ATLANTA—For Toni Bryant, it wasn’t about how many people lived in the small brick ranch on Alcott Drive in a suburb just north of Atlanta. It was how they lived.
The garbage piled up on the curb on trash day. Cars and pallets were all over the front yard. When the children had lice, the adults brought them outside and scrubbed them with kerosene—a folk remedy for getting rid of the bugs.
“I have no qualms about people living together, but they have to keep their yard up or else all our property values suffer,” says Ms. Bryant, peering across the neatly clipped lawns of the neighborhood.
In this genteel corner of what many call the New South because of its increasing diversity, others weren’t as understanding. When someone in the neighborhood called the county code inspector, he found a dozen small cots lined up in the basement of a 1,300-square-foot house. As many as 15 members of one Mexican family had been living there at one time or another.
In Cobb County, housing code officers say they need more stringent regulations to handle a growing number of complaints about overcrowded homes. Last week, county zoning officials proposed an ordinance to reduce the number of unrelated people who can live together under one roof from six to four.
Attempts to manage occupancy aren’t new. College towns such as Chapel Hill, N.C., have rules about how many students can live together off campus. But from Cobb County, Ga., to Herndon County, Va., the focus is increasingly on Hispanic immigrants who interpret the term “mother-in-law apartment” very broadly.
Some critics say it is an attempt to implement local anti-immigration laws using housing policy.
Meanwhile, proponents of ordinances argue that laws limiting occupancy are necessary because poor living conditions negatively affect property values and quality of life.
For example, Cobb County recorded more than 60 complaints about crowded houses last year, many from whites complaining about their Hispanic neighbors. The suburban county has seen a six-fold increase in the Hispanic population in the past 10 years. County Chairman Sam Olens has said that homes are in effect being turned into apartment complexes.
“A lot of the issues communities are dealing with as far as limiting immigration, or making it more difficult to live within that area, have to do with how much they can stand as a community and how much they can absorb,” says Monica Razavian, a critic of US immigration policy in Manassas.