[Hpn] Bill Would Let Fairfax Limit Sleep to Bedrooms
Sat, 27 Jan 2001 18:45:34 -0700
Next they'll make it a crime to be poor.
Bill Would Let Fairfax Limit Sleep to Bedrooms
By Michael D. Shear and Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, January 27, 2001 ; Page A01
The Virginia Senate voted yesterday to let Fairfax County prohibit its
residents from sleeping anywhere but their bedrooms, a measure that some
activists and local officials say unfairly targets the living arrangements
of the county's burgeoning immigrant communities.
The bill passed by a vote of 20 to 19 after a spirited debate that pitted
proponents from Northern Virginia against colleagues from across the state.
Legislators who voted against the bill then used parliamentary techniques to
demand a reconsideration of the measure on Monday.
Sen. Leslie L. Byrne (D), who represents central Fairfax and is the bill's
chief sponsor, said it is a response to numerous complaints from
constituents about the impact of small houses crowded with college students,
construction or restaurant workers or large immigrant families.
Jamming 15 to 20 people into a tiny two-bedroom house diminishes property
values, takes up parking spaces and robs neighbors of peace and quiet, she
"We are asking that they not use their kitchens as bedrooms," Byrne said.
"What they do in their actual bedrooms, I don't care. It's very difficult,
and this is just another way for the county to address what has become a
Senate Bill 925 would give county code enforcers new authority to go after
people whose homes have been turned into virtual hotels. But some civic
leaders characterized it as a misplaced, hostile response to those
struggling to pay for shelter in a county where the average rent for a
three-bedroom apartment is $1,181 a month.
The proposed law simply says that "spaces such as kitchens, living rooms,
dining rooms and family rooms shall not be occupied for sleeping purposes."
It would take effect if the legislature and governor turn it into state law
and Fairfax supervisors write a county ordinance.
"The last thing we want on the books are laws that seem to be aimed at some
of the less advantaged members of our community," said J. Walter Tejada,
Virginia director for the League of United Latin American Citizens, a
national advocacy group.
Tejada and other activists said the county needs to add housing that new
residents can afford, not laws that penalize them for trying to survive. In
the Latino community, he said, "allowing someone to go homeless is simply
not acceptable. It's not part of the culture."
Saul Salvador, 63, a courier from El Salvador who lives in Falls Church,
described the measure as an unjustified governmental intrusion into people's
"People live the way they can," he said. "Unless the government pays for the
apartment, they should be able to do what they want. It's a violation of
people's rights, and it's directed against immigrants. I think it's
Fairfax County officials acknowledged difficulty enforcing occupancy laws.
"Senator Byrne is trying to address an issue that is vexing," said Board of
Supervisors Chairman Katherine K. Hanley (D). "I can't address the
legislation; I have not read it." Several other board members said they had
not asked Byrne to sponsor the bill, and one supervisor said he was
uncomfortable with it.
"I have a lot of problems with government telling people where they can or
cannot sleep," said Supervisor Gerald E. Connolly (D-Providence). "As far as
I know, this bill was not introduced at the behest of Fairfax County."
Byrne, whose district includes the immigrant-rich enclaves of Baileys
Crossroads and Seven Corners, and other supporters of the measure cast it as
a way to protect the property values of those who live next to crowded
Like most other local governments in the area, Fairfax prohibits more than
four unrelated people from living under one roof. Byrne said that zoning
ordinance has been difficult to enforce because inspectors have no way to
prove that the people are not distant cousins, as they often claim.
In a poll of immigrant communities in Fairfax released last month, 17
percent of Spanish speakers said they had unrelated people living in their
homes. Overall, 8 percent of the county's immigrants said that people
outside of their families were living with them.
Sen. Richard L. Saslaw, a Democrat from Springfield, also supported the
measure. "This is becoming a big problem that is hard to deal with," he
said. "The ordinance we have now is just not working."
Christine R. Trapnell, a former Fairfax supervisor who made enforcement of
code violations an issue in her losing bid to rejoin the board in 1999,
praised Byrne for tackling the topic.
"I give Leslie a great deal of credit for attempting to deal with such a
sensitive issue," Trapnell said. "This has been an ongoing situation in the
Baileys Crossroads area for years. It's been a question of how do you deal
But among others in Fairfax, news of the bill's passage prompted anger and
frustration. Housing activist Sharon Kelso, director of United Community
Ministries, a nonprofit social services agency, said the bill is "obviously
aimed at families who have a hard time paying market-rate rent for space
that is sufficient for the size of their family.
"I'm just trying to envision the dining room police. What are they going to
do?" Kelso asked.
Prince William County Attorney Sharon E. Pandak said enforcing occupancy
laws is difficult. But she questioned whether Byrne's solution would make it
any easier. "One has to be a little concerned about what surveillance you
would have to do to enforce something like this," Pandak said. "Especially
if you are going to do what I call bed checks."
Senate opponents, most of them Republicans, also noted that the law would
make it illegal to convert a room other than a bedroom for use by an elderly
parent or other family member. And they said the measure would represent an
inappropriate, unwanted intrusion of government into private homes.
"What this bill does is make no distinction between 27 illegal aliens and a
family of four trying to care for an ailing parent," said Sen. William C.
Mims (R-Loudoun), whose district includes western Fairfax.
"About 80,000 Fairfax County households would be in violation of this bill,"
he said, "and they don't have 16 people living in their homes."
Staff writers William Branigin and David Cho contributed to this report.
© 2001 The Washington Post
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