Long a source of tension in the suburbs, where high prices force many immigrants to pool financial resources and share housing, residential crowding has generated a surge of complaints in Fairfax, a county where one in four residents is foreign-born.
With the entire Fairfax Board of Supervisors up for reelection this year, this issue, which has raised ire in communities across the Washington area, has taken on a hard edge among voters riled by single homes that have been converted to house eight or 10 adults. Suddenly, multiple cars clog driveways designed in the 1950s for one or two vehicles. Trucks park on narrow streets, making them difficult to navigate in the morning and evening. And in the 24-7 service economy—where nine-to-five is only one of several shifts and workdays begin and end at all hours—workers and their vehicles are in the streets day and night.
“These are changes in neighborhoods, and change is sometimes hard to manage,” said Fairfax Supervisor Penelope A. Gross (D-Mason), whose district includes large communities of Koreans in Annandale, Vietnamese in Seven Corners and Latinos in Baileys Crossroads. “It’s a different model. A transition from the nuclear Caucasian family to the ethnic extended family.”
Gross’s Republican opponent, Filipino business executive Vellie Dietrich-Hall, has been relatively quiet on the subject. Neighborhood groups have not. One recurring theme is that the supervisors turn a blind eye to crowding because they depend on campaign contributions from real estate interests.
Under pressure to respond, Fairfax County Executive Anthony H. Griffin formed a multi-agency “strike force” of inspectors last month to tighten enforcement of overcrowding laws as part of a larger crackdown on zoning violations.
Others fear that the enforcement could harm law-abiding immigrant families. An investigation by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development last year found that the city of Manassas’s attempt to curb crowded housing did just that.
County officials concede that ethnic and racial animus is a factor in some neighborhoods, but those unhappy with the change say that is nonsense. Laws are being broken, and the quality of their lives, they say, has been compromised.
“I’m not an idiot,” said Gordon, 37. He said he has complained to county officials about an illegal boarding house of between eight and 10 men in his Falls Church neighborhood of Lakewood for more than a year and a half. Two trucks and as many as nine cars park in front. He said a Fairfax zoning inspector told him that the resident of the house on Birchwood Road probably has “lots of drinking buddies.”
In Fairfax and most other Virginia localities, no more than four people unrelated by blood or marriage can live in a single-family home. Families can have no more than two non-members in permanent residence.
But the regulations are more elastic than is generally understood. Occupancy limits are based on the dimensions of certain rooms, not the overall size of a house. Bedrooms used by one person must be at least 70 square feet. Those with two or more people must allow 50 square feet for each occupant. Living rooms have to be a minimum of 150 square feet, dining rooms 100 square feet and kitchens 60.
This means that a three-bedroom suburban house with 1,200 square feet of above-ground living space could legally accommodate more than a dozen people. Immigrant families tend to be large and far more likely to include extended members, such as aunts, uncles and cousins.