexican invasion," one person wrote in a posting on the group's Web site.

The mayor, city manager and city attorney have not returned several phone calls for comment.

The ACLU and other groups have accused the city of addressing problems by pandering to racial fears, instead of using a more constructive approach, such as creating more affordable housing.

Most have pointed to a 1977 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that struck down a similar ordinance adopted by the City of East Cleveland, Ohio. In his opinion, Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. said the ordinance was an unjustified intrusion on the rights of family and privacy found in the 14th Amendment.

"No one is saying that Manassas can't reasonably regulate the number of people living together for health and safety purposes," said Kent Willis, executive director of the ACLU of Virginia. "But the government has no right to tell me that my aunt or nephew can't live under the same roof with me."

Randolph said last night that the city had found itself in a highly frustrating situation.

"We're dealing with illegal immigration and a number of other issues, too -- health care, education," he said. "We have a Congress now that, at the time local jurisdictions need help, they're cutting benefits and programs to help the most needy. And that has an impact on local government. We're really the bottom of the safety net."

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