By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 26, 2006
Federal housing officials said yesterday that they are investigating whether a two-year-old program to combat crowded housing in Manassas is unfairly targeting Hispanic families in violation of the Fair Housing Act.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development filed a complaint Tuesday alleging a pattern of discrimination. Yesterday, a group of Manassas residents and civil rights advocates filed 11 more complaints, saying that the city has selectively enforced its overcrowding rules and other ordinances against Hispanic residents in what amounts to a systematic campaign of harassment.
"We have not heard from white residents that inspectors are knocking on their doors, going in late at night, measuring bedrooms and asking for proof of relationships," said Isabelle Thabault with the Washington Lawyers' Committee, which filed a complaint in conjunction with the Equal Rights Center, another advocacy group. "The only ones we heard from are Hispanic families."
Thabault said her organization's investigation found several cases that seemed to amount to harassment, including one in which an inspector was reported to have measured a bedroom that a couple was sharing with their newborn baby and then told the parents they would have to move the baby to another room. The couple measured the room and found that the inspector's measurement was wrong.
"We found many examples where an inspector went to a household based on an anonymous complaint . . . found no violations then returned a month later and again found no violations," Thabault said, adding that by her count, at least 200 Hispanic residents have been displaced by the city inspections.
Manassas Police Chief John J. Skinner, the acting city manager, said he could not comment on pending complaints.
The scrutiny of the Manassas program comes after the city repealed a controversial ordinance in January that redefined family and made it illegal for relatives such as aunts, uncles and cousins to live together, even if they were not violating household occupancy limits.
According to the complaints filed yesterday, that rule was just the "most egregious" part of a broader program begun in June 2004 that city officials have said is intended to combat crowded housing and its effects. The complaints say the program was "designed to foreclose housing opportunities to Manassas' growing Hispanic population."
The program relies heavily on an "overcrowding hotline," a phone number that residents can call to complain anonymously about neighbors. Calls to the hotline, as well as e-mails and letters, prompt inspections by city officials that are often conducted late at night and without warrants and that, city officials say, have overwhelmingly affected Hispanic families.
To determine whether a house is overcrowded, the city is again relying on its old definition of family, which allows no more than three unrelated people to live under one roof or allows a family to share its home with no more than one unrelated person.
The complaints filed yesterday challenge the legality of those definitions, saying they are overly restrictive and have a disparate impact on Hispanic families.
"While the City has a legitimate interest in the overall number of people who live in a dwelling, it does not have a legitimate interest in dictating to Hispanic residents who they can live with," Thabault said, adding that most municipalities do not have such restrictive definitions and rely instead on occupancy limits designed to protect health and safety.
The Manassas program was established at a time when many city residents were complaining not only about crowded housing but more broadly about illegal immigration and issues such as the growing cost of English language classes in schools.
City leaders have spoken openly about the need to deal with that problem, and the resulting program was not unlike others across the country in which frustrated local officials have attempted to use means at their disposal to combat a problem whose solution, they say, lies with the federal government.
As the city's program has played out, the people most affected have often been Hispanics who have been living in the city for decades, have bought homes and were perhaps supplementing the mortgage by taking in an additional tenant.
"There are many American citizens or permanent residents, people who have jobs, who have worked hard," Thabault said. "They have come here to try to make a life, and now they're being harassed by the very city they're paying taxes to."
The complaints filed yesterday include those of 10 Manassas residents who say they were harassed, intimidated and coerced by the city. At least 200 residents have been displaced by the city's rules, Thabault said.
Federal housing officials will now begin a process of investigating the city program further and discussing with officials ways that the complaints might be resolved, including payment damages to people affected.
"We'll see what the city has to say," said Rabbi Bruce Kahn, executive director of the Equal Rights Center. "We have to see where it leads."
If federal officials are not satisfied with the resolution of the complaints, they can take the city to court.