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Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Code compliance officials address multiple-occupancy complaints

Complaints about this house in the Lincolnia area were filed last week about multiple occupancy and building code violations.
Most complaints filed with the Fairfax County Department of Code Compliance are about multiple occupancy, said county officials at a meeting for civic association and homeowner association presidents March 22 hosted by Mason Supervisor Penny Gross.

A household is allowed to have up to four unrelated occupants or a family plus two renters. Some of the clues that a house has been turned into an illegal boarding house include separate apartments with labels such as “unit B,” coin-operated washing machines, separate exterior doors, multiple mailboxes, and a separate dwelling unit with a kitchen, said Jeff Blackford, director of the Department of Code Compliance.

Homeowners are allowed to have more than one kitchen, but cannot have a “second dwelling unit,” said Victoria Dzierzek, an investor with the department. To be considered a separate unit, it must have four elements: a food preparation area, sleeping area, bathroom, and living room.

After a complaint is filed, Dzierzek said it takes about four days for an inspector to check out the property. If the inspector doesn’t find a problem, the case is closed.

Relationships hard to prove

Occupants voluntarily let inspectors inside about 90 percent of the time. Code inspectors don’t have the legal right to force their way in, ask to see occupants’ mail, or ask for an ID.

If a property is cited for multiple occupancy, the department gives the owner 30 days to comply. If the problem is not resolved, it goes to the county attorney’s office for litigation, which could take as long as a year. Homeowners found to be in violation could be fined and jailed for up to 10 days.

“I admire the due diligence” taken by Mason residents in reporting violations, Blackford said. Mason has the most complaints, and he said that’s because the citizens here are the most active.

But several people in the audience expressed frustration that they had filed numerous complaints but haven’t seen anything change.

A survey by the Mason District Council found most residents believe filing a complaint is a waste of time because nothing happens, said Debbie Smith of the Ravenwood Park community who serves on the MDC board. Similar concerns were expressed at an MDC town hall meeting on code compliance issues last month. Smith said residents want the county to be more proactive about going after violators.

“The Department of Code Compliance is complaint driven, said Blackford. “We can’t generate our own complaints. We don’t want to be accused of selective enforcement. We don’t want to be accused of targeting people based on ethnicity or religion.”

The Code Compliance Department is doing a great job, but “they’re never going to make it perfect for everybody,” said Gross. “Property owners have to meet minimum standards, not maximum standards.”

“People are frustrated. They don’t file complaints because they are afraid of retaliation,” Smith added.

People are allowed to file complaints anonymously, Dzierzek responded, but that can be a problem if the caller doesn’t give enough information and code inspectors don’t have the caller’s contact information and thus can’t follow up. She assured the audience that county officials are not allowed to tell the person being investigated who complained.

A member of the audience said he had complained numerous times about a multiple occupancy case. He said he knows for a fact that the residents aren’t related, but they claim that they are.

It’s difficult to determine if people are related, Dzierzek said. “We have to have proof” that residents are not related before the county takes them to court, and that is sometimes hard to demonstrate.

Gross noted that there was a multiple-occupancy complaint on her street that was filed four times, but the inspector couldn’t prove that the residents weren’t related. “We exhausted every avenue. There are times when you have to let it go,” she said. Otherwise you “cross the line into harassment.”

Abatement plans required

The Code Compliance Department also cites property owners for violations that deal with building codes, unmowed grass, hoarding, fire hazards, parking on the grass, inoperable vehicles, noise, excessive outdoor storage, and a business operated in a residence.

A resident of an Annandale condominium said he’d filed complaints about a house on McWhorter Place  with up to 19 cars in the yard. The owner of the house reportedly runs a business repairing vehicles and having them shipped abroad.

Certain kinds of signs on private property are banned, including banners, portable signs, electronic signs with moving copy, and people holding signs. Dzierzek says the Department of Code Compliance is working with the Office of Community Revitalization on a brochure on the sign codes and plans to meet with businesses to educate them about the rules.

If inspectors find building code violations, they issue a corrective work order that gives the owner a certain number of days to comply, Dzierzek said. Fire marshals can issue a summons on the spot, and code inspectors can get a warrant for an immediate inspection is there is imminent danger.

A house in “extreme derelict” condition can be designated a blighted property. When that happens, there’s a long process calling for the owner to develop an abatement plan. The owner is given numerous attempts to achieve compliance. If that doesn’t happen, the Board of Supervisors can have the house torn down and the owner billed for the demolition cost. 

The department gets about 200 complaints about hoarding annually, and many of them come from family members, Blackford said. Hoarding becomes a problem when “there is so much stuff, it impairs the ability to live in a house,” he said. There have been cases where residents had to sleep in their car because there was no room in the house. Animal hoarding happens too, but is much rarer.

