0
Votes

Neighbors to Excessive Occupancy

Some residents have brought the issue of overcrowding to the forefront of the town's attention.

A slight drizzle fell from the gray skies as Herndon resident Bob Rudine made the turn in his weathered Jeep Cherokee onto Alabama Drive, pulling slowly into the Chandon neighborhood of Herndon that he has called home for 26 years.

"I've been living with the overcrowding issue for as long as it's been down here," Rudine said as he slowly moved past row after row of suburban ranch homes, some two-floor single-family homes scattered among them. "I would say that at one point or another you're talking about 30 percent of the houses in this neighborhood under investigation for overcrowding."

Pointing out the houses in his neighborhood that have had complaints filed for suspicion of overcrowding by area residents, Rudine said that a rise in the number of migrant workers and some immigrant families in his community have completely altered the face of his subdivision.

Rudine has personally filed "multiple" complaints of potential excessive occupancy violations with the town's zoning enforcement office.

While he said he has been noticing the rising tide of overcrowding in his neighborhood for the last five or six years, it wasn't until a recent bid for Herndon Town Council made him realize that the problem is spread throughout Herndon.

"I had the opportunity to go out and collect signatures around the town" to form a petition to get on the ballot for Herndon Town Council, Rudine said. "As I got out and started talking with more people, I realized that it's everywhere, it's spread throughout the town."

Making a turn into the neighboring subdivision of Cuttermill, Rudine points out real estate signs advertising homes on the market.

"This neighborhood reminds of how Chandon used to be 10 or 15 years ago, but do you see the houses for sale right there?" he said. "The process has started."

IT WASN'T UNTIL recent years that Rudine said the changes came to his neighborhood.

"Basically we had a lot of retired people, civil service people, some retired military folks … [Chandon] was your basic working class neighborhood in the suburbs," he said. "But as [Washington] D.C.'s population grew, so did the overcrowding problem."

Rudine said that the aging homes in his neighborhood were not being maintained as they had before. Aluminum siding was coming off of homes, trash was being left in piles in backyards and yards were being not properly cared for, he said.

The area was starting to appear more urban than suburban, with increased number of cars parked on the streets and a larger amount of litter, he said.

While Rudine said that he noticed that other residents were getting tired of dealing with the eyesores that had sprung up throughout the neighborhood.

"As people started moving out of the area, because of the condition of the neighborhood, it became more and more difficult to find decent people to buy their houses," he said. "More [immigrant] families started coming in, the rental community started coming, and with that, more and more [suspected excessive occupancy] kept coming."

HE HASN'T BEEN alone.

Brenda Denkeli, president of the Parkway Plaza Homeowner's Association, a community of 116 townhouses in Herndon, said that she has noticed an increase in large numbers of individuals living in small residences with its adverse effects.

"You can't live in a townhouse and have a neighbor next door to you who is [in violation of] overcrowding [ordinances] and not know about it," Denkeli said. There are four active complaints in her neighborhood filed with the town's zoning enforcement office, and two which were recently processed, she said.

"There are a lot of people who are very upset about it," she added. "If you drive through our neighborhood, you'd see eight houses for sale … I would not say that it's common to see that many houses for sale in our area."

Problems associated with excessive occupancy have included an increased number of cars parked in neighborhood lots, loitering and drinking in public areas and improper removal of garbage.

"There's one of the houses, they throw their trash right off the deck and onto the ground in the backyard," Denkeli said. "At that point we're concerned about health problems … and the possibility of rats."

It's becoming increasingly difficult trying to deal on a personal level with residents, Denkeli and Rudine said.

"When you go out there and try to explain to them that they can't park their car in a certain spot, they'll just look at you and say 'no English,'" Denkeli said.

"The language barrier has prevented any interaction we may have had whatsoever," Rudine said. "As the population is changing, I seem to be the only person that cares anything about" excessive occupancy.

A RAPID CHANGE to an area that has been more or less ethnically static for several decades plays a major role in residents' perceptions and concerns about their communities, said Norma Lopez, interim executive director of the Hispanic Committee of Virginia a non-profit social service agency based in Falls Church.

