Units in the Serrano Apartments, a high-rise housing complex on Columbia Pike, have three things going for them: they are spacious, have nice views, and are affordable.
“But if you go inside those units, the reality is totally different,” said Janeth Valenzuela, who has been advocating for better living conditions for Serrano tenants for two years.
Mice and rat infestations. Balconies with broken glass and rust. Dirty HVAC units with water damage underneath. Shoddy maintenance.
These are just some of the problems inside the 280-unit apartment building at 5535 Columbia Pike, not just according to Valenzuela, but also the Arlington NAACP, immigrant and tenants’ rights group BU-GATA, interfaith clergy group VOICE Arlington, and the Asian American Pacific Islander Civic Engagement (ACE) Collaborative.
“It’s sickening,” said NAACP President Julius “JD” Spain. “This is a dereliction of duty and someone needs to be held accountable.”
Two weeks ago, Spain and the NAACP Housing Committee Chair Kellen MacBeth walked through a handful of apartment units, taking pictures of the conditions. They wrote a letter to County Manager Mark Schwartz detailing the conditions and asking Schwartz to assign staff to work with tenants, rehabilitate the units and rewrite policy so all residents have safe, decent and affordable homes.
“We observed severe problems that suggest a culture of deferred maintenance and underinvestment in the property during our walk-through,” the letter said.
The walk-through, however, was a tipping point after two years of work behind the scenes to help tenants.
“We are tired because there’s no light at the end of the tunnel,” Valenzuela said. “It’s pure injustice.”
Under new management
The Serrano Apartments are owned by AHC Inc., an Arlington-based affordable housing developer, which acquired the building in 2014 in partnership with Arlington County. Since then, the nonprofit has spent millions of dollars making improvements. The building has 196 committed affordable units and 84 market-rate units, according to AHC.
AHC is aware of the issues raised by the community organizations and has been working hard on them “for a while now,” said spokeswoman Celia Slater. One of its most recent changes was to hire a new management company, which “is very good at customer service and has an excellent track record.”
According to county spokeswoman Erika Moore, the county required that switch based on the conditions at the property.
Elder Julio Basurto, who has worked with Valenzuela these last two years, said the management change is the result of advocacy.
“It’s not something AHC has done on their own,” he said, adding that “there are a lot of things that are still not right.”
The management company, which started in February, told AHC it will take about six months before the building’s issues get in order, she said. Already, Slater tallied 586 work orders, of which 39 had to do with pests like bugs and rodents.
“We’ve made a lot of progress since they’ve started, but we know there are still issues to address,” Slater said.
This month, 100% of the vents and convectors will be cleaned again by the end of May, she said.
“Many tenants appreciate the new management but they believe that just because there’s a new management it does not mean the root problems are solved,” said Maryam Mustafa, a community organizer with ACE.
Saul Reyes, executive director of BU-GATA, said the Serrano is an old building with lots of issues exacerbated by deferred maintenance.
“We’ve been working with residents, resolving their individual issues with management, making sure work orders get done to tenant satisfaction,” he said. “Part of the problem is that the issues are so extensive and take so long to resolve that residents get frustrated.”
While the new management company works to get things under control, Slater said AHC is working to build trust with residents. The organization established an on-site residents services office with a bilingual manager, started distributing more than 100 meals a week, and has hosted a pop-up vaccination clinic.
“We care about the people in the community and we want to do all we can to make sure their living environment is up to our standards,” Slater said.
But a big problem is communication, she said, alleging that residents are not telling AHC what is going on.
Advocates say a lack of communications from residents is not the full story.
They said immigrants will tolerate bad conditions for longer but when people have articulated concerns, they are sometimes met with inaction or disrespect, making them unlikely to speak up again.
“Many families just accept that their apartments are full of rodents and cockroaches and are shy and embarrassed to even bring it up to the office especially because they believe that it is just the way it is and that the office won’t take action,” Mustafa said.
Mustafa said the East African and Pakistani tenants she spoke to also reported broken-down elevators that smelled of urine, as well as a lack of support from management.
“When a family returned from a trip back home to Pakistan, they found their whole apartment filled with crushed up and empty beer cans and their property stolen,” she said. “There was nothing left. When they complained to the office, they did not do anything about it. They did not hold anyone accountable for a broken window of their car as well.”
AHC has been embroiled in a similar situation before, five years ago, when residents spoke out about conditions at The Shelton, in Arlington’s historically Black Green Valley neighborhood. Now, the NAACP is asking for more county oversight, in the form of new policies and additional staff, to fix the conditions at the Serrano Apartments.
Arlington has a half-dozen staff who conduct inspections, field complaints, and train residents on tenant rights and responsibilities, said Moore, the county spokeswoman. Three are native Spanish speakers.
These inspections encompass monitoring the incomes of people living in affordable housing units as well as walking through common areas and a sample of units at most of the properties each year, she said, while noting that inspections were virtual during the pandemic.
“All properties are reviewed several times annually through audited financial and budget reviews, as well as through inspections and tenant compliance reviews,” Moore said. “If issues are noted, staff discuss the issues and recommendations with property management and owners. If staff cites concerns about overall property condition, they may share information about available funding to complete future renovations.”
Several people plan to speak on the Serrano Apartments during the Housing Commission meeting tonight (Thursday) at 7 p.m., Spain said. The meeting, which is being conducted virtually, is set to include discussion of a “subordination agreement” related to the Serrano Apartments.
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