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Out of the Zone

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Few blinked when Chesterfield County recently released its report estimating the costs of supplying services to illegal immigrants. One of the proposals, however, is catching the attention of academics and affordable-housing advocates: a zoning fix aimed at stemming the purported increase in overcrowded residential homes.

Chesterfield officials say such an ordinance would simply allow building inspectors to enforce what's on the books. Building code standards limit the number of occupants allowed per square foot. For instance, a 1,200-square-foot house with three bedrooms would be limited to five residents.

The county's current definition of housing size is limited to "single family" or "multi-family," and when overcrowding is reported, the only recourse is for zoning officials to attempt to establish bloodlines of the occupants -- a nearly impossible task.

The proposal would eliminate the need to establish who's related to the homeowner and who's not. But the proposal also raises new questions in a county and a region struggling to supply affordable housing to low- to moderate-income families. Some say it also smacks of the racial zoning practices that proliferated in places such as Richmond and other cities throughout the South in the early part of the 20th century.

"This is following a trend that is becoming very common around the country," says Michela M. Zonta, assistant professor of urban studies at Virginia Commonwealth University. Local governments across the country are developing laws to restrict housing to specific ethnic groups, particularly Latinos.

"It's really simple to say now we are just trying to address this overcrowding issue,"she says. "But what are the consequences for this affected group? I'm a strong believer in the right to housing. If this group has a very restricted access to housing, we are really interfering with their quality of life."

County officials say the ordinance wouldn't be used to target a specific demographic, namely Latino families who tend to pool resources and buy otherwise unaffordable homes. "The county, when we draft the ordinance, we want to universally apply it to all properties. You can't legally draft an ordinance that applies to Latinos," says Ted Barclay, code compliance supervisor in Chesterfield County's planning department. "We don't enforce the code based on the color of your skin."

But the proposal comes as part of the county's answer to how to deal with illegal immigration, a debate that has almost exclusively centered on the massive influx of Hispanics across American borders in the last 30 years.

Almost everyone agrees the main culprit is the federal government's inability to enact legislation to deal with the problem. Left to fend for themselves, state and local governments across Virginia and the country are taking matters into their own hands. Still, zoning ordinances used to address social problems, Zonta says, present an ethical dilemma. Ultimately, good intentions can go awry.

"If this ordinance gets passed, it will present a problem," Zonta says. "Is it ethical to refuse shelter to these people, whether they are illegal or not?"

The proposed zoning ordinance will likely find a receptive audience on the county's Board of Supervisors, which requested the administration's report on illegal immigration more than a year ago. As for the cost to county coffers, the administration surmised that supplying illegals services — primarily police, health, social services and court services, but excluding schools, which legally cannot tally its illegal immigrant population — comes to $2.1 million.

In the report, the first proposal under the heading "Possible Local Options" is the overcrowded zoning ordinance. After it's enacted, the county administration goes on to explain, planning and building officials would have a tool for dealing with neighborhood complaints of overcrowding. While presented as an option for dealing with the cost of illegal immigration, County Administrator James J.L. Stegmaier warns not to read too much into the coincidence. It wouldn't be used, he says, to target Latinos, illegal or otherwise. "Really, it's just a safety issue," he says.

And Chesterfield's code compliance supervisor Barclay says among the complaints his office receives, overcrowding isn't exactly a big problem for the county. He estimates his office receives about 50 overcrowding complaints a year. It's gone up of late, he says, but the increase isn't "astronomical. It's not one of the larger types of complaints that we get."

All the more reason, say some, to be skeptical. If it's not a massive headache now, why include it as part of the possible "options" for dealing with illegal immigration? John Moeser, professor of urban studies at the University of Richmond, says such a zoning ordinance reeks of xenophobia.

"It's tragic that so many counties are following suit — are developing local legislation that is so restrictive and demeaning to a lot of Hispanics," he says. "If they are really concerned about overcrowding and the dangers associated with overcrowding, how do you solve that? How do you offer safe, affordable housing? Low-income housing in Chesterfield County, gosh, there is a huge demand for it. … If you can't afford it, what do you do? You double up, you triple up."

There is a parallel, Zonta and Moeser say, between the exclusionary zoning practices of the early 1900s that kept blacks out of white neighborhoods, and the current spate of zoning laws across the country that aim to exclude, or have the effect of excluding, Latino families, which are traditionally much larger.

Often it isn't overt. In 1913, the Society for the Betterment of Housing and Living Conditions issued a report on the deterioration of Richmond's black neighborhoods and recommended a series of zoning fixes and housing codes that centered on eliminating blight.

The report, which barely mentioned the city's earlier racial zoning laws that set the standard in the South — racial lines that still exist today — went on to endorse the "appropriate areas for new Black residential development to eliminate the demand for substandard housing in deteriorated areas," writes urban studies professor and author Christopher Silver in "The Racial Origins of Zoning in American Cities."

In effect, the report helped launch a trend of tacitly endorsing racial zoning practices long after the practice was outlawed and deemed socially irresponsible.

"It has been a tool to replace the more overt tools of the past, restrictive covenants and racial zoning. Racial zoning was very common in the first 20 years of the 20th century, but it was replaced by restrictive covenants," Zonta says. "This zoning thing that is going on now is exclusionary zoning aimed at specific ethnic groups."

The debate is only just beginning. William Dupler, a building official for Chesterfield County who worked on the administration's recent proposal, says the zoning ordinance would allow the county to enforce current code.

As for the complaints coming into county offices about overcrowding, Dupler says: "The people complaining aren't in control. I think there will be lots of discussion from the Board of Supervisors about the appropriateness of such an ordinance."

Dupler also says the proposal helps the county address safety and health issues: "When you drastically overcrowd a building, there is a sanitation issue. Is the plumbing adequate? Is the dwelling strong enough? Is it safe from an egress standpoint in the event of a fire or an emergency?"

That the proposal comes as part of the Chesterfield's answer to the immigration problem, however, has some questioning the county's motives.

The Rev. C. Douglas Smith, executive director of the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy, says if safety was the issue, then much of the housing in and around the Fan District near VCU — where houses are often carved up by multiple students — "wouldn't pass muster."

"Regulations like this are likely to be disproportionately enforced on immigrants," says Smith, adding that the law makes sense if it's meant to target massive overcrowding, such as "50 people in a three-bedroom house."

The consistency in how the ordinance is enforced will be key, he says.

"Every time we see a spate of regulations at the local level like this, it certainly raises red flags," Smith adds. "Certainly, you don't have to know how to spell xenophobia in order to participate in it." S



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