Arlington, VA

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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Arlington County’s projected revenue appears sunnier than when County Manager Mark Schwartz first presented his proposed budget for the 2022 fiscal year in February. 

The county can attribute this warmer outlook to two sources: the nearly $2 trillion American Rescue Plan and strong business license tax receipts, Budget Director Richard Stephenson said during a public hearing on the tax rate last Thursday. While he did not specify the revenue from the business taxes, Stephenson said President Joe Biden’s relief bill will apportion $46 million to the county.  

Combined, the influx of cash could mean funding will be restored to libraries, community centers, Arlington Independent Media and the Virginia Cooperative Extension, for example.

Schwartz’s proposed budget delays the re-opening of Cherrydale and Glencarlyn libraries and reduces support for AIM and VCE. Between 2019-20 and the proposed budget, funding for AIM had dropped by 22%, while the proposed reductions to VCE would require the organization to find new funding sources or reduce its programs. Members of the public spoke in favor of restoring funding to these programs last Tuesday.

Still, Arlington County will be leaning on real estate taxes for the lion’s share, 59%, of its revenue. Specifically, it will be relying on increasing residential real-estate taxes due to rising property values as commercial property assessments drop. 

“We’ve experienced some significant reductions to several of our tax revenues and non-tax fees,” Stephenson said. “We were fortunate this past January that real estate assessments came in slightly higher than we were originally projecting. While we experienced a decrease in commercial property assessments, new construction and residential properties increased.”

While property values are rising, Schwartz is proposing to keep the rate flat — at $1.013 per $100 of assessed value — for the upcoming fiscal year. That will mean an overall tax increase for most homeowners.

The County Board is slated to vote on this rate next Tuesday.  

Members cannot increase the rate but they could decrease it, which is something that a few Arlington residents told board members they would like to see.  

While Arlington has proposed holding its tax rate steady, nearby jurisdictions — including Fairfax County and Loudoun County — have proposed lowering or approved a lower real estate tax rate, said Audrey Clement, who is running as an independent for a seat on the County Board. 

“The impetus for tax reductions elsewhere is to provide relief to homeowners hit by rising assessments, even as the pandemic has put a lot of them out of work,” Clement told the board.

She said the county is using falling commercial real estate tax revenue to justify freezing rather than lowering the residential tax rate.

“The county will tell you it can’t afford to reduce the real estate tax rate because the pandemic has drained the commercial real estate tax revenue, but where were your real estate tax rates heading when the county was flush with revenue from corporate tenants?” she said. “They were going up.”

Meanwhile, two residents, William Barratt and Cindy Nelson, both asked the County Board to reduce real estate taxes.

Barratt said the Bluemont Civic Association, of which he is a part, passed a resolution encouraging the board to reduce the tax rate. The homeowner said he and his wife have seen a 15% increase in their taxes in recent years.

“I don’t think this is a wise idea for anyone: poor and rich,” Nelson said. “It’s just not right.”

The stormwater tax rate is set to increase, which Stephenson said will help generate $15.1 million earmarked for stormwater improvements.

Eventually, the county plans to eliminate the stormwater tax completely in favor of a fee based on how much impervious surface covers a given property, Schwartz previously said.

A higher cigarette tax rate is also being proposed that could generate $600,000. Like most of the county’s tax revenue, almost half of that will go toward Arlington Public Schools, Stephenson said.

Images (2-4) via Arlington County

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Morning Notes

Major Courthouse Development Approved — “The Arlington County Board today approved Greystar Real Estate Partners’ plan to redevelop seven parcels that make up the Courthouse Landmark Block with a 423-unit apartment building. The developer has committed to providing extensive community benefits.” [Arlington County]

Zoning Proposal May Face Pushback — “Two potentially conflicting constituencies – advocates of affordable housing and residents of single-family neighborhoods – could end up colliding if Arlington County Board members next month move forward on a recommendation to allow much higher building heights in some transitional areas of the county. The proposal… calls for allowing (though not permitting by right) building heights higher by 60 feet than normally allowed in a number of zoning districts, if the buildings comprise 100-percent affordable housing.” [Sun Gazette]

APS Planning Summer School — “Arlington Public Schools plans to offer in-person and distance learning summer school for students. Summer School will take place from July 6-30 for elementary students and from July 6-Aug. 6 for secondary students.” [Arlington Public Schools]

