There are too many cars trying to fit into too few spaces in Tom Phillips's Manassas neighborhood. Some of his neighbors don't keep their homes up, either, he said. He described one neighbor's yard as "horrendous looking" because the grass wasn't cut.
Phillips said that Georgetown South residents walk into his Wellington neighborhood to use the playgrounds that he pays to maintain. There is also a steady stream of work trucks rolling in and out at 5 and 6 a.m., he said.
"It's annoying; it's an aggravation," he said. "We've lived in Wellington almost two years now. And if you talk to management, littering has gone up -- there's just a lot of issues in the last couple of years that I don't think were issues before."
Phillips, 35, is one of several Manassas residents publicly angry about "residential crowding."
That has become a political buzzword and was a campaign centerpiece for some candidates running in the city's elections last week. Most of the complaints seem to be targeted at the city's Hispanic community, said Hank Azais, a local activist and new board member of Hispanic Outreach Leadership Action (HOLA).
The Manassas City Council is hoping that a new program will crack down on what some say is an out-of-control trend in the city: single or multifamily housing occupied by more people than they are designed to accommodate.
"We have two and three families in single-family houses," Manassas City Manager Lawrence D. Hughes said. "That upsets the whole economic base for providing services, especially in the schools. And it's not just a problem in Manassas. If you talk to folks in Fairfax and Prince William, they have the same problem. Houses and residential streets are not built to withstand the number of cars they're seeing. It's a neighborhood problem."
On Monday night, the City Council passed two fire prevention and property maintenance ordinances that are central to the program, with penalties that include fines, eviction and arrests.
Last fall, Virginia adopted a new building maintenance code, called the International Property Maintenance Code, that cuts down on the number of residents allowed in a given home.
The Manassas program goes a step further, using the city's fire prevention codes to combat the problem. Until now, crowding has come under the jurisdiction of the city's zoning administrator.
A new property maintenance inspector, whom officials plan to have in place in June, will be responsible for checking on a home's space per person, possibilities of fire danger and the relationship among occupants. The inspector, along with the fire marshal, will write citations, order evictions and can make arrests.
"All we're doing is giving our staff all the tools necessary to deal with this issue. We hope we won't have to use them," said Brian Smith, the city's building official.
The key is education, he said.
"What we've found is that most [people] don't violate these laws knowingly," Smith said. "What they need is education. . . . Coming down and issuing tickets and arresting people is the last resort."
Translators will accompany the new inspector, and information will be distributed in English and Spanish, officials said.
Already some are questioning the specifics of the program.
Council member Eugene R. Rainville (R) voted against the measures, calling them constitutionally questionable.
"I think we should have the program," he said. "My concern is mainly around people that have purchased a home, and they believe this is their home" and then are asked to move out.
Specifically, when multiple families buy a home together and then the city finds that the house is crowded, who moves out?
"How are you going to make that happen?" Rainville said.
This is new territory for the city, Hughes said. Other jurisdictions are watching Manassas. The program will be carried out carefully, he said.
"We expect that there will be problems," Hughes said. "But the problem has gotten completely out of hand, and we're pushing the limits we know."
Azais said he's concerned the program could lead to racial profiling.
"Whose house are they going to be inspecting?" Azais asked. "Again, this could lead to a situation where, they say, 'Hey, he looks Hispanic, why don't we stop them?' "
Based on what he has seen, Phillips said, the root of the problem seems to stem from the city's recent influx of immigrants.
"But to me, if I saw 20 people coming out of a house and . . . there were obvious signs that it was friends and family, I don't care who they are, it's an issue," he said. "The bottom line is overcrowding is overcrowding regardless of who's doing it. . . . A criminal is a criminal. I just look at it as an overcrowding issue."
Smith said that such enforcement faces challenges all the time.
"It's often faced charges of racism or discrimination by national origin," he said. "We feel that as long as we inform the public, use state standards and we're aboveboard and evenhanded, we'll be okay."