Anti-Crowding Law Repealed

Maribel Alvarez and Ronald Virto celebrate the repeal of the ordinance as Manassas City Manager Lawrence D. Hughes leaves the building.
Maribel Alvarez and Ronald Virto celebrate the repeal of the ordinance as Manassas City Manager Lawrence D. Hughes leaves the building. (By Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)
By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 12, 2006

The Manassas City Council decided last night to repeal a controversial ordinance that made it illegal for extended relatives such as aunts, uncles and cousins to live together as a family and that targeted the city's growing Latino population.

Faced with the promise of lawsuits by numerous civil rights groups, the prospect of a federal investigation and pressure from residents, council members unanimously decided to look for a different way to address parking and other problems they associate with crowded housing and, more broadly, illegal immigration.

Last night, civil rights groups praised the decision, saying it was important because other municipalities were contemplating similar rules and, at a time when it seems that anti-immigrant feelings are ripe for political exploitation, it sent a message that discrimination would not be tolerated.

"We're satisfied they have rectified their mistake, but this experience allowed us to see that there is a risk, that the community has to watch how these laws are adopted," said Ricardo Juarez, coordinator of Mexicans Without Borders. "This shows us that any abuse of power can be defeated by the community."

After the council voted to repeal the ordinance, Mayor Douglas S. Waldron (R) declined to comment.

City Manager Lawrence D. Hughes said the decision was based on the advice of legal counsel. "We decided it was best to repeal the ordinance and look at other mechanisms," said Hughes, adding that the city may establish a citizen task force to explore other solutions to crowding. Hughes said anyone who was cited under the ordinance would not be prosecuted.

The ordinance, which was adopted Dec. 5, changed a definition of family in the city's zoning code, so that with a few exceptions, households were restricted to immediate relatives, even if the total number was below the legal occupancy limit.

For instance, a five-bedroom house shared by five cousins was deemed illegal in Manassas, a suburban city of 40,000 that is about 72 percent white, 15 percent Latino and 13 percent black.

The new definition was part of a broader effort that officials said was intended simply to address increasing complaints about crowded housing -- problems related to noise, parking, garbage and trucks appearing at 5:30 a.m. to pick up workers -- but which in practice has overwhelmingly targeted Latino families, according to city inspectors.

In October, Waldron asked Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) to declare a state of emergency with regard to illegal immigration, which Waldron said was "eroding the strong spirit of our city." Warner declined.

And two years ago, the city established an "overcrowding hotline," which allows residents to make anonymous complaints about their neighbors and has led to inspectors knocking on doors at 3 a.m. to count the people living in a house.

Under that program, which continues, the city relocated about 400 people from June 2004 to June 2005, city officials said. Still, residents kept complaining.

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