A New View of Vacant Houses

By Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 21, 2008

When Chris Pannell walks down the Prince William County street she has called home for all of her 39 years, she's dismayed by what she sees -- vacant houses -- and delighted by what she says she doesn't see -- illegal immigrants.

"I will take coming down here and looking at 10 empty houses any day over what we had before," says Pannell, a title examiner, as she and her neighbor, Allison Kipp, 42, amble past lifeless houses.

This stretch of Lafayette Avenue in the Manassas area is a fairly gloomy scene. "For Sale" signs flap outside two of the 30 1960s-era red brick starter homes on the block. Eight others appear to be vacant. Few cars are parked on the street. The worn sidewalks are deserted.

But to Pannell and Kipp, it is a tableau of hope. And victory.

For much of the past decade, according to the women and other neighbors, parking was bumper-to-bumper and most of the empty houses were packed with Latino residents they believe were in the country illegally. Now Pannell and Kipp are convinced that Prince William's illegal-immigration crackdown, which both championed as first-time activists, has helped flush many of those people out of their neighborhood, West Gate.

The experiences that hardened their attitude and the relief they now feel have been voiced by many Prince William residents who bridled at the influx of immigrants, many of whom they suspected were here illegally, according to activist leaders.

"A year ago, it was common to have several overcrowded residences on every block around here," said Greg Letiecq, president of Help Save Manassas, an anti-illegal immigration group. "The turnaround has been dramatic. People started calling me and telling me, 'This overcrowded house is now vacant.' 'That overcrowded house is now vacant.' A lot of people prefer a quiet neighborhood and empty houses to overcrowded ones any day."

Prince William Board of County Supervisor John T. Stirrup Jr. (R-Gainesville), who represents West Gate, introduced the measures, which deny some services to illegal residents and require police to check the immigration status of suspects they believe are in the company illegally, after what he called an outcry from constituents. He said he now sees their worries being relieved.

"We're clearly getting reports on a regular basis from people who had seen the quality of life declining in the past," he said, "and now they are reporting back to say obviously this is working, this element has left the community."

People on both sides of Prince William's illegal-immigration debate say Latino immigrants are leaving the county. Evidence is anecdotal, and so far it is impossible to measure the migration or whether it is driven by tough laws, economic downturn or the wave of mortgage foreclosures. Yet where opponents of the crackdown predict the ruin of the county's finances and culture via mean-spirited policy, such supporters as Pannell and Kipp envision a neighborhood rebirth rooted in simple democracy.

"It really gave me faith in the American way, that we the American people can get out here, and our voices will prevail," said Pannell, who lives with her husband and three children in the house across the street from her childhood home, where her mother still lives. "I've never felt so passionate about anything. It's your neighborhood. It's your community."

The county's stance, said Kipp, a paralegal who has lived on nearby Loudoun Avenue half her life, "has given us faith in politicians."

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