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Chesterfield's Border Patrol?

Residential occupancy limits in Chesterfield targets illegal immigrants, critics say.

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Does it take an entire Hispanic village to destroy the dreams of a single family of four living in one of Chesterfield County's bankrupt subdivisions?

Maybe not. But a couple of kids living in a converted shed were all Chesterfield Planning Commission Chairman Russell J. Gulley needed last week to push through a controversial ordinance that imposes residential occupancy limits.

Some people see racial bias in the measure. Mike Burnette, of Housing Opportunities Made Equal of Virginia, said it's “clearly designed to limit access to housing to Hispanics.”

That's because there's a culture clash happening between white suburbanites and large groups of Hispanic immigrants — often undocumented — who pool their money and move in next door, says Connie Chamberlain, president and chief executive of the organization, often known by its acronym, HOME.

“White Americans tend to think that small families are the right and the norm, and they are unused to large and extended families,” she says, “especially when those families have different cultural norms and may speak a different language.”

Race is a not an issue, Gulley says: “Safety first, protecting people's investment [second]: It has nothing at all to do with illegal immigration.”

In addition, Gulley says homeowners pay top dollar to settle into idyllic, single-family areas, and they “should expect the county government, through the laws, to protect the integrity of that single-family residential neighborhood.”

After HOME pleaded for the commission to vote against the proposal last week, a malcontent Gulley grew impatient. He relayed a story about a house in the county that had become so overcrowded that two children were forced to take up residence in a small shed. 

“You talk to me about fair housing? I talk to you about safety,” he said. “I talk to you about people who have no accountability. … to put those children in jeopardy.”

The proposal passed 3-2 and goes to the Chesterfield County Board of Supervisors for final approval. If enacted it would make the county the only local government in the region to impose occupancy limits on single-family homes — four adults for houses between 901 square feet and 1,200 square feet; no more than 10 adults for houses between 4,501 square feet and 5,000 square feet.

Dissenting members say the measure's unenforceable, and that various county codes already cover the issue of safety. “I have a real problem putting out some more ordinances that we can't enforce,” Sam R. Hassen says.

Commissioner William P. Brown agrees: “[The ordinance] is several layers of complexity that I don't see as doing anything to make children safer or make neighborhoods nicer to live in, and I have to oppose it.”

If Gulley were so concerned about children, you wouldn't know it by reading the proposed ordinance. “It doesn't talk about kids anywhere. I could have two adults and twenty kids living in a very small house,” points out Jesse Richardson, professor of real estate at Virginia Tech's Department of Urban Affairs and Planning.

“Is this ordinance really health-based?” he asked. “The fact that kids are not included may be indication that it's not.” 

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