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Facing high rates of pandemic-era apartment vacancies, Dittmar Company is looking to recoup its losses through short-term rentals.

The Tysons-based developer and property management group is asking the Arlington County Board for permission to convert up to 75 furnished apartment units in three Arlington buildings into flexible hotel rooms.

Randolph Towers in Ballston, Courtland Towers in Courthouse and Virginia Square Towers in Virginia Square will each have 25 units available as short-term rentals under the proposal.

These “Flexible Units,” which comprise less than 5% of the total units in each building, may be rented for short-term stays of fewer than 30 days or long-term stays of more than 30 days. Dittmar will require a minimum length of stay of at least three consecutive nights, and the units cannot be rented for more than 90 nights in a calendar year, according to a county staff report.

Currently, the furnished units are “rented by foreign embassies, corporations, universities, medical facilities, and other tenants desiring long term residential stays,” Nicholas Cumings, Dittmar’s legal representative, wrote in a letter to the county this spring.

They are “typically vacant for three months out of the year and require significant operational costs (i.e. provision of utilities, furniture, housekeeping facilities and housekeeping personnel, etc.),” said Cumings, an attorney with the land use firm of Walsh Colucci.

The new arrangement would allow Dittmar to offset the losses from when such furnished units are vacant, Cumings said. The conversions would be in effect for up to five years.

County Manager Mark Schwartz recommends the County Board approve the request during its meeting on Saturday. The County Board previously heard the requests in May and, following staff recommendation, deferred them to allow for more conversations and analysis, county staff wrote.

“Concerns have been raised by the community and Planning Commission regarding the potential impacts on housing affordability and the absence of County policy on temporary conversions of residential to hotel use,” the staff report said. “Since the Flexible Units may be rented by any individual seeking either a long- or short-term furnished stay, staff expects the temporary conversions to have limited, if any impact on the broader housing supply or rental rates.”

One resident told ARLnow he thinks this arrangement will lead to a spike in travelers in the building.

“Although they claim now to rent furnished units to institutional partners (like universities or embassies), I worry that Dittmar will seek to rent them on a day-to-day basis,” the resident said. “This will ruin the nature of communities that are primarily for long-term tenants. When we finally get through the pandemic and people can travel more freely, I worry that these buildings will become prime destinations for countless travelers.”

In his letter, Cumings wrote that Dittmar “has no desire to operate as a hotel and seeks the ability to rent their existing furnished units for short-term stays in order to offset the cost of vacancies throughout the year.”

The rental units will be a mix of one-, two- and three-bedroom units, mostly located on the lower floors, “with some premium furnished units located on the penthouse floors,” he said.

The County Board will be meeting in-person on the third floor of county government headquarters, at 2100 Clarendon Blvd in Courthouse. It resumed in-person meetings in June after switching to virtual meetings last year due to the pandemic.

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The average square footage of an Arlington apartment appears to be increasing, according to a new study from RENTCafé.

Among 92 cities and jurisdictions, more than one-third are building bigger apartments now than they did five to 10 years ago, according to the website, which follows trends in the apartment market. And Arlington County had the seventh largest jump in unit size between 2016 and 2021.

Compared to units completed between 2016-2020, in the second half of the last decade, those under construction as of May  2021 are 91 square feet bigger — “enough for a cozy home office or relaxation area,” RENTCafé spokeswoman Michelle Cretu said.

New projects in Arlington are embracing “renters’ living preferences following the pandemic,” she said. “After years of shrinking apartments, current projects… are on the track to give renters more square footage to better fit their new lifestyle.”

Localities that were building smaller apartments, and are now building larger (via RENTCafé)

And the extra size is being added across one-, two- and three-bedroom units.

“The share of 2- and 3-bedroom apartments under construction is similar to the overall stock and is not driving the increase in average size,” Cretu said.

RENTCafé’s data show apartment unit size increasing from 2016-20 to May 2021

Out of the 664 units that were under construction as of May, 61% are one-bedroom apartments, RENTCafé’s analysis found. Arlington County historically has had a high share of one-bedroom apartments, Cretu said, which comprised 54% of units delivered between 2011-2015 and 63% of those delivered in the second half of the decade.

Representatives from developers JBG Smith and Penzance, which are active in Arlington, were lukewarm on attributing this uptick to the pandemic.

“The renter profile in Arlington has changed over the past several years,” said John Kusturiss, Senior Vice President of Development for Penzance. “Apartments are no longer just for recent college grads; folks of all ages want to have the accessibility of an urban area to walk to great shops, restaurants, and more.”

JBG Executive Vice President of Development Bryan Moll said the people seeking larger rental units fall into a few categories: first-time renters seeking units that fit roommates, those constrained by “the limited supply of affordable, for-sale housing,” and new or growing families.

