A law aimed at preventing overcrowded houses in Manassas Park has snared a family of 10 Katrina victims who thought they'd finally found stability in a city townhouse but instead are facing eviction.
Forced to leave devastated Jefferson Parish, La., in the wake of Katrina and then pushed out of a temporary trailer in Lake Charles, La., by Hurricane Rita, Amy Rolland had breathed easy when her family found the house. The children were happy in school, and their father had some job prospects.
But then, last week, city inspectors arrived, and Rolland, her fiance, Albert Douglas, their seven children and Amy's younger sister found themselves in violation of Manassas Park's overcrowding ordinance. The law increasingly is used to fight what many city residents see as an influx of immigrants double bunking in their modest neighborhoods.
According to Rolland, 29, her family fits just fine into their townhouse, with its three bedrooms, large basement and 21/2 baths.
"This is big enough. Isn't it?" she asked.
The family arrived in the area about a month ago, with all their belongings stuffed into 13 backpacks. Still, they were optimistic. They'd chosen the community from a federal list of places willing to take storm-displaced families, and Douglas, a Mississippi tugboat operator, had once lived in the area, so it felt familiar.
Churches, nonprofit organizations, the local government and area businesses supplied Rolland and Douglas with a minivan, toys and clothes for the children, and a federally subsidized rent voucher for the house.
Officials say the family's predicament is a product of bureaucratic miscommunication, a misunderstanding of local zoning and a climate of suspicion that increasingly targets the area's growing Hispanic population.
In Manassas Park, a city of 11,500 people wedged between Manassas and the Fairfax County line, the law requires 50 square feet per occupant in each sleeping area, which is defined as a room with a smoke detector and an emergency escape, such as a window.
The law has been on the books for several years, but the number of complaints has increased significantly in recent months, said William F. Armstrong, director of buildings planning and zoning for Manassas Park. The city gets 25 to 30 complaints a month, double the number just six months ago, officials said.
In the case of Rolland and Douglas, the issue was square-footage, Armstrong said.
"We have 10 people living in a townhouse designed for seven. Believe me, we are not trying to get anyone out of a property," he said. "This family has been through a lot. The last thing we want is for someone to get hurt or killed because they couldn't get out of a space."
"My heart aches for this family," said Trish Redmond, chairman of the Northern Virginia Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster, a regional umbrella group.
She picked up the clan at Dulles Airport when they arrived. "I saw that everything they had was in . . . little book bags," she said.
Rolland wears an engagement ring and a necklace that says "#1 Mom." She said she and Douglas have been together for years.
Rolland, who is blind in her left eye from what doctors said was a stroke five years ago, is a stay-at-home mother who cares for Daniel, 2, Ciarra, 5, Alexis, 8, Nicholas, 9, Devin, 9, Gary, 11, and Albert, 14. Rolland's younger sister, Kristen, 16, also lives with the family.
Douglas, 32, is still looking for a job, Rolland said, adding that her family has been overwhelmed by the kindness of the community and the landlord, Quentin Dukes.
Dukes said he was angry that he was forced to tell such good tenants to leave. When he was first approached about renting to the family, he said he wondered if they would all legally fit into the townhouse. He said he even raised the issue with workers administering the Section 8 federal rent voucher program, who he later learned were uninformed of the local law.
But after meeting the family, Dukes said he could not turn them away.
"These are Katrina relief folks. They were in desperation, so I thought this was an exception," he said. He said he picked up Rolland and Douglas from a Manassas motel, showed them the house and then dropped them off at a Fairfax mall for Douglas's job interview at Sears.
They have maintained the property well, he said. But he received a call from an anonymous woman who said she was a neighbor and tried to discourage him from renting to anyone with a Section 8 voucher, Dukes said.
Once the family moved in, the city received a complaint about overcrowding, and by law, inspectors had to investigate. They later found the home to be inadequate for the large family, Armstrong said.
Redmond, Dukes and Armstrong said they were surprised Section 8 workers were so uninformed of the local law.
"It's not the job of the Section 8 housing program to know every rule of every jurisdiction," said Brenda Knowles, who administers the program in Manassas and Manassas Park. "It is something that is worked out between a resident and a landlord."
Knowles said that another home will be found for the family and that they will be able to move in the next 45 days.
One night this week, Rolland brushed 5-year-old Ciarra's hair after a bath and looked around at the mismatched furniture and plastic bins of toys donated by well-wishers. It's so much more than they had when they arrived at Dulles.
The kids could play on the jungle gym directly outside their back door. They are happy at their Manassas Park public schools. "They love the snow. It's the first time they've seen snow," she said.
Rolland said she will try to keep the kids in their schools through the end of the school year, even though she likes a house she's seen in Dale City, and the family might move there.
"It's a single-family home, and I won't have to worry about neighbors complaining," she said. "I had never heard of an overcrowding law. . . . I wonder what's going to happen next."