Rental charges prompt lawsuit

Del. town officials accused of targeting Hispanic residents

Inspection practices decried

January 21, 2002|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

GEORGETOWN, Del. - Nearly a year after Georgetown's mayor complained about a wave of Hispanic immigrants, landlords have gone to federal court, charging officials in this historic town with a campaign of harassment and discrimination.

The landlords, who insist the town has stepped up housing inspections by targeting houses and apartments rented by Hispanics, filed suit last month when the town tripled the yearly licensing fee for each rental unit from $50 to $150 - half the $300 fee the Town Council had considered.

"It just doesn't make good sense for the town to come in with a 200 percent increase in fees," says Ed Lester, who heads the Georgetown Property Owners Association.

The higher fee, landlords say, is likely to be passed along to those who can least afford it - low-income Hispanic renters. Hispanics account for at least one-third of the 4,643 population in this 210-year-old Sussex County seat, according to the 2000 census.

"This has gotten so bad that the inspectors started bringing video cameras along with them until one landlord had to call his attorney to make them turn off the camera," says landlord Donald J. McCann. "When they inspect a rental unit with Hispanic tenants six times in three years, and then there are others with American tenants that are never inspected, it's not hard to see what's going on."

In a small town where rental units account for half of all occupied properties, officials say the increased fee is vital if Georgetown is to cover higher costs for stricter code enforcement and a growing number of police calls, especially in Georgetown's larger apartment complexes.

"The problem is that no matter who comes out ahead in this lawsuit, the town is still facing the same problem - providing safe, clean housing for everybody," says Mayor Bob Ricker. "I've been a volunteer fireman for 26 years and the only thing I want out of this is safe housing."

Last year Ricker said the influx of Hispanic immigrants was dragging down the quality of life in southern Delaware.

Advocates for the growing Latin American population, lured here by plentiful jobs in Delmarva's poultry industry, acknowledge frequent clashes of cultures in the town, which lies within easy commuting distance of a half-dozen poultry plants and other large employers.

Mistrust and lingering resentment are never more apparent, they say, than at public meetings in Georgetown's restored town hall, where the audience divides - Hispanics on one side of the aisle, non-Hispanics on the other.

Some community activists question the motives of landlords who profit from rundown rental units while claiming to fight for the rights of tenants.

"If you've lived here all your life and all the sudden in the last 10 or 15 years the whole complexion of the town has changed, you're going to feel threatened," says Carl White, a counselor for Sussex County Community Crisis and Housing Services. "But this lawsuit came about because landlords don't want to be regulated, they don't want to be strong-armed by the town. There's nothing here that can't be worked out by rational people."

With rents soaring - up to $650 for a two-bedroom apartment and as much as $1,200 a month for a dilapidated three-bedroom house - building inspectors frequently report finding eight, 10 or more people crowded into one house or apartment.

For Victorino Lopez, who likes living in Georgetown because he can walk to work at the Perdue Farms plant in town, overcrowding is a fact of life in the rundown house he rents on the north end of town. With relatives and friends arriving frequently from Guatemala, he has little choice but to open his meager space to newcomers.

"That's the real problem in Georgetown: There aren't enough houses and apartments for people that are coming here," says Lopez. "People come here to work. There are jobs, but they have no place to live."

Town officials say that almost half the 308 rental units inspected by Georgetown's two-person code-enforcement office failed the first inspection. And since many renters have entered the country illegally, few are willing to challenge landlords or report violations.

"I think it's obvious that for a lot of people who grew up here, whose families have been here for generations, there's a sense that we have come in and taken over their town," says Lucia Campos, a housing counselor who helped form Hispano Unidos, a Hispanic advocacy group, last spring.

"As an organization, we are staying out of this lawsuit, but I don't see the argument that license fees will impact landlords as much as they say," Campos says. "What we need here is obvious: a need to provide a voice for a growing Hispanic population."

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