Moll did say JBG Smith is responding to the pandemic-era need for home offices and individual and co-working spaces. He added, however, that the company has found renters are willing to settle for smaller units to be nearer to amenity-rich corridors in the area.

“Submarkets like National Landing continue to evolve into even more vibrant destinations with enhanced neighborhood amenities and new employment opportunities,” he said. “As a result, more renters will want to live there, even if that means living in slightly smaller units. We’ve seen this trend play out over the past decade in most of the amenity-dense areas across D.C.”

RENTCafé observed shrinking apartments across the river in D.C., meanwhile. Current units are 23 square feet smaller than they were five years ago, and new rentals will be 721 sq. ft. on average — among the smallest units under construction, Cretu said.

Arlington County’s Department of Community Planning, Housing, and Development — which tracks development trends in Arlington — last reported apartment size trends, which are calculated by dividing the building’s total square footage by the number of units, in 2018. That report show more modest fluctuations compared to RENTCafé’s findings.

“Based on the most recent findings (2018), the average square feet per unit has not shown a significant increase,” a CPHD spokeswoman said.

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Morning Notes

Fireworks Safety Demonstration — From the Arlington County Fire Department: “We want everyone to have a safe and enjoyable 4th of July by following some of these safety tips.” [Twitter, Twitter]

Undefeated Yorktown in Lacrosse State Final — “Yorktown will play at Battlefield in Haymarket after the Bobcats beat Cosby, 6-4, in the other Class 6 semifinal Tuesday… For Yorktown, the first steps toward Saturday’s state final were laid before this year’s players were born, and over 21 years the Patriots toiled and waited until they could play in a state semifinal.” [Washington Post]

Streaming Show at Signature Theatre — “The Signature Theater in Arlington, Va., is presenting an energetic full production of the revue ‘After Midnight,’ which ran on Broadway in 2013. Christopher Jackson (“Hamilton”) leads the cast through a whirlwind of jazzy Cotton Club-era songs, held together by Langston Hughes texts. The show has many pleasures, like the heavenly vocal harmonies in ‘Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea’ and a timely reminder that tap is exhilarating.” [New York Times]

Marymount Partnering With Netflix — “The world’s leading streaming entertainment service and a global leader in education technology are expanding their partnership and bringing Marymount University into the fold as they work to increase diversity in tech fields. Starting this August, Netflix and 2U, Inc., will offer three for-credit, fully online tech boot camps in Data Science, Java Engineering and UX/UI to Marymount undergraduates, all at no cost to accepted students.” [Press Release]

Ballston-Based AvalonBay Now Accepting Credit Cards — “AvalonBay residents will receive an invitation for the Bilt Mastercard, an extension of Bilt Rewards and the first credit card that allows users to pay their rent with no annual fee and without burdening the building owner with ongoing fees. With the card, AvalonBay residents can also earn points on non-rent purchases, enabling them to maximize rewards potential.” [BusinessWire]

Flickr pool photo by Bekah Richards

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After residents spoke out about poor living conditions at the Serrano Apartments, county officials and building owner AHC Inc. say they are committed to making changes.

“It is the highest priority I have right now, in part because we are in a different place with vaccines,” Board Chair Matt de Ferranti tells ARLnow. “This is a health and safety issue I will take responsibility for.”

AHC said it is working with county officials, Arlington’s Housing Commission and community organizations to ensure residents’ concerns are heard and addressed.

“Over the past few days, Serrano’s new management company Drucker & Falk has completed more than half of its 100% inspection of the property (except for the apartments where residents have not provided access) to document and remediate all identified issues through systemic improvements given Serrano’s age,” AHC spokeswoman Celia Slater said. “We are now moving forward with the repairs and encourage everyone to visit our website for updates about the steps we are taking to ensure that all Serrano residents have safe and healthy homes.”

Earlier this month, residents and community leaders told ARLnow about the dire state of some committed affordable apartment units at The Serrano (5535 Columbia Pike). Problems include rodents eating through food and leaving droppings, mold growing on walls and white dust permeating HVAC conductors.

Residents and advocates say they are glad the plight of those living in The Serrano is getting attention but are also frustrated at how many people and walkthroughs it took to get the county and AHC, an affordable housing nonprofit, to act.

The most recent walkthrough was last Friday, when about 40 people, including county officials, Del. Alfonso Lopez, as well as AHC and management representatives, looked at units and talked to residents.

“There were a lot of people there who were supposed to be there a long time ago,” community organizer Janeth Valenzuela said. “Finally, they could experience this with their own eyes and listen to families.”

Former School Board member Tannia Talento said she was frustrated to disrupt the lives of families once more, while not knowing if changes would actually happen.

Ashley Goff, a pastor with Arlington Presbyterian Church, was critical of AHC’s lack of responsiveness to an issue that was many months in the making.

“Look at all the people that had to turn out to get AHC to pay attention,” she said. “They were shamed into taking action, absolutely.”

