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Conditions at Serrano Apartments Continue to Improve, But Concerns Remain

Serrano Apartments (photo via Google Maps)

Work continues at the Serrano Apartments to improve living conditions for residents of the affordable housing complex.

Repair and maintenance work started in earnest after advocates brought to light the deteriorating conditions of the Columbia Pike complex in May. Since then, the County Board has kept tabs on housing nonprofit AHC Inc., which owns the building, and its commitment to make things right.

During the County Board meeting on Tuesday, members said they were pleased to see progress on the physical conditions in the complex. They were dissatisfied, however, with AHC’s communication efforts, after hearing reports from residents and advocates that communication gaps and “disrespectful” treatment persist.

“We’re in the middle, not at the end,” Board Chair Matt de Ferranti said. “I’m pleased with the micromanagement, candidly, but I think communication is absolutely critical.”

In a letter to the board, Housing Commission Chair Eric Berkey said the biggest strides have been removing the rodents and getting a handle on air quality issues.

“It is revealing that little of our September 9, 2021 meeting was dedicated to current physical conditions challenges,” he said.

Susan Cunningham, the interim CEO of AHC appointed after the previous head resigned, said rodent infestation is now down to just three apartments.

Meanwhile, about two dozen units will be abated for asbestos and condensation on cooling pipes. Testing by Arlington County confirmed there were no “systemic air quality issues in the building, no airborne asbestos or lead paint,” she said.

Of the 280 units in the building, the county has inspected all 221 that opted into its inspection program. Arlington County Housing Director Anne Venezia said staff will begin inspecting other aging affordable housing properties for deferred maintenance.

Communication remains a primary concern for the Housing Commission and the County Board. Berkey said to its credit, AHC has made some improvements on that front. Cunningham says AHC now communicates with 85% of residents via text, sends out anonymous third-party surveys, and holds monthly meetings with professional translation services.

But poor treatment of residents continues, longtime advocate Janeth Valenzuela said.

“No one should be asked to put up with dismissive, rude and disrespectful treatment that makes them feel like a problem to be fixed rather than a human being,” she said. “There are fundamental and systemic changes that need to be made at AHC.”

The advocate suggested cultural competency and trauma-informed training for all AHC board members, employees and contractors, as well as customer service training.

Cunningham said a cultural competency curriculum could be in place next year, with trauma-informed training done in-house.

Finally, the County Board urged AHC to prioritize compensating residents whose belongings have been damaged. Residents had reported damage to their possessions when maintenance requests were ignored or mismanaged and during the relocation process some opted into.

AHC has launched a claims process that replicates renters’ insurance, which Cunningham said few residents have.

Although compensation for such losses was a chief priority for the County Board, Valenzuela says a claims system was not set up until ARLnow reported on an online fundraiser for Serrano residents.

AHC “did not offer compensation to residents for property losses until advocates started a public fundraiser that received press attention,” Valenzuela told the Housing Commission, according to Berkey’s letter.

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