Man Arrested for Bathroom Peeping — “1700 block of Fort Myer Drive. At approximately 3:25 a.m. on March 18, police were dispatched to the report of a peeping. Upon arrival, it was determined that the male victim was using the restroom when he observed a cell phone placed through the crack of the stall. The victim confronted the known suspect and alerted building security.” [Arlington County]

Arlington Startup Moving to D.C. — “Auto refinancing startup MotoRefi is moving its headquarters from Arlington to D.C. and beefing up its executive team, the company said in an announcement. The company has signed a 22,000-square-foot lease at 1717 Rhode Island Ave. NW, relocating to a larger space as its workforce continues to grow. It plans on opening the new office, in the same building as venture firm Revolution and Uber, later in 2021, it said.” [Washington Business Journal]

Why Elmo is on the County Manager’s Desk — County Board member Katie Cristol, in response to a question about an Elmo toy seen on County Manager Mark Schwartz’s desk during Saturday’s virtual Board meeting: “My Elmo-obsessed kid made an on camera appearance at Thursday’s 4.5 hour work session, and Mark, who is a real sweetheart, brought out his own Elmo on the videoconference, to no end of delight from my two-year old.” [Twitter]

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Deputy County Manager James Schwartz is retiring.

An announcement was made official by County Manager Mark Schwartz at Tuesday’s County Board meeting. Schwartz’s last full day with Arlington County will be February 5.

For the last six years, Schwartz has served as the Deputy County Manager overseeing public safety and technology, after just over a decade as the county’s fire chief.

Schwartz started at the Arlington County Fire in 1984 as a firefighter and served in multiple roles in the department. He led the county’s united command effort after the September 11, 2001 attack at the Pentagon. In 2004, he was appointed as chief.

Schwartz was the first person to rise through the department’s ranks to become chief since the 1970s. In 2015, he was named Deputy County Manager.

“This is an opportunity… to thank him from the bottom of my heart for all of his years of service,” said County Manager Mark Schwartz during the County Board meeting.

In a memo to fire personnel, ACFD lauded Schwartz’s leadership and dedication to serving the county and the region.

“Chief Schwartz was the architect of many local, NoVA, and [National Capital Region] initiatives that continue to improve public safety. While he does not have any immediate plans, Chief Schwartz will remain connected and invested in the department, county, and region,” the memo said. “ACFD is grateful for his leadership, dedication, and friendship over many years.”

“A big thanks to Jim Schwartz for his extraordinary service over the years,” said Board Chair Matt de Ferranti at Tuesday’s meeting. “If we were in the boardroom, we would all be standing and applauding.”

Photo courtesy of Arlington County

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(Updated at 4:45 p.m.) Facing a potential $41-56 million budget gap, the Arlington County Board is signalling that service cuts and tax rate hikes may be included in next year’s budget.

At its Tuesday meeting, the Board provided guidance to County Manager Mark Schwartz on the upcoming Fiscal Year 2022 budget, covering July 2021 through June 2022. Underlying it all is a big drop in tax and fee revenue caused by the pandemic.

“Our challenge in Fiscal Year 2022 will be to support our community as it continues to deal with an unprecedented medical, economic and educational emergency, even as the County faces continued fiscal uncertainty,” Board Chair Libby Garvey said in a statement.

“Our guidance to the Manager today starts what I expect to be a difficult conversation with our community about priorities, cuts to programs and services, and potential tax increases over the coming months, as we focus our limited resources on defeating this deadly virus, preserving our social safety net, protecting public health, and supporting our students and those in our community who face food and housing insecurity,” she said. “While the budget situation is serious, Arlington’s financial fundamentals remain strong.”

In a press release, the Board detailed what they want Schwartz to include in his proposed budget next year, including:

  • “Reducing programs and services where necessary”
  • “Consider a real tax rate increase, increased cigarette taxes, and a plastic bag tax”
  • “Fund affordable housing, with a primary focus on preventing evictions and providing housing grants”
  • “Food assistance, COVID-19 testing, contact tracing, personal protective equipment, and an anticipated vaccine program for the virus”
  • “Funding… to implement Rank Choice Voting in Arlington…  and the Police Practices Group’s recommendations”
  • Funds to open the new Long Bridge Aquatics and Fitness Facility, and a recommendation on when to open the new Lubber Run Community Center
  • An evaluation of “the advantages and disadvantages of moving to a utility model for funding stormwater management”

The Board’s guidance also calls for funds to be set aside “to support collective bargaining implementation,” following the May 1, 2021 implementation of a new Virginia law that allows localities to recognize and negotiate with public employee labor unions.

