The inspector slid into his Crown Victoria, a police radio on his belt, addresses in hand. It was after 5 p.m., and he and his interpreter rolled into Manassas, down a street of benign ranch houses strung with lights. They parked, walked to a door and knocked.
“Mrs. Chavez?” Victor Purchase asked in the quiet evening.
There had been a complaint, he said. The city needed to know not just how many people lived there but how they were related. He handed Leyla Chavez a form and explained that she could be prosecuted for lying.
“Okay,” she said and, in a mild state of shock, began filling it out.
There was Chavez and her husband. Their two sons. A nephew. The man who rented downstairs. His girlfriend.
“Your nephew, under our law, is considered unrelated,” Purchase said, then delivered the verdict: Two people had to go.
That is because a zoning ordinance adopted this month by the city of Manassas redefines family, essentially restricting households to immediate relatives, even when the total is below the occupancy limit.
The rule, which has alarmed civil libertarians and housing activists, is among a series of attempts by municipalities across the nation to use zoning powers to deal with problems they associate with immigrants, often illegal, who have settled in suburbs, typically in shared housing to help with the rent or mortgage.
“It is not only unfair; it’s racism,” said Edgar Rivera, an organizer with Tenants and Workers United, a Northern Virginia group that advocates affordable housing as a solution to overcrowding. “It’s basically a way to just go after certain communities.”
Kent Willis, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, said the new rule is “constitutionally questionable” and pointed to a 1977 Supreme Court ruling that struck down a similar law defining family passed by the city of East Cleveland, Ohio.
Even so, other municipalities have passed similar ordinances or are considering them.
Reacting to a swell of pressure from residents, the town of Herndon restricted its definition of family last year. Prince William County and Richmond are studying the Manassas ordinance. And Fairfax County is seeking authority from the state to impose criminal fines and jail time on landlords who rent houses to more than four unrelated people, typically immigrants.
In Manassas, the ordinance is one of several steps the city has taken. In October, Mayor Douglas S. Waldron (R) asked Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) to declare a state of emergency in Virginia regarding illegal immigration, as have governors in New Mexico and Arizona. The declaration, which would make localities eligible for federal homeland security dollars, was not made. Waldron also asked for expanded police powers to identify and arrest illegal immigrants.
Under the city’s old zoning ordinance, there were three definitions of who could share a house: three unrelated people; two unrelated people and their children; or any combination of relatives, however extended, plus one unrelated person. It is the third definition that was changed under the new law.
“What we tried to do is define it in a way that was traditional, to make sure these peripheral people start to be winnowed out,” Smith said.
The area is also quietly changing: Se habla espanol signs are hung at car dealerships. Strip malls might have a Starbucks alongside a mercado . Travel agencies advertise flights to Honduras.
Along with those changes, the city has received a rising number of complaints about crowding. To help field them, an “overcrowding hotline” was established, and in October, the mayor sent two letters to Warner asking him to declare a state of emergency.
“One of the largest impacts is being felt on our once-quaint neighborhood streets, which now in many cases are littered with trash and lined with far too many vehicles due to overcrowded boarding houses and multi-family dwellings,” the mayor wrote. “The situation is eroding the strong spirit of our city. . . We must stress that we are not anti-immigration, rather illegal immigration is our concern.”
But Willis, of the ACLU, questioned whether the city can implement the rule without discriminating on the basis of race or national origin. “In a nation that prides itself on diversity,” he said, “these kinds of ordinances are becoming part of a shameful episode in our history.”