Homeowners can be cited if their grass is taller than 12 inches. If the owner doesn’t cut the grass, the county can have it mowed and charge the owner.

Dzierzek said permits are required for new structures, additions, demolition, and changes in the plumbing and electrical systems.

A lot of people probably don’t know this but you need an inspection any time you replace an appliance running on gas, such as a stove or hot water heater. If you don’t have a permit and it blows up, your insurance won’t cover the damage. It’s a safety issue, too.

Blackford noted there was a fatality in Fairfax County a few weeks ago due to carbon monoxide in a home. There were also news reports about a carbon monoxide leak caused by a faulty furnace in an apartment on Leesburg Pike in Seven Corners March 24 that sent 19 people to the hospital.

23 comments:

  1. Blackford said: “We can’t generate our own complaints. We don’t want to be accused of selective enforcement. We don’t want to be accused of targeting people based on ethnicity or religion.”
    Wait a minute...since when is it a citizen's job to ensure a law is enforced? Isn't this what we pay our taxes for? If police adopted this philosophy there would be very few speeding tickets written and no DUI checkpoints!!!!

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    1. Exactly.

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    2. I am pretty sure there is an entire range of traffic complaints, such as motorists passing cyclists too closely, harassing pedestrians, etc where enforcement only takes place due to a citizen complaint (or an accident.) Thats life. I am pretty sure that most quality of life type issues, like unshoveled sidewalks, etc are by citizen complaint only. And I would think anyplace where there is a problem with occupancy, a citizen would complain.

      But all the problems and delays with enforcement listed above, would still apply if the County initiated the investigations without a citizen complaint.

      Essentially people will live where they can afford to - the attempt to exclude the poor by code enforcement is doomed to failure. You can either provide somewhere better for the poor to live by providing better affordable units, or you can upgrade the area enough to induce owners to change their strategy (and in the case of garden apt complexes, to redevelop)

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    3. We really don't care who lives next door - but laws are laws. The type of quality of life issues such as "shoveling" - are not at issue here. It is the fabric of neighborhoods being threatened due to over-crowding, lack of property maintenance, and failure to join in and play an active role in the community.

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    4. It's a case of "see something, say something." Public officials cannot be expected to shoulder all the burden. It's a shared responsibility.

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    5. As I said, if you don't want "overcrowding" you need to provide affordable housing for poor people some other way. When other ways are proposed, they also elicit resistance. And of course its impossible to force people to play an active role in the community - and lots of people in "uncrowded" units do not. And "laws are laws" is meaningless - all kinds of laws are effectively unenforced, from those banning use of pot, to those requiring drivers to use their turn signals. And many laws, of course, are only enforced after a citizen complaint.

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    6. "The type of quality of life issues such as "shoveling" - are not at issue here."

      Why not? I walk in Annandale, and failure to shovel a sidewalk is a hardship for me, which can force me to walk in the street, endangering my life. By contrast, when I lived where there was an illegal boarding house across the street, I had no issues with the residents whatsoever. They were quiet and avoided making any kind of scene. If a law is a law, then we should hold a law that makes it possible to walk safely in winter as high in importance as one regulating maximum occupancy.

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    7. Fairfax County has NO requirements that walks must be shoveled. Period.

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    8. Responding to:
      “I am pretty sure there is an entire range of traffic complaints, such as motorists passing cyclists too closely, harassing pedestrians, etc where enforcement only takes place due to a citizen complaint (or an accident.) Thats life. I am pretty sure that most quality of life type issues, like unshoveled sidewalks, etc are by citizen complaint only.”
      No argument with that. The problem is when citizen complaints are the primary or only means by which enforcement is initiated. Citizen complaints are useful for supplementing the enforcement agencies awareness but to use it as the primary, and in the case of our Department of Code Compliance virtually the only way enforcement is initiated is a little insane.
      “And I would think any place where there is a problem with occupancy, a citizen would complain.”
      A recent survey of Mason District reveals that about 45% of those with complaints don’t file a complaint one because they have no confidence in the DCC, 35% are afraid they will be subject to retaliation. Complaints that don’t get filed for those reasons will continue to tell all wannabe violators “go ahead and do what you want, we have no zoning laws here.” This will of course result in many more violations etc. Successfully filing a complaint with the DCC is not fun and many more who should don’t file complaints because they don’t know how or get discouraged when they try. The results in Mason District prove beyond any reasonable doubt that a complaint driven system is a system doomed to fail.

