Manassas Irate That Inquiry Is Escalated

By Nick Miroff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 12, 2006

Manassas officials have blasted a Department of Housing and Urban Development decision to turn over an inquiry of discrimination in the city to the Justice Department -- calling the move "incomprehensible" and challenging claims by the housing agency that it had made a good-faith attempt to settle complaints by Hispanic residents and civil rights organizations.

HUD officials notified Manassas last week that the investigation had been forwarded to Justice, which will take over the inquiry into whether the city violated the Fair Housing Act with zoning enforcement efforts such as an anonymous "anti-crowding hotline" and a short-lived ordinance that sought to limit the number of extended relatives who could share a dwelling.

Attempts to reconcile the 11 outstanding discrimination complaints against the city "failed," HUD determined.

The Justice Department will now review HUD's findings and decide whether to bring charges against the city -- an announcement that caught Manassas officials "flatfooted," said City Manager Lawrence D. Hughes.

"We were completely surprised," said Hughes. "HUD never attempted to mediate the complaints, despite the city's repeated requests that it do so."

The gulf between HUD and the city has widened in recent weeks. First, city staff complained that a shifting cast of HUD officials, including seven investigators from four offices, went over similar territory and asked similar questions, burdening city staff. Then the came the announcement that HUD had referred its findings to the Justice Department, which further irked the city because it learned about the decision through The Washington Post.

But HUD said it informed Manassas of its decision through letters and phone calls that were unanswered, according to Bryan Greene, deputy assistant secretary in HUD's Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity.

"We've notified all the parties in this case that we could not complete the investigation," Greene said. "We're done."

HUD's settlement process hit a roadblock, he said, because Manassas failed to satisfy the aggrieved parties who have filed complaints.

"The question is how the city of Manassas addresses the people who allege they have been injured by their ordinances," Greene said. "We tried to obtain relief for individuals, and we reached an impasse."

Under the Fair Housing Act, the agency was required by law to notify parties in the case after the first 100 days of the investigation.

"We will investigate as long as we can, but if we don't think we can resolve it, we want to get the information to the Department of Justice in a reasonable amount of time so they can take the actions they think are necessary," Greene said.

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