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Progressive Voice: Learning Lessons from the Serrano Debacle

Progressive Voice is a biweekly column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

By Alice Hogan

For the past few years, there have been ongoing, serious problems with property management, resident services, and health and safety at the Serrano Apartments on Columbia Pike, which finally came to the public eye this spring.

We are witnessing the real-world consequences of poor management and poor accountability with the Serrano case. At stake are the well-being of our neighbors, the public perception of the county as it responds, the reputation of the Serrano owner, and, indeed, the community’s support of Arlington’s affordable housing programming.

My hope is that this situation will not adversely impact our county’s response to the growing need for housing that is affordable for low/medium-wage earners, seniors and residents with disabilities. The data show many Arlingtonians are in desperate need of affordable housing options.

  • How can we use the Serrano experience as an opportunity to improve owner management and property maintenance?

Property maintenance is the responsibility of building owners and their management staff, not the county, which is one of the lenders. However, the county has an interest in living conditions being adequate and appropriate at every property that receives any type of county funding. Indeed, it has a moral and fiduciary responsibility to ensure that taxpayer dollars are well invested so that all CAF residents are living in safe and decent housing.

The 2013 purchase of the Serrano was atypical because the financing package did not include federal tax credits to which substantial oversight and reporting requirements are attached and its acquisition did not budget for an immediate rehabilitation, leaving the property vulnerable to many of the problems that have emerged in the interim.

In the wake of the Serrano fiasco, county housing staff is conducting a capital needs assessment of its entire CAF portfolio to provide recommendations for major maintenance projects at the many aging properties that house our 8,000+ CAFs.

The county can also protect its affordable housing investments by requiring all future CAF purchase agreements to include adequate budgeting for anticipated building needs, regardless of funding sources. Furthermore, to protect our investments and ensure decent housing, all county affordable housing loans should require annual, third-party inspections for public review of the physical property and financial performance of CAFs.

  • What can we learn from the Serrano tenants’ experience that can strengthen county oversight of Arlington’s growing portfolio of Committed Affordable Units?

Does Arlington’s growing affordable housing program have sufficient and appropriate staff? Currently, the responsibility for overseeing Arlington’s housing programs is dispersed among several government departments, including Housing, Planning and Human Services. Since housing affordability is a priority for the County Board, should this collaboration be streamlined into a single Housing Team that reports to the County Manager? And/or should certain oversight tasks be contracted out to specialized consultants? The county might benefit from studying how comparable jurisdictions operate their housing programs.

  • How do we ensure the burden doesn’t fall on tenants to advocate for the services they expect and are paying for?

At the Serrano, regular work sessions with participation from the County Board and staff, residents, advocates and Serrano owner and management representatives, should continue until property issues are resolved.

The county should also assess the organizational governance of its affordable housing partners to determine how they listen to tenants’ voices. It should ensure our partners effectively take tenants’ needs and concerns into account when conducting business and delivering services through annual and public tenant satisfaction surveys at each CAF property.

Let’s ask these and more questions, listen carefully and move forward, using the lessons learned from the Serrano crisis, to make Arlington’s affordable housing program as efficient, accountable and resident-centered as possible.

Alice Hogan holds a Master’s in Social Work, with a focus on affordable housing and social justice and is a member of Arlington’s Citizens Advisory Commission on Housing. She is a native Arlingtonian who resides in Westover with her husband and their two teenagers.

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