Earlier this year citizens pushed to get the Prince William Board of County Supervisors to enact new restrictions aimed at addressing residential overcrowding, and they seem to be paying off. Although not as contentious or as headline-grabbing as the Rule of Law Resolution of 2007, the new zoning regulations make it a lot easier for property code enforcement personnel to cite property owners who are stuffing renters — often illegal aliens — into a single family residence. The results are starting to show, with about twice as many complaints resulting in citations this fiscal year than last year.
Before this change code enforcement personnel were laughably ill-equipped to resolve residential overcrowding problems. The rules allowed any number of people to share a single family residence as long as they claimed to be related, and very quickly the targets of complaints learned to claim they were. The fallback for inspectors upon finding that fifteen people jammed into a 1,400 square foot house were all supposedly cousins was the International Fire Code, which would then stipulate (in a case like this) that based on the square footage that one — just one – of these cousins would have to find a new place to live. Except in the most egregious cases, there effectively was no way to control residential overcrowding.
First, the General Assembly tried to do something about this by granting zoning inspectors the power to issue subpoenas where they could demand documentation from persons encountered at a residence to show where they actually lived. That resulted in exactly zero subpoenas actually being issued. It was a nice idea, but evidently zoning enforcement personnel thought the process was too cumbersome, and they never used it. Back to the drawing board.
The new rules enacted by the BOCS limit the number of adults who can occupy a residence based on the square footage of the property. Gone is the universal “get out of jail free card” of “they’re all my cousins.” If you’ve got a 1,400 square foot house, you can have four adults living there. Enforcement isn’t quite as easy as getting a headcount of the occupants and checking the data from the building permit for the property and will often require some surveillance to determine exactly how many people are stuffed in there, but it is vastly easier to cite residential overcrowding now than it has been in the past.
In FY2008 property code enforcement personnel investigated 510 residential overcrowding complaints, issuing citations in 12% of the cases. Often this was a result of unpermitted modifications to the property made to accommodate so many people such as second kitchens, basement apartments, or a subdivision in the dwelling. The new regulations came into force late in FY2009 when 418 overcrowding complaints resulted in a 17% citation rate, and so far in FY2010 152 complaints have been investigated resulting in a 34% citation rate. I’d think the actual percentage of complaints that are founded are substantially higher than 34%, but it’s far better than the 12% we were seeing before.
My expectation is that we’re going to see quite a jump in residential overcrowding complaints as citizens discover the process actually works to some degree now and their complaints stand some chance of getting resolved. The utter frustration of so many was that the Department of Property Code Enforcement was entirely useless in this regard, and many stopped even bothering with filing complaints, opting instead to focus on the uninspected or unregistered vehicles occupants of the property and report those to the police. Another reason for anticipating an increase in complaints is that the immigrant community has discovered that the hysterical warnings of a police state being established in Prince William County were quite obviously false, and with low residential prices in the area we’re seeing an increase in immigrants (legal and likely illegal) in the area. So not only will reporting residential overcrowding complaints be more attractive because the process isn’t fundamentally broken, but there are more opportunities to do so.
If you’re confronted with an overcrowded residence near you, the chances that property code inspectors can actually resolve the problem have dramatically improved. Perhaps not to the point PCE is fully effective, and your results with individual inspectors can vary considerably, but PCE is in much better shape to address problems now than they were the last time we had a wave of residential overcrowding.
This comes not a moment too soon.
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