To curb illegal immigration, South cracks down on housing codes

Local officials cite a need for tighter laws to end overcrowding. Others see bias against Hispanics.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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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.

The owner, Jose Cruz Rodriguez, was fined $135 last fall for breaking a county occupancy law that limited the number of people who can live in a house, based on square footage. The extended family Mr. Rodriguez rented to was forced out of the home.

It's a story that's playing out across the South. In some counties, Hispanic immigration, most of it illegal, has increased a thousand-fold over the past 10 years, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. To handle the influx, elected officials in these areas are seeking to redefine the concept of family by limiting the number of people who are allowed to live under one roof.

Proposed law in Georgia

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.

"Counties and cities are saying, if the federal government doesn't do anything about [illegal immigration], we'll do it a different way, and housing is one thing they're looking at," says Edgar Rivera, a Hispanic activist in Fairfax, Va. "What they're doing is establishing laws that are specific to Hispanic people."

In Manassas, Va., for example, an ordinance that says residents have to prove consanguinity, or direct relationship to the homeowner, makes it illegal for too many great-grandparents, nephews, and uncles to live together. Enacted in December, the law was suspended in early January after the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) threatened to file a lawsuit against it.

"It gives the government extraordinary power to interfere with the personal [and] private decisions made by families about how they will function as a unit," said Kent Willis, the ACLU's Virginia director, in an e-mail.

Many critics also cite a 1977 US Supreme Court ruling that municipalities cannot define the boundaries of family when setting housing policy.

In particular, legal advocates, including the ACLU say that the law proposed in Cobb County is more difficult to challenge than the one in Manassas, which strictly defines a family.

Ordinance advocates cite living conditions

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.

Hispanics chase the American dream

Many Hispanics say pooling family resources to move into the suburbs is their version of chasing the American dream. It's also often necessary in places like Atlanta and northern Virginia, where property prices are too high for hourly wage laborers, many of whom come into the US with almost nothing.

What's more, a Pew Hispanic Center study on the "New Latino South" found that Latino families, on average, are twice as big as white families.

"Hispanics have very close family ties, with extended families that look after each other," says Gilbert Moreno, director of the Association for the Advancement of Mexican-Americans in Houston, Texas. "They pay bills jointly, they seek housing jointly, they work toward the same goals, which are all attributes that are magnified as you [get farther from] the border area."

But sometimes the struggle can be caustic because of language barriers and social segregation. It was on Alcott Drive, where attempts to discuss Mr. Rodriguez's trash pileup failed because neighbors could not communicate.

At the same time, neighbors have managed to work out other problems among themselves. After complaints that homeowner Raoul Molina, a Mexican expat, was parking cars on his lawn, he widened his driveway. Molina says, "It's not fair to separate the family."

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