County Board Drills Into AHC About Serrano Apartments Conditions

County Board members demanded AHC Inc. answer for the deteriorating conditions at the Serrano Apartments and to convince them it will actually fix things during their meeting on Tuesday.

The discussion happened as county staff outlined the flurry of work at the property. Separately, the Board voted 5-0 to enter into an agreement allowing AHC to refinance its loan for the apartments through a new lender before its current loan expires in less than two months.

This loan agreement is urgently needed, according to a staff presentation. If in two months lenders foreclosed on the property, the bank would repossess the Serrano, lifting the affordability restrictions and displacing residents. But some people are worried that preventing AHC from defaulting runs counter to the need to hold the organization accountable.

Elder Julio Basurto, a member of the Arlington Schools Hispanic Parents Association, said he has watched the building at 5535 Columbia Pike crumble under AHC. He urged the county “to stop feeding the monster that AHC has become,” a monster that “sucks the life out of the ones they vowed to help.”

Former school board member Tannia Talento read the signs residents brought — pleas to be heard and protected.

“Don’t forget about us,” she said, saying it again in Spanish. “No se olviden de nosotros.”

Board members explained that allowing AHC to refinance will lock it into a new agreement and force it to make improvements.

“The easy way out for AHC would be to be in a position where they defaulted on a loan and ended up with a foreclosure,” Board member Christian Dorsey said. “They could wipe their hands of it and move on, they could walk away leaving in their wake devastation and despair, leaving people in limbo. Accountability is being engaged with the long-term process to return the Serrano to the level of quality the residents expect.”

AHC has two loans to pay off: a primary loan to a private lender and a subordinate loan to the county through the Affordable Housing Investment Fund. The new lender requires AHC to agree to prioritize repaying the private loan before the county loan, something that required a county vote.

This loan acts like a bridge until 2024, when AHC intends to use Low-Income Housing Tax Credits to finance a full renovation of the property. The county says it will work with AHC to develop a renovation plan.

In recent weeks the county has conducted 150 code violation apartment walkthroughs, put up people in hotels and shared information about various resources they can use, said Housing Director Anne Venezia.

AHC is also keeping busy and finding ways to repay tenants, according to a letter from the Board of Directors.

It is waiving certain fees and returning security deposits for those who relocate and, for those who have been displaced, providing $200 gift cards and waiving utility payments. It reduced July rent by $200 for all tenants.

Board Chair Matt de Ferranti reiterated the responsibility he feels for the conditions of the Serrano and apologized to the residents who were signed up to speak but had to go home due to the late hour — caused in part by an hour-long discussion about a new farmers market’s start time.

De Ferranti called for another update next month and told AHC it, not the county, should bear the brunt of the hotel stays and relocation costs.

“I would submit that we would not be in this situation if care had been taken over the past two years,” he said.  “The right thing to do is that the large majority of relocation costs should be covered by AHC and not by the county.”

Some Board members expressed frustration that this conversation mirrors similar discussions over the past two years with AHC. Dorsey said he met with AHC in 2019 about the same problems at the Serrano and, at the time, heard similar remedies.

“Where we are now is not only where we should’ve been two years ago but where I thought we were two years ago,” he said. “Make me understand, tell it to me like I’m a six-year-old, why even the circumstances haven’t changed.”

A long pause.

“Are you looking for a comment?” AHC Board of Directors Chair Robert Bushkoff said.

“I really am. It wasn’t a rhetorical question,” Dorsey said.

Bushkoff responded that the county “can choose to have faith or you can choose not to have faith” in AHC because “we can’t change history. All we can change is what’s going to happen going forward.”

Other representatives added that leadership changes — from getting a new management company for the Serrano Apartments to a new interim CEO for AHC after the nonprofit’s long-time CEO suddenly retired — have been important.

County Board member Katie Cristol said she too brought complaints of mold and dirty convectors to AHC one year ago and was told the issues were resolved.

“It took me way too long to realize that the assurances I got from them were untruths,” she said. “I have to say that I think the AHC board is in the same position the board has been — we have been given incomplete information, we’ve been lied to by omission.”

Advocates, meanwhile, expressed skepticism of a subordination agreement that does not require AHC to fix the physical conditions today, according to a letter from Housing Commission Chair Eric Berkey.

Berkey added on social media that the Serrano seemingly only become a county priority after ARLnow published its initial article about problems at the complex.

A local faith-based group that has long tried to bring attention to poor conditions at the Serrano was also skeptical of AHC and the county’s newfound urgency to fix the issues.

“The county has entrusted [AHC] with a sacred duty to safeguard and provide for the least among us, to give dignity and value to the people the world says — and it seems like [AHC says] — don’t matter,” said Rev. Pete Nunnally, representing Virginians Organized for Interfaith Community Engagement (VOICE). “The underlying question is this: Do you value the lives of the poor as much as you value your own life? Do you value the children who live in the Serrano as much as you value your own children?”

VOICE members, worried about the lack of requirements in the refinancing agreement, recommended several measures to strengthen county oversight: regular progress reports, monthly county meetings with residents, reparations for residents, an agreement to publish all AHC reports for public discussion and a resolution to deny funds for future projects until there is progress at the Serrano.

Reparations would help at least one resident, Bob Gerhard, who told ARLnow he has moved to a second hotel and is now looking for a place of his own. He even started his own GoFundMe campaign.

Gerhard is particularly concerned for elderly, disabled residents who were placed at the Serrano despite the county having been informed of the health and safety issues there.

“No one steps up for them,” he said previously. “Meetings are fine but nothing gets done for weeks or months.”

Berkey, meanwhile, said the Housing Commission is looking to create a new subcommittee with the county’s Tenant-Landlord Commission. The subcommittee would be charged with investigating why existing compliance measures “failed to prevent these damaging physical conditions from manifesting and continuing.”