(An Arlington NAACP newsletter from November, providing an update on its advocacy about conditions at the Serrano, said that the “exhausting battle by the tenants and their allies” — the NAACP and Virginians Organized for Interfaith Community Engagement (VOICE) — had been ongoing since at least the fall of 2019.)

Conditions provoke strong reactions 

The Serrano has 196 committed affordable units and 84 market-rate units. After walking through about a dozen apartments, officials said the conditions were unacceptable and needed to be fixed, quickly.

“I long ago lived in a place that had a problem with rats and no one can actually relax in their home when they’re worried that there could be mice there,” de Ferranti said.

Some problems will be more difficult, but no less essential, to solve due to the building’s age, he said.

“The medium-term solution for holding AHC accountable is getting a clear and specific schedule of what must be done at the Serrano,” he said. “I could envision taking the form of a short, specific Memorandum of Understanding. That is a step over the coming month or two that we are likely to take.”

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Units in the Serrano Apartments, a high-rise housing complex on Columbia Pike, have three things going for them: they are spacious, have nice views, and are affordable.

“But if you go inside those units, the reality is totally different,” said Janeth Valenzuela, who has been advocating for better living conditions for Serrano tenants for two years.

Mice and rat infestations. Balconies with broken glass and rust. Dirty HVAC units with water damage underneath. Shoddy maintenance.

These are just some of the problems inside the 280-unit apartment building at 5535 Columbia Pike, not just according to Valenzuela, but also the Arlington NAACP, immigrant and tenants’ rights group BU-GATA, interfaith clergy group VOICE Arlington, and the Asian American Pacific Islander Civic Engagement (ACE) Collaborative.

“It’s sickening,” said NAACP President Julius “JD” Spain. “This is a dereliction of duty and someone needs to be held accountable.”

Two weeks ago, Spain and the NAACP Housing Committee Chair Kellen MacBeth walked through a handful of apartment units, taking pictures of the conditions. They wrote a letter to County Manager Mark Schwartz detailing the conditions and asking Schwartz to assign staff to work with tenants, rehabilitate the units and rewrite policy so all residents have safe, decent and affordable homes.

“We observed severe problems that suggest a culture of deferred maintenance and underinvestment in the property during our walk-through,” the letter said.

The walk-through, however, was a tipping point after two years of work behind the scenes to help tenants.

“We are tired because there’s no light at the end of the tunnel,” Valenzuela said. “It’s pure injustice.”

Under new management

The Serrano Apartments are owned by AHC Inc., an Arlington-based affordable housing developer, which acquired the building in 2014 in partnership with Arlington County. Since then, the nonprofit has spent millions of dollars making improvements. The building has 196 committed affordable units and 84 market-rate units, according to AHC.

AHC is aware of the issues raised by the community organizations and has been working hard on them “for a while now,” said spokeswoman Celia Slater. One of its most recent changes was to hire a new management company, which “is very good at customer service and has an excellent track record.”

According to county spokeswoman Erika Moore, the county required that switch based on the conditions at the property.

Elder Julio Basurto, who has worked with Valenzuela these last two years, said the management change is the result of advocacy.

“It’s not something AHC has done on their own,” he said, adding that “there are a lot of things that are still not right.”

The management company, which started in February, told AHC it will take about six months before the building’s issues get in order, she said. Already, Slater tallied 586 work orders, of which 39 had to do with pests like bugs and rodents.

“We’ve made a lot of progress since they’ve started, but we know there are still issues to address,” Slater said.

This month, 100% of the vents and convectors will be cleaned again by the end of May, she said.

“Many tenants appreciate the new management but they believe that just because there’s a new management it does not mean the root problems are solved,” said Maryam Mustafa, a community organizer with ACE.

Saul Reyes, executive director of BU-GATA, said the Serrano is an old building with lots of issues exacerbated by deferred maintenance.

“We’ve been working with residents, resolving their individual issues with management, making sure work orders get done to tenant satisfaction,” he said. “Part of the problem is that the issues are so extensive and take so long to resolve that residents get frustrated.”

While the new management company works to get things under control, Slater said AHC is working to build trust with residents. The organization established an on-site residents services office with a bilingual manager, started distributing more than 100 meals a week, and has hosted a pop-up vaccination clinic.

“We care about the people in the community and we want to do all we can to make sure their living environment is up to our standards,” Slater said.

But a big problem is communication, she said, alleging that residents are not telling AHC what is going on.

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The third time may be the charm for a residential development slated to be built in Ballston where a vacated church stands.

McLean-based Jefferson Apartment Group is taking over plans to build apartments and townhomes at the intersection of N. Vermont Street and 11th Street N. The site used to house Portico Church Arlington, which, according to its website, is now found at 800 N. Illinois Street.

