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Peter’s Take: Arlington Must Act Now to Help All Tenants at AHC’s Serrano Apartments

Peter’s Take is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

The Arlington County government urgently must act to help ALL tenants at AHC’s Serrano apartments who wish to move.

ARLnow.com exposé

In a May 6 exposé, ARLnow.com reported on deplorable conditions at The Serrano — an affordable housing complex at 5535 Columbia Pike, financed with Arlington taxpayer dollars, and managed by the Arlington Housing Corporation (AHC).

ARLnow revealed numerous health and safety issues, including:

“Mice and rat infestation. Balconies with broken glass and rust. Dirty HVAC units with water damage underneath. Shoddy maintenance.”

Housing Commission recommendations

After ARLnow published, the Arlington Housing Commission held a hearing focused on The Serrano’s long-standing maintenance problems.

Subsequently, the Commission sent a scorching letter to the County Board Chair, including these recommended corrective actions:

  • Immediate Safety of Residents: County staff should conduct an immediate analysis of the ventilation system and rodent infestation. Should the County determine that any units are not currently habitable, County staff should work with affected residents to relocate them to new units, including but not limited to using County financial resources to assist them.
  • Review of AHC Properties: County staff … should begin a review of other AHC properties within the county … to determine if a more thorough review of AHC’s property management policies, procedures, and practices is warranted.
  • Future Development Agreements with AHC: County staff should consider taking into account the failures of AHC … in maintaining their properties when reviewing any future proposals for development and/or County assistance.
  • Sufficient Resources for CAF Oversight: The County Manager should prepare a recommendation to the County Board to increase resources dedicated to code enforcement, compliance, and tenant assistance to address the issues at AHC.

County government appears to have begun to take some of these actions, but has promised help only to those Serrano tenants who are receiving additional federal or local housing rent subsidies (Section 8, housing grants or supportive housing grants), not ALL Serrano tenants who wish to move.

How and why we got here

County government has known about serious maintenance problems at The Serrano and other AHC properties for many years, but County government has failed to take effective steps to fix those problems.

The minutes from a 2018 Tenant-Landlord Commission meeting are illustrative:

Ms. Spencer a resident of Serrano apartments suggested that attention should be given to evictions at affordable housing properties to see the pattern and determine whether there was a problem, and if specific policies may be needed to address this.

BU-GATA reports… in conversations with AHC concerning various properties… issues are primarily, customer service, frequent staff turn-over, violation notices, building maintenance issues across several properties. [M]eetings [should] be reinstated to hear from tenants, for example at Harvey Hall, Gates of Ballston.

But well prior to the pandemic, the County was very solicitous of AHC’s financial health.

County government reduced the interest on at least two AHC loans (AHIF, HOME and CDBG) because AHC was not making a sufficient return. Examples are here, and here (Berkeley/AHC, Shelton/AHC and Cameron Commons/APAH: interest rate reduced).

The County’s loss of this interest income reduced the amount of capital being returned to the AHIF revolving loan fund.

Are The Serrano’s latest maintenance problems (and those at other AHC properties) entirely due to pandemic-related temporary cash flow issues? Or is AHC using the pandemic as a pretext to shirk its ongoing maintenance obligations while five AHC executives make more than $200K annually? How much in terms of rent nonpayment (if any) has AHC itself absorbed?

Conclusion

County government’s cozy relationship with AHC may be root cause of The Serrano debacle.

AHC may be allowing its older properties to deteriorate so it can then claim that it is “too expensive” to renovate them. Moreover, razing and replacing older buildings may be more lucrative in terms of charging development fees, etc. Ongoing maintenance problems at AHC buildings have occurred at least since the 1990s–when market-rate tenants called the Gates of Ballston (then, the Gates of Arlington) the “Gates of Hell.”

County government must address this chronic problem and ensure that these assets — subsidized by taxpayers — are kept continuously in a safe and reasonable condition.

Peter Rousselot previously served as Chair of the Fiscal Affairs Advisory Commission (FAAC) to the Arlington County Board and as Co-Chair of the Advisory Council on Instruction (ACI) to the Arlington School Board. He is also a former Chair of the Arlington County Democratic Committee (ACDC) and a former member of the Central Committee of the Democratic Party of Virginia (DPVA). He currently serves as a board member of the Together Virginia PAC, a political action committee dedicated to identifying, helping and advising Democratic candidates in rural Virginia.

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