Case Goes to Justice Department

By Nick Miroff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 6, 2006

Federal housing officials who claim that a campaign by Manassas against crowded housing has illegally targeted Hispanic families have turned their investigation over to the Justice Department, saying the city has failed to adequately settle complaints.

"We made an extensive effort to resolve the matter, but it was unsuccessful," said Bryan Greene, the deputy assistant secretary for enforcement and programs at the Department of Housing and Urban Development. "We conducted a full investigation and attempted to conciliate with many parties involved, which included many individuals, civil rights groups and the City of Manassas. In the end, conciliation has failed."

The investigation focused on anti-crowding measures initiated by the city over the past two years. Those included a hotline that allowed residents to anonymously file a complaint about neighbors they suspected of violating city ordinances and a measure passed by the City Council in December that essentially banned extended family members from living together by narrowing the legal definition of "family." That ordinance was repealed in January under threats from civil rights groups and concerns about a federal investigation.

Although HUD cannot bring charges against a municipality under the Fair Housing Act, it can forward cases to the Department of Justice for possible litigation if the agency's investigation does not produce an agreement "and provide relief to the aggrieved people," Greene said.

Eleven complaints have been forwarded to the Department of Justice -- eight from Manassas residents, two from civil rights organizations and one from HUD, Greene said. The complaints allege that Manassas has illegally targeted the city's growing Hispanic population for selective enforcement of its zoning laws.

Greene said HUD opened its investigation in January after published reports detailed the city's anti-crowding efforts, which included an enforcement officer who made visits at night to homes and informed residents that aunts, uncles, cousins and other extended family members could not share the same residence, regardless of whether occupancy limits had been exceeded.

Greene said HUD has sent letters to city officials and others involved notifying them of the decision, but city manager Lawrence D. Hughes said officials have yet to receive notification and could not comment.

"We didn't realize conciliation had failed," Hughes said.

"I'm not sure how they draw conclusions like that," he added. "We just need to see what HUD communicates to us and where the process goes from here."

Manassas City Attorney Robert W. Bendall told the city council last week that the investigation had stalled because a changing cast of investigators was going over similar ground and repeating questions. Bendall was unavailable yesterday for comment.

Lawyers who have been monitoring the case said that HUD's decision was a "serious" matter.

"An investigation of this magnitude will certainly get the attention of the [Department of Justice] and means it's more likely that they will proceed with a lawsuit," said Kent Willis, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, one of the groups that threatened to sue the city after it passed its anti-crowding ordinance.

"If the judge or jury determines that the City of Manassas conspired to discriminate against Latino families, the punitive damages could be hefty."

Willis added that a federal lawsuit also raised the possibility that individual parties could bring civil suits against the city.

According to HUD, 342 complaints were made to the city's "overcrowding hotline" before the investigation began, and more than half turned up no violations.

Of the 145 calls that resulted in violations, 71 percent involved families with Hispanic surnames, although only 15 percent of the city's population is Hispanic, according to 2000 Census data.

Department of Justice spokeswoman Cynthia Magnuson said the agency would review the case and determine how to proceed but would not comment on the possibility of a federal suit.

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