|Complaints about this house in the Lincolnia area were filed last week about multiple occupancy and building code violations.|
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.