Press Club

New AG will pursue state housing discrimination inquiry into Serrano Apartments

Serrano Apartments (via Google Maps)

Attorney General Jason Miyares won’t be axing a state investigation into potential housing discrimination against residents of the Serrano Apartments launched under his predecessor.

Early last week, the civil rights division of the Office of the Attorney General — led by former AG Mark Herring — began searching for evidence of discrimination against tenants based on their race, national origin and disability by local affordable housing developer AHC Inc., which owns the Columbia Pike affordable housing complex.

“The ultimate goal of this inquiry is to determine whether unlawful discrimination is taking place, and if so, to eliminate those discriminatory practices and ensure that non-discriminatory housing opportunities are available to all,” two attorneys with the OAG’s Office of Civil Rights division said in a letter to the local branch of the NAACP requesting any information the group may have.

A few days after the letter was sent, the future of the investigation was thrown into jeopardy when Miyares fired at least one of the letter’s co-authors, Helen Hardiman, after taking office last weekend, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported.

His dismissal of 30 staff — including 17 attorneys, the Richmond newspaper reports — generated a buzz over how his office will treat civil rights violations in Virginia.

Despite these changes, the inquiry into the Serrano apartments is set to go forward, Miyares spokeswoman Victoria LaCivita said.

“The inquiry into the housing conditions will absolutely still happen and any wrongdoing found will be pursued to the fullest extent of the law,” LaCivita tells ARLnow. “We’ve brought in a team full of bright and dedicated lawyers who are looking forward to examining every case with a fresh perspective and working with the OAG staff.”

The inquiry, which the local branch of the NAACP publicized on Wednesday, comes nine months after residents and advocates told ARLnow about the poor living conditions at the Serrano (5535 Columbia Pike). They described rodent infestations and mold as well as deferred maintenance and disrespectful treatment by management.

In response, AHC says it has made a number of changes under the eye of the Arlington County Board, undertaking repairs, installing new leadership, adding communication channels and establishing a claims process for damaged belongings. The saga has inspired a handful of bills going before the Virginia House of Delegates and now, the OAG’s investigation.

Tenant advocates say they’re encouraged the Serrano saga reached the state level at all.

“It set a precedent,” longtime advocate Janeth Valenzuela tells ARLnow. “We want this to continue and I hope that Miyares will see this not as a political thing we are doing.”

The investigation will explore if AHC imposed discriminatory terms on residents or made discriminatory statements based on race and national origin or refused reasonable accommodations for tenants with disabilities, wrote Hardiman and fellow attorney Palmer Heenan.

Susan Cunningham, the interim CEO of AHC, responded to the inquiry in the following statement to ARLnow.

AHC categorically rejects any suggestion that we have engaged in discriminatory housing practices and will respond to the inquiry from the Virginia Attorney General’s Office. For over 45 years, AHC has provided quality housing and afforded equal treatment to residents of all races, abilities and countries of origin.

As the public record shows, AHC has worked closely with residents, community advocates, and Arlington County to resolve maintenance issues at the Serrano, ensure similar issues do not recur, and improve the resident experience in all of Arlington’s affordable housing.

Over the past year, our board and staff have gone above and beyond the call to support our residents and address their concerns, including by making continued physical improvements to the Serrano, offering Serrano residents rent credits and compensation for property losses, and enhancing resident communications and collaboration. Consistent with our mission, AHC’s commitment to housing that is equitable, safe, affordable and welcoming remains unwavering.

But advocates, such as the NAACP, say some of the lingering problems — poor treatment and a hesitancy to pursue mediation — are rooted in the fact that tenants are low-income and not white.

“In our view, if the Serrano were not an affordable housing complex with economically marginalized communities of color, these problems would perhaps have been resolved years ago when the concerns were initially made by tenants,” the NAACP said.

After the change in leadership, the NAACP was hopeful Miyares — the first Hispanic person to hold this office — wouldn’t kill the investigation.

“The AG should hold affordable housing developers and management companies accountable and defend our most vulnerable citizens, many of whom are our Hispanic brothers and sisters in the case of the Serrano apartments,” NAACP President Julius Spain said.

Hardiman has investigatedsimilar pattern of claims in an apartment complex within Richmond’s largest Latino neighborhood.

While both the Serrano and the Richmond case mostly involve Latino residents, tenant advocate and former Serrano resident Elder Julio Basurto says housing discrimination is not exclusive to Latinos.

“It’s a civil rights issue for everybody,” he said.

Valenzuela agreed, saying the issue impacts low-income residents, people with disabilities, the elderly, and citizens and undocumented immigrants alike.

“This is not red or blue — this is a different color, the color of humanity,” she said.

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