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    9. “Essentially people will live where they can afford to - the attempt to exclude the poor by code enforcement is doomed to failure. You can either provide somewhere better for the poor to live by providing better affordable units, or you can upgrade the area enough to induce owners to change their strategy (and in the case of garden apt complexes, to redevelop)”
      Code enforcement is not about excluding the poor; it is very much about the rule of reasoned law, due process and preventing commercial interests from stealing equity and quality of life from the working class. The violators commit this theft by illegally converting their residential neighborhoods into commercial properties for their personal profit. For the vast majority of the working class, their homes are not only where they raise their families it is their most important investment, often their only major investment, and their means of financing post-secondary education for their children. That is enough reason for families to be irate when outside financial interests create neighborhood destroying McMansions and their local government answers with a plan designed to fail, i.e. the Fairfax County Department of Code Compliance.
      But as to the plight of the poor, let me explain McMansions. The classic McMansion is a house way over sized relative to the neighborhood. It is designed to house as many people as possible to yield the greatest revenue stream possible. They are financed by dubious means, built to house super unsustainably low wage workers and often serve as their tenant’s 12-14 hour a day, starvation wage work place, not for the benefit of the poor but for the exploitation of the poor. For the benefit of despicable and unscrupulous owners who care nothing for the concerns and interests of the tenants or the working class. Their goal is to maximize revenue from each McMansion; they often have many, and operate them with no regard for our laws or any sense of common decency for anyone. Their rule of law is whatever they say it is. Their worker/tenants have no rights. It maybe a 7-11 manager who boards his employees and pockets most of their paychecks. It may be a human trafficker using men and women and children for slave labor and/or the sex trade. Legal immigrants may be required to hand over their passports, illegal immigrants will constantly face the threat of arrest and deportation if they don’t do exactly what the McMansion manager or owner tells them to do. The problem of McMansions is two and a half times greater in Mason District than the rest of Fairfax. What does that tell you? For a 2009 map of McMansions in Mason District: https://www.dropbox.com/s/l6g4vmlugh2q0nm/Mason%20District%20McMansions.JPG The outline is Mason District and most of the areas without McMansions are HOAs. Our Planning Commissioner lives in one. She too seems to think that people who are concerned about McMansions (and their proposed legal version substitute, RSUs) are silly people with silly concerns.
      The purpose of code enforcement is not to exclude the poor but to exclude the wealthy who want to exploit the poor and profit by commercializing residential neighborhoods. All of the real and viable solutions for accommodating and including the poor are solutions that do not require us to exploit the poor and disrespect working class neighborhoods. But we knew that.

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    10. This may be part of the story. But the popularity of larger-than-traditional middle class houses coincided with decades of rising property values and the aging of the original ranch houses. Also coincidental was active working class immigration to this area which continues. The causes of both immigration and high property values is the economic vitality of our region. Location, location, location.

      I'm glad that my Annandale property has maintained it's value, and though there is more of a working and lower class influence than there used to be and I agree that we should enforce regulations, I think we should be glad to take the rough with the smooth.

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    11. To add to your comment, and the addition of many more white vans!

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    12. Working class, it is more like a crapping class. Get a reality check; we went from being a bedroom community for federal workers to a migration camp for the desperate!

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    13. Mr. Clark has stated a large part of the problem, and it isn't just McMansions, it is any house, apartment, etc. which has too many people. Many think by allowing this, we are helping the poor, but we are only keeping prices out of their reach. Many of us, as someone else said, came from humble means, and we are not against the poor. We should not however, be punished for sacrificing to get where we have gotten, only to watch our investment go down the tubes.

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  2. The FFX County BOS should use this photo for an ad campaign to encourage people to come live in our lovely and dilapidated community.

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    1. Is this Poor Town USA or Fairfax County?

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    2. Fairfax county includes rich, middle and poor. Though that displeases some.

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    3. This statement is complacent BS! Many of us come from humble beginnings. That did not then and does not now entitle us not to give a crap. This is not about poor vs rich, this is about caring and respecting your neighbors and community; giving back whatever you can to make your neighborhood equitably livable, safe and a peaceful place to live.

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  3. I see Blackford is now adopting Gross' mantra of "we have the most complaints because we are the most active/intelligent." Love it.

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    1. Contending that Mason District just has more active citizens does not explain why county records report that Mason District has 2 1/2 times more McMansions that the average of the other districts in Fairfax.

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    2. We have the most complaints, because we have the most violations, and probably the most communities without HOAs.

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  4. This piece is a veritable documentation of Gross's failure in office and of our interests. "There are times when you just have to let it go" said Gross. Indeed, in Mason that is most times. Jeff McKay and John Cook would not "let it go", nor Herrity or Hudgins to name a few (of the Supervisors).

    Mason has the most complaints, and he said that’s because the citizens here are the most active.

    Rather it is because the Supervisor's focus it to "just let it go" and we have more violations than any other district because of her refusal to support enforcement of given ordinances. We must LET HER GO.

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    1. Bradford & Gross know all the reasons why they can't do anything (same reasons they gave five years ago). Has anyone ever heard them say they will make corrections where need to allow them to do the job? I haven't.

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