Her organization works to help new immigrants to the United States — including day laborers — with purchasing homes and learning to live in the United States through language and cultural education.

"I think it’s an overwhelming fact that there’s been a major increase of immigration in the area and residents are seeing a different culture and a different language in their neighborhoods," Lopez said. "If you live in a neighborhood for a long time and you have a certain idea of how things are," a change can be difficult to handle.

A lack of understanding of social norms of the United States paired with a language barrier has caused a rift between some residents and their immigrant neighbors, she said.

"I think the perception is more negative from the U.S. born because the Latinos around here, they come from different cultures and different backgrounds," Lopez added. "There are a lot of etiquettes that ruffle our feathers as Americans … and they might not always understand that."

Concerns such as improper maintenance are most likely the result of a lack of money, Lopez said. Loitering on public property and in front of homes is also the product of an immigrant population without much disposable income, regardless of their country or origin, according to Lopez.

"In the summer it gets hot, they don’t have central air, they don’t have money to go on vacation, so they spend their free time in parks and playing soccer," she said. "I’m sure that’s true about every immigrant group, that if you went back you would see the immigrants from Germany and Ireland hanging out on the street and in public areas."

For Lopez, the answer is education.

"I think it’s a matter of explaining to them that this is not good, this does not reflect good on our community," she said. "It all comes down to education for the community … and being told not to do certain things."

BUT SOME HAVE tied what they believe to be a rising potential for crime with an increase in overcrowding violations.

While Denkeli said that she doesn't believe that there's a rising crime problem in her neighborhood, Rudine said that he is convinced that with further cases of possible excessive occupancy violations comes the threat of gang violence and drug sales, among other serious crimes.

"A lot of [residents' concerns] have to do with what goes on at night … the partying, the running around the neighborhood drunk," Rudine said. He pointed out that despite what he called a recent downturn in crime, the threat of gangs and drug dealers is higher with houses with large numbers of people living in them.

While the Herndon Police Department does not officially match up numbers of criminal complaints with ongoing investigations of overcrowding by town zoning enforcement officials, a clear link between overcrowding concerns and a rising crime rate does not appear to exist, according to police officials.

"While we're investigating something we might see the signs of overcrowding and we'll report that," said Lt. Ron Thunman, a former watch commander for the Herndon Police Department and member of the Neighborhood Enforcement Team, the police liaison with the Department of Zoning Enforcement. "But this doesn't happen very often … the number of cases of potential overcrowding we see is relatively minute in terms of the vast number of investigations we conduct."

Toussaint Summers, chief of the Herndon Police Department, said that while he could not say definitively that crime wasn't tied to excessive occupancy cases as he has not examined the statistics, he believed the two were not related.

"Is it possible that crimes can occur at a house that's overcrowded? Yes," Summers said. "But overcrowding more results in concern with … things like too many cars being parked on the streets."

Overcrowding concerns, Summers added, were primarily viewed by the police department as health and fire safety issues.

Summers said that a clear picture of any correlation between the two would be difficult, considering that Herndon has such a small annual number of serious crimes.

Thunman said that he suspected the belief of rising crime was more based in incorrect perceptions of people with a lower income level.

"I think one of the things causing overcrowding is the ridiculously high real estate levels," Thunman said. "It's a matter of dollars and cents and the cost of living is just so high that people need to rent out extra rooms sometimes just to make their mortgage."

"I think there's ideas and there's reality, and the reality is that these are just people who are trying to make their mortgage a lot of the time."

FOR RUDINE, the problem of excessive occupancy is one that is synonymous with an underlying problem of illegal immigration in the United States.

"In the research I'm doing, many many communities throughout the country are faced with the same issues we have with immigration and overcrowding," Rudine said.

"It's hard to predict where Herndon's going, but if the trend continues, in my estimation it'll look just like downtown [Washington] D.C.," he said. "I've seen Kansas City affected by the black community, I've seen some respectable areas just go down to slums."

Making another wide, slow turn onto Patrick Lane from Alabama Drive, Rudine points out four piles of dried out tree branches about six feet tall each surrounding an aging one-story house.

"Right there, that house, we just got them out for overcrowding," he said. "We'll see who gets in there next."