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Report outlines how Arlington County can prevent another Serrano saga

The Serrano Apartments at 5535 Columbia Pike (via Google Maps)

(Updated 4:40 p.m.) There are more than two dozen steps local affordable housing developers, Arlington County and the state can take to improve quality of life and respect tenants, according to a new report.

Written by a Joint Subcommittee on the Status of Aging Properties (JSSAP), the report walks through the kinds of protections tenants need to live safely in committed affordable dwellings in Arlington, many of which are affordable because they are older and more prone to maintenance issues.

Work on this document, unofficially dubbed “the Serrano report,” began last October in response to the attention tenant advocates drew in May 2021 to longstanding problems at the Serrano Apartments (5535 Columbia Pike). Residents of the affordable housing complex, owned by affordable housing operator AHC, Inc., were living with mold and rodent infestations and in units decaying due to deferred maintenance.

“I think it’s an important, historical document to say, ‘This is what happened,’ and to help the county and the state to prevent these issues from happening again,” said Kellen MacBeth, chair of the Arlington Branch of the NAACP’s Housing Committee.  “It was a lot of work, but I’m hopeful we can build on the changes the county has been making to further protect the rights of tenants and prevent another Serrano from occurring.”

The document could be presented to the Arlington County Board as early as next month.

Reaction to the report has been mixed. Advocates are urging the Board to implement the local recommendations and incorporate suggestions for the state into its annual legislative priorities. Some members of Arlington County’s Housing Commission critiqued the report, however, for not including the perspectives of affordable housing business partners or costs associated with implementing the recommendations.

“We went back and forth on that,” Housing Commission Chair Eric Berkey told the Tenant-Landlord Commission last week.

For its part, AHC said it respects the subcommittee’s work but is concerned about the financial impact.

“We appreciate the effort that went into the report,” AHC spokeswoman Jennifer Smith said in a statement. “As a non-profit organization, any recommendations that add cost without accompanying revenues would be burdensome. AHC has 23 properties in Arlington alone.”

Where to start

Tenant advocates say the county’s first order of business, after accepting the report, should be requiring housing providers to fund organizations that support tenant associations.

“We think it’s critically important for the Barcroft Apartments — and the redevelopment that’s going to be happening in the next year — so that tenants have a voice, if there are serious problems they’re facing,” MacBeth said. Maintenance issues, he added, are already arising.

Late last year, the county and Amazon agreed to loan more than $300 million to facilitate the sale of the Barcroft Apartments on Columbia Pike to developer Jair Lynch Real Estate Partners, which agreed to preserve 1,334 units on the site as committed affordable units for 99 years.

Tenant education on their rights provided by a third party would ensure these tenant councils will have teeth, says Elder Julio Basurto, a former Serrano resident and co-founder of a new advocacy group called Juntos En Justicia (Together in Justice).

“They have to train the residents how to advocate for their needs,” he said. “Without the oversight, the residential councils won’t work.”

Janeth Valenzuela, who helped draw attention to conditions at the Serrano, said tenants need education to know how to report their problems. Residents would talk with the county, but if it wasn’t the right staff member, work would be delayed, she said.

“We still have tenants afraid to say things for fear of retaliation, and they don’t have training in how to file reports,” said Valenzuela, another co-founder of Juntos En Justicia. “They didn’t know who to go to, what to do or how to talk.”

Other recommendations “are things that should’ve already been happening in the county,” Basurto said. The report calls on the county to:

  1. Monitor evictions.
  2. Provide free mold testing to tenants and increase the number and frequency of code enforcement inspections.
  3. Make it easier for residents to report their housing issues to the county and find affordable units to live in.
  4. Fund a low-cost dispute resolution process and provide free legal services to tenants.
  5. Survey residents anonymously and report these findings.
  6. Expand fair housing enforcement within the Office of Human Rights.

These would make it easier for residents to report quality-of-life issues across Arlington’s stock of affordable housing, they said, pointing to issues experienced by one resident who was living at the Gates of Ballston complex, also owned by AHC.

Smith says the property management company there was “already in the process of resolving the issue,” but AHC’s CEO personally visited the apartment as well.

“Given the resident’s dissatisfaction, we provided the option to break the lease without penalty,” she said. “We always urge all residents to report issues to the onsite property managers, so they can be tracked and resolved swiftly.”

State advocacy

Report authors had five recommendations for state action, including further protecting tenants from retaliation when they form associations or raise grievances with their landlords.

Most would require legislative action, however. Last year, Del. Alfonso Lopez filed a series of bills to strengthen tenant protections after the Serrano saga, but they were all struck down. Attorney General Jason Miyares said, however, that he would continue a state investigation into potential housing discrimination.

One suggestion could move forward without legislation: expanding Virginia’s building codes to recognize mold accumulation as a health and safety threat, MacBeth said.

“Under the current law, if there’s mold detected in a unit and a landlord fails to abate it, the tenant has to sue them in court under the Tenant-Landlord Act,” he said. “Anything that provides an administrative solution that doesn’t require them to hire a lawyer or go to court is a big improvement.”

‘For the record’ 

Smith told ARLnow there were a few points in the report AHC wanted to rebut.

The affordable housing provider reiterated that no air-quality issues were found, based on a study by the county. It said regular home inspections are a standard practice but “they were not happening” due to the pandemic and associated health protocols.

“When maintenance and inspections restarted, some residents still did not want to admit maintenance staff into their apartments during the pandemic, making it difficult to identify and conduct maintenance,” Smith said.

Report authors are agnostic on the veracity of these claims and say that doesn’t change the larger problem.

“While this may be true, the long-standing communication issues and erosion of trust between residents and AHC, Inc. made even minor issues appear like an intentional pattern and practice,” the report said. “Only after the county took drastic action in May 2021 to relocate residents and apply significant pressure did AHC change its leadership and appear to become fully committed to resolving the long-standing issues at the property.”

The report additionally notes that, despite a growing outcry from advocates — including V.O.I.C.E., BU-GATA, and the Arlington branch of the NAACP — the county did not take substantial action on the Serrano situation until ARLnow first broke the story publicly.

“Following the coverage of the Serrano story in ARLnow in May 2021, growing pressure from tenants, advocates, and community members, and the four-hour Housing Commission meeting that same month dedicated solely to the Serrano Apartments, Arlington County staff began relocating interested Serrano residents (31 in total) to hotels while they worked with AHC to resolve the health and safety concerns at the property,” the report said.

A timeline included in the report, which traces the issues from initial tenant concerns in 2019 to today, links to each of ARLnow’s eight articles on the Serrano and its aftermath. The timeline also notes that there were meetings, inspections and pressure from the county prior to May 2021, but that led only to “slow improvements.”

AHC’s long-time CEO retired and the organization moved away from the use of its separate management arm in the wake of the Serrano affair.

The Housing Commission, meanwhile, is interested in adding more perspectives to the record before the report goes to the County Board.

The commission voted unanimously to recommend the Board adopt the report, Berkey said, with the caveat that the costs associated with the recommendations need to be considered and that letters from advocates, AHC and other affordable housing providers explaining their stances should be included.

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