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Hunting Unsafe Housing

Over the past several years, Herndon has stepped up its battle against overcrowding.

Bill Edmonston's work day begins like many other government workers. He comes in at 7:30 a.m. and looks over the most recent paperwork to determine what needs to be done for the day.

But the paperwork from Edmonston's job is different from most government employees. This paperwork is composed of the complaints and surveillance records of residences in Herndon that are suspected of being overcrowded.

Edmonston is the acting senior community inspector for the Town of Herndon, temporarily filling the vacancy left by the departure of Vincent Diem at the end of June. He manages a team of six zoning violation inspectors who, amidst the less glamorous job of monitoring new construction in town, run surveillance on homes and buildings in Herndon that may be overcrowded. While all inspectors handle overcrowding complaints, only two full-time inspectors handle them exclusively.

"The types of complaints we have are varied. Some complaints we get are from a police officer doing a patrol, or a citizen who is concerned about a property in their neighborhood, others are directly from our inspectors," Edmonston said. "Before we can make a determination that a violation is taking place — we do some sort of surveillance."

From the point of first surveillance to the issuing of a violation is often complicated and rarely black and white, Edmonston said.

Based in the old police facility at 1481 Sterling Road, the Herndon zoning enforcement team goes about the job of separating these shades of gray.

BACK IN THE MID-1990S, the town had a zoning administrator and a town planner to investigate cases of zoning violations, and ultimately excessive occupancy, said Lisa Gilleran, director of Community Development for the Town of Herndon.

"I'll be honest, there was very little in the way of enforcement back then because we didn't have a lot of the complaints that we get now," she said. "A lot of it was inoperable vehicles being left on properties, commercial signs in violation of zoning ordinances, things like that."

The first case of excessive occupancy complaints that Gilleran could remember was in 1994, six months after beginning her job with the Town of Herndon. It was an apartment that was being used as a "flop house," Gilleran said.

By 2000, some of Herndon's older neighborhoods and buildings began to show the marks of age and complaints began coming in about poorly maintained homes and yards and too many cars parked on streets, she said.

"Rob Stalzer [former town manager] called together an action group of pretty much everyone in the Town of Herndon to figure out how we could take a better approach to these complaints," Gilleran said. "They had been continuing to increase throughout the year and we needed to do something for the residents who kept calling."

Concerns voiced by residents about overcrowding began to increase in volume during this time and by the end of 2000 the first full-time inspector had been hired.

Since 2003, the number of complaints investigated and closed by the Town of Herndon has increased annually. In 2003, 96 overcrowding cases were closed, with 147 closed in 2004 and 251 in 2005, according to town figures.

The business of Herndon's Department of Zoning Enforcement continued to grow and evolve.

In 2002, the group began compiling a database of all building complaints and organized the information so that the overcrowding reports were given a specific data field, Gilleran said.

The town currently employs seven full-time inspectors in the Department of Zoning Enforcement. This includes a senior community inspector, a deputy community inspector, three zoning inspectors — two dedicated solely for overcrowding cases — and two community inspector assistants who assist exclusively in overcrowding cases.

The team moved from its original location at the Herndon Municipal Center to its own base of operations at the old police facility at the beginning of March 2006.

MOST OF THE CASES that are deemed to be in violation as a result of surveillance and investigations are abated, or rectified, prior to ever having a formal complaint filed, Edmonston said.

He estimated that about 55 percent of cases of suspected overcrowding were found not to be in violation of any local ordinances, due primarily to lack of evidence or complainant misperceptions. The majority of the remaining cases are typically resolved by property owners meeting zoning requirements before a formal violation is issued.

Sometimes these cases are delinquent and require the imposition of criminal charges to get property owners in to compliance, as was the case in a recent criminal charge of transient lodging levied against the owner of a property on the 500 block of Alabama Drive.

As a result of complaints being made of the three-bedroom residence being occupied by an excessive number of tenants, Herndon zoning inspectors began surveillance.

"What we found was that there were eight people living in the house, and [the owner] was charging rent to all of them and he didn't even live there," Edmonston said.

After the owner of the property didn't appeal the violation he had been given, the case sat with the prospect that it had been abated or needed more evidence. When an inspector saw an ad posted at a local supermarket to rent a room at the property in April of this year, it was enough evidence.

The owner of the property was charged with misdemeanor transient lodging and pleaded guilty on July 19 where he was given the maximum $1,000 fine. He has since sold the property, Edmonston said.

"Most cases don't need to go through the criminal route, but that was your classic case of transient lodging," he said. "The main thing we're concerned with is getting compliance. Sometimes people aren't going to comply and that's when we have to go the criminal route."

