x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Arabs worry as Dearborn eyes garage rule

Officials in the Detroit suburb of Dearborn – home to nearly 100,000 Arab-American residents – are looking at changing a municipal by-law that will ban people from using their garages as extra living spaces.

Mariam Khalaf, left, and her neighbour, Muheeb Nabulsy in Orchard Street, Dearborn.  Both have added sliding doors to their garages and use them like patios.
Mariam Khalaf, left, and her neighbour, Muheeb Nabulsy in Orchard Street, Dearborn. Both have added sliding doors to their garages and use them like patios.

DEARBORN, MichIGAN // As early summer days on Orchard Street draw to a close, sliding doors open, inviting fresh air and neighbours into side-by-side garages.

More of a patio than a parking place or a storage for power tools, Mariam Khalaf said her garage is primarily for "chilling purposes" - including smoking, eating and watching TV with family and friends, including next-door neighbours Muheeb Nabulsy and his wife, Fatima Mkkawi.

Ms Khalaf and Mr Nabulsy say gathering in their east-side garages never invited scrutiny until they installed the sliding doors last year in front of the more traditional electric ones. Now, officials in the Detroit suburb are looking at changing a municipal by-law on garage use, arguing that as people get a little too comfortable hanging out in the garage, more cars are clogging side streets.

Many who've made the unsanctioned transition are among Dearborn's nearly 100,000 Arab-American residents, one of the largest such communities outside of the Middle East and a third of the city's population. The garages are a continuation of marathon socialising sessions that started many years ago in their home countries under shady trees, often accompanied by coffee and shisha pipes.

"They migrated over time to the garage as an extension of the living place, and here comes the complaint from people who don't have that as part of their tradition," said Nabeel Abraham, a Dearborn resident and an instructor and administrator at a Dearborn community college. "I think it's a class, ethnic reaction."

Not so, say Dearborn officials, who say the tightening of the by-law isn't meant to target Arabs or anyone else. They don't want the garages, which they contend aren't built to the same standards as the rest of a home, to become "habitable" places for cooking or sleeping.

They say the structures aren't meant to be living spaces, so building permits can't be issued to convert them. That conversion, city spokeswoman Mary Laundroche said, is not only illegal but also isn't inspected for safety.

Ms Khalaf and Mr Nabulsy attended a meeting this spring to explain what they do in their garages - and what they don't. They were each issued citations last summer and the doors were inspected, though their court challenges are ongoing.

The interiors of their garages resemble patios outfitted with furniture, TVs and tile floors, but also incorporate storage areas typical of any garage.

Mr Nabulsy said he and his wife no longer wanted to smoke inside their home but liked having fresh air, a street view and protection from insects and the elements, so they installed their own.

But both said they received "stop-work orders" and visits by a city inspector. Mr Nabulsy said an inspector came twice and saw nothing objectionable, but he hasn't yet received a permit.

What any new by-law will say is unclear. A city lawyer is still working on a draft of the revision, which is expected to be ready for consideration by the city's planning commission at its July 8 meeting. An early version prohibited sliding doors and tile floors.

What's tricky is how to define "living space."

"I think your home is your home," said commission Chairman Gary Errigo. "There was someone who spoke who said they're sitting in their garage in a lounge chair and a police car drives by and they pack up their chair and run inside. It shouldn't be like that, and it's not like that."

Mr Errigo uses his garage for his passions: car collecting and art. And he knows of many - Arabs and non-Arabs - who do the same.

"The garage ordinance currently says you have to be able to park your car into your garage. Well, there's a lot of folks who just can't do that. Not because they live in their garage, but because they have stuff. ... Man caves, and that kind of thing - this is the era we're in."

Mr Errigo doesn't think having a spare refrigerator in the garage is a problem, but he doesn't want the structures to become crash pads or places where meals are prepared. In that case, they should be evaluated and taxed accordingly.

If the by-law is approved by the planning commission, the city council will have the final say.

Mr Abraham said city officials will have to ensure that any changes are enforced evenly and fairly across ethnic, class and neighbourhood lines.

"What's the difference between sitting together and smoking an argileh or cigar and having tea, or having a homemade brew?" said Mr Abraham, who doesn't have a garage hangout. "This town has a law for everything and anything - [it] needs to loosen up a little bit.