The project at 1031 N. Vermont Street has changed hands three times since the County Board first approved a redevelopment plan in 2018. It has also drawn some backlash from neighbors who said the plan added density to an already congested Ballston neighborhood.

The first developer, NVR, proposed to replace the two-story church and its parking lot with a 72-unit condo building and 12 townhouses. Arlington-based BCN Homes took over the development in 2019 and in June 2020, was granted an additional 4,300 square feet to develop.

With the County Board’s approval, BCN proposed a new plan: a 7-story apartment building with 98 units and 10 townhouses across the street. JAG indicates it will not be making major changes to this configuration.

“We plan to move forward with substantially the same plans that the Board approved last June,” the developer tells ARLnow. “We may pursue a few, minor changes related to the interior programming and unit mix but the project will look largely the same.”

The boutique apartment building will have a rooftop terrace, 120 underground parking spaces and 40 bicycle parking spaces, according to JAG.

Meanwhile, the 10 luxury townhomes across 11th Street N. will each have about 2,000 square feet of space, with three bedrooms, three-and-a-half bathrooms, a private rooftop terrace and a private, two-car garage.

“Ballston is one of the most desired submarkets in the Washington, D.C. region,” noted Greg Van Wie, Senior Vice President and Development Partner at Jefferson Apartment Group, in a press release.

The development, he said, “underscores [JAG’s] commitment to create a contemporary, sophisticated boutique apartment building with top-of-the line finishes and luxe amenities and underscores the strength of the housing market here in Northern Virginia.”

A private, Chile-based real estate company, STARS REI, has invested in the property.

“We are thrilled to be working with Jefferson Apartment Group again on this boutique apartment project in this amazing neighborhood,” said Joaquin Canessa, Vice President at STARS REI in the press release.

Construction is slated to begin this winter and is expected to be done in summer 2023.

Photos (1-2) courtesy Jefferson Apartment Group

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A major redevelopment proposal in Rosslyn is facing pushback from those who think it doesn’t do enough for cyclists and pedestrians.

McLean-based Jefferson Apartment Group is proposing a 27-story mixed-use residential complex with 424 units at 1901 N. Moore Street, replacing the 1960s-era RCA building. Two towers will be connected at the top by a penthouse and at the base with ground floor retail.

But as the project moves through the public review process, some have expressed concerns a number of transportation-related issues: the proposed unprotected bike lanes along 19th Street N., the project’s parking ratio, and the pedestrian experience along the block.

These three topics are likely to resurface during a follow-up Site Plan Review Committee meeting on Monday, March 15 — and perhaps later this spring, when the project will go before the Planning Commission and the County Board.

“We’ve been identifying issues, responding to citizen comments, and having very good discussions with surrounding community groups,” said Andrew Painter, an attorney with land use firm Walsh Colucci, during the first SPRC meeting last month.

Staff members are considering some protections for the proposed 19th Street bike lanes in response to public input.

“It may be possible to provide an additional level of protection in one direction” on the block from N. Lynn to N. Moore streets, said Principal Planner Dennis Sellin, adding that staffers “don’t see the capacity to do it in both directions.”

Arlington Transportation Commission Chair Chris Slatt said 19th Street N. has enough traffic to qualify it for protected or buffered bike lanes.

Another hot issue was the parking ratio of .625 spaces per residential unit. Jefferson is proposing 290 total spaces, split among 265 residential spaces, 15 retail and 10 visitor spaces, according to a staff report.

“The goal is to right-size the garage to meet the market demand but not provide extra that incentivizes people to drive,” Painter said.

Although the proposal is within county guidelines, Sellin said “we would certainly accept a lower ratio.” The minimum is .2 spaces per unit but the lowest Sellin said he has seen proposed is .38 spaces per unit.

North Rosslyn Civic Association representative Terri Prell said people, particularly the elderly, still need cars for tasks such as grocery shopping.

“You have to understand this is a residential community, not a business community,” she said.

Lowering the ratio would attract people who want to lead a car-free lifestyle, Slatt said, asking for data on space utilization rates.

The parking needs to be built partially above ground due to “particularly dense rock” and Metro tunnels. To conceal the parking above the retail and below the residential units — and add public art — the architect is exploring adding graphics by local artists, said architect Shalom Baranes.

The Metro tunnels add another complication: a longer expected demolition process.

As for the pedestrian experience, some members were concerned that the block will be too long and there will be no opportunities for cutting through it. Sellin said the block is comparable to others at 400 feet long.

SPRC Chair Sara Steinberger said knowing the length “may not change the community’s feelings on what feels like a longer stretch of block when you have large buildings covering a greater area.”

In 2017, Weissberg Investment Corp., which developed the RCA building in the 1960s, filed plans to redevelop the RCA site — but those plans were put on hold indefinitely in 2018. Jefferson started filing application materials in May 2020.

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