Inspectors have filed about six criminal transient lodging charges against property owners and managers in Herndon in each of the last two months, according to Edmonston.

THE TASK OF INSPECTING properties suspected of being in violation of excessive occupancy ordinances does not come without its difficulties, Gilleran said.

In order to justify a violation citation of overcrowding or transient lodging, a certain number of unrelated adult occupants — dictated by the square footage area of the property — must admit to living in the residence and being unrelated.

The biggest problems in investigating these properties lie in a lack of evidence or in the case of the tenants lying to investigators.

"I don't think there is one inspector out that hasn't been lied to," Gilleran said.

For tenants who are not legal residents of the United States, all they must do is sign a legal affidavit claiming family relation with another resident of the property to be taken as truth.

These affidavits can eventually lead to charges, Edmonston said, if it is found that the same individuals are signing affidavits in multiple suspect cases of overcrowding.

"Usually through investigations you can tell who the big families are and who is not necessarily telling the truth," he said. "But families from all over the world, you really can't prove anything," without having official U.S.-issued identification.

The biggest problem they have with residents who make complaints is being able to explain what cases are in violation of local ordinances, Gilleran said.

"It's not as simple as seeing someone just taking eight mattresses into the house or lots of cars in the driveway," she said. "There are ordinances and they need to be in reasonable and provable violation of those ordinances."

TRYING TO PROVE violations of specific ordinances often slows down the zoning enforcement team's handling complaints, said Herndon Town Council member Dennis Husch.

"It takes a long time to go from complaint to prosecution," Husch said. "We're a country of laws and you can't just go kicking a door down if you have a complaint of overcrowding, but if you're living next door to a house where 20 people are staying, it can be frustrating."

While he wouldn't mention specifics, Husch said that the mayor and Town Council were looking into options for improving the efficiency of inspectors' work.

"Obviously we have to shorten the timeline from the initial complaint to prosecution and we need to increase the communication between the residents and the zoning inspectors," Husch said.

Patience is an important virtue when waiting for cases to be investigated by inspectors, said Bob Rudine, a resident of the Chandon neighborhood of Herndon who has made official complaints of overcrowding.

"I basically live at ground zero," Rudine said of his neighborhood and his suspicions of excessive occupancy violations at homes around him.

Rudine, who also ran for Town Council this year before withdrawing for personal reasons, said that while he believes the inspectors to be doing an "excellent" job, more needs to be done to prevent repeat cases.

"The fines [for violations] aren't high enough, there's no deterrent effect at all," he said. "They shut one down and the guys inside just pack up and move to the next place."

Rudine also said that more needs to be done to inspect apartment complexes in Herndon, which are difficult to run surveillance on, as they are home to multiple families and individuals in different units. He said that what needs to happen first is for the inspectors to mitigate some of their workload.

"The enforcement team is doing what they can but the problem is just the overwhelming number of complaints," Rudine said. "There's so much of it going on right now."

Husch wouldn't say whether or not he thought there was an increased level of complaints in Herndon because of a higher propensity to make a complaint or because more overcrowding was actually occurring.

"One of those things that is more complicated is trying to find out if there are actually more violations or if there is just more sensitivity," Husch said. "It's like saying, 'is there more gold in the ground or are we just digging more.'"

FINDING THE DIFFERENCE between the cases of overcrowding that are actually detrimental to the health and safety of residents and large families living together is the main priority of the zoning inspectors, Gilleran said.

Edmonston recalled his own childhood growing up with four siblings and his parents in a small home in the Tyson's Corner area.

"When I was growing up, we knew of a house where the parents had 14 kids, all living under the same roof," Gilleran said. "But that is just a big family living together, and provided everyone is safe, that's not something where we would necessarily find in violation."

The increasing volume of complaints of overcrowding are a side effect of large numbers of migrant workers in an area, regardless of their race, Edmonston said.

"It comes down to immigration, especially when you look to New York City not too long ago and all of the immigrants coming into that city and living together: Italians, Irish," Edmonston said. "Here it happens to be a lot of immigrants from El Salvador."

"We just want to make sure people are living there safely."

BEING THAT HERNDON is a relatively affluent suburban town with high property values plays a lot into the number of complaints of excessive occupancy, Gilleran said.

"It's expectations, and part of expectation is based on experience," she said. "The standards here are so much higher than in other parts of the country."

But a lot of the attention and controversy that have been brought to the issue of excessive occupancy have been because of the large shift in demographics in recent years.

"This town has changed a lot in recent years, and when overcrowding comes it displays this," Edmonston said. "It's our job to find out which cases of those are threatening to the health and safety of Herndon's neighborhoods."