While reserve funds and federal coronavirus funds may help close up to half of the anticipated budget gap, Schwartz and his staff told Board members that difficult decisions may still be necessary. County revenue from commercial real estate taxes, as well as sales and meals taxes, is down significantly.

“The bottom line” is that “there is a significant gap to close,” Arlington County Budget Director Richard Stephenson said. “It will require some tough choices in the development and adoption of the FY 2022 budget.”

Board member Matt de Ferranti asked the public to be aware that the Board is “seeking options.”

“As much as we might wish we were fully immune from economic challenges, we are not,” he said. “There won’t be good options — there will only be least bad options.”

Board member Christian Dorsey said the Board does not take the possibility of tax increases lightly, and cautioned against a budget that prioritizes other aims above the marginalized in Arlington, who have been disproportionately hit by the pandemic.

“It’s certainly not lost on me or any of you that we have a really blunt tool in adjusting real-estate taxes to raise revenue,” he said. “It’s a blunt tool that can cause harm to the people you’re seeking to try and help with other government expenditures and services.”

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Arlington County has undergone drastic changes over the last 100 years to become what it is today.

In celebrating the county’s history and the 2020 census, County Manager Mark Schwartz will compare a snapshot of the area from 100 years ago and today’s Arlington during a virtual discussion.

The two-hour program will take place on Tuesday, Sept. 29, at 7 p.m. and can be viewed on the county’s Facebook page, YouTube channel, or on Arlington TV (Comcast 1085/Verizon 40).

An interactive storybook and map will be paired with the discussion. The session will also feature a “conversation with the members of the Complete Count Committee appointed in 2019 on their experiences with working on the 2020 census,” according to Schwartz.

“Viewers can expect a summary of how Arlington of today compares with the Arlington of 100 years ago on a number of measures, including population, family size, demographic makeup (race, age, gender, languages spoken, housing types),” Schwartz wrote in an email.

Schwartz added that the discussion will include “a history lesson on what Arlington looked like and some stories from 100 years ago that shed some light on the Arlington of today.”

The broadcast will explore the county’s transformation since its naming as a nod to the Arlington House in Arlington National Cemetery — an association that is now under scrutiny. The name was officially changed from Alexandria County in 1920 to avoid being confused with the city of Alexandria.

Arlington County grew from a primarily rural area of farms — the last of which closed in 1955 — as its population steadily increased and new developments were established.

Farms gave way to housing developments, new businesses and modernized infrastructure over the years. The population followed suit as an increase of federal workers spilled into the area during the 1930s, as National Airport opened in 1941, as World War II saw the construction of the Pentagon, and as the Metrorail corridors were introduced in the 1970s.

The county’s population has grown exponentially from the 16,040 residents counted in the 1920 census, which included sections of Del Ray and the City of Alexandria that were part of the county then, according to Arlington’s website.

Arlington County has grown every decade since 1920, except in the 1970s when the area’s population dropped by 12.4%. However, the population rebounded and steadily grew to 207,627 in 2010, according to census data.

The latest estimates peg the county’s population at 228,400, a 10% increase from 2010. A forecast by the county shows the population growing to 301,200 in 2045.

“Today, Arlington is a diverse and inclusive world-class urban community with a population that continues to grow at approximately 1% per year,” the county website says.

Flickr pool photo by Erinn Shirley

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Deputy County Manager Samia Byrd has been promoted to the new position of Chief Race and Equity Officer, Arlington County announced today.

Byrd, a long-time county employee who previously worked in the Department of Community Planning, Housing and a Development, will oversee work “to inform the County’s development of its plan for addressing race and equity issues.”

A University of Virginia graduate and Hampton, Va. native, Byrd said she is looking forward to the challenges ahead in the new role.

“The time is past due to dedicate and commit our time, resources and effort to advancing race and equity in achieving Arlington’s vision of a diverse and inclusive community,” she said in a statement. “It is an opportunity we should not take lightly or as a response to the moment, and one I approach with humility.”

More from a county press release, below.

As the Chief Race and Equity Officer for Arlington County, Samia Byrd will lead the County’s work to advance racial equity, diversity and inclusion both internal and external to the organization. This includes guiding and facilitating the development and implementation of important policies and practices through an equity lens.

“Samia will be instrumental to helping Arlington better understand the cracks in our foundation,” stated County Manager Mark Schwartz. “I am excited to have her in this new leadership role as we identify the solutions moving forward to ensure that everyone in Arlington has the same opportunities regardless of the color of their skin, their education level, their housing type, their job, or the Arlington ZIP code where they live. I am honored that she will take on this work.  She will bring a deep sense of commitment, faith, and insight to a subject that is profoundly, at its core, about what type of community we want to be.”

Ms. Byrd will continue to oversee and manage the County’s coordinated work with the Metropolitan Washington Council of Government (COG) Racial Equity Cohort comprised of Senior County and Arlington Public Schools staff, to inform the County’s development of its plan for addressing race and equity issues. This includes working closely with the Government Alliance on Race and Equity, a national network of governments working to achieve racial equity and advance opportunities for all, to help guide the development of a racial equity tool later this year.

Once developed, the racial equity tool will be used in guiding policy, practice, program and budget decisions and offer new strategies for achieving racial equity outcomes in Arlington. Ms. Byrd will also have a pivotal role in developing and implementing a Countywide Racial Equity Action Plan.

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Masks significantly reduce the transmission of coronavirus, making their usage during the pandemic a public health priority.

To encourage wider use of masks, Arlington County is planning to give them away for free.

Earlier this month County Board member Katie Cristol revealed that Arlington had “recently put in a pretty significant order for cloth face coverings that were intended to be distributed around the county.” The idea, she said, was to encourage rather than mandate mask usage — a carrot vs. stick approach.

During last night’s Board meeting, County Manager Mark Schwartz said the masks will be given out in various parts of the county.

“We’re going to be setting up locations across the county where people who do not have masks could go and get them if needed,” he said, adding that more details will be released next week.

The county, Schwartz noted, has established something of an “emergency logistics operation” since the start of the pandemic, distributing hundreds of thousands of pieces of personal protective equipment to first responders, healthcare providers and others.

A county spokeswoman tells ARLnow that much of the new mask distribution effort will be accomplished through community organizations and nonprofits.

“Arlington County has procured cloth facial coverings to distribute to Arlington’s most vulnerable populations,” said Jennifer K. Smith. “The County is planning to enlist the help of community-based organizations (CBOs), including safety net nonprofit partners, to help distribute the facial coverings. The County will be reaching out to these CBOs in advance of the delivery of the face coverings, which is expected in the coming weeks.”

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Arlington County is working to publicly release data on payments to vendors, according to an email exchange between county officials and a local resident.

The new initiative came to light after a local resident filed a Freedom of Information Act Request to obtain a list of county expenditures, sorted by vendor, for fiscal years 2018 and 2019. Some other localities publicly list such information, in the interest of transparency and showing which companies were being paid by the local government.

The county’s initial response to the FOIA request was to demand payment of $8,750 to produce the information, citing a need for a budget analyst to spend 250 hours to compile it.

“The County is permitted to make reasonable charges to cover the County’s actual cost incurred in accessing, duplicating, supplying, or searching for any potential responsive records. The estimated cost associated with the request is $8,750.00,” the Arlington County FOIA office said in a letter. “Arlington County must review the financial data for potential exemptions to protect sensitive information on a line-item basis, which is the reason for this cost estimate.”

The resident, Patrick Lockhart, then appealed to the County Board and the County Manager to intervene. In response, the County Manager’s office agreed to waive the fee, noting that vendor payment information is set to be released through the county’s Arlington Wallet portal.

The website, which launched in early 2019, contains charts and graphs intended to give residents a clearer look at how officials are spending money each year.

There’s no word yet on when the new vendor-level expenditure information will be released, but a county official said it’s coming soon.

“Our Department of Management and Finance (DMF) has been working on the next phase of Arlington Wallet for some time now, and is actually getting close to being able to roll that out publicly,” wrote Ben Aiken, Director of Constituent Services in the County Manager’s office. “This next phase will contain the transaction level detail that will include vendor name and transaction descriptions, amongst other attributes.”

The full email is below.

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The upshot of most Arlingtonians being confined to their homes is that Arlington is seeing fairly high rates of responses to the 2020 census.

County Manager Mark Schwartz said at Tuesday’s County Board meeting that the Arlington is already seeing higher rates of people turning in census forms than at this time in the 2010 census. The rate currently sits at 27.4%.

“We went back and looked at 2010 and we’re doing better than we were doing in 2010,” Schwartz said. “I think part of that is because people are at home… It’s really good for where we are in the process.”

County officials are pushing census participation, the upshot of which is more representation in Congress and more federal assistance. County Board member Katie Cristol said that respondents should remember to “count their babies” in the census, noting that populations under five-years-old were the most underreported demographics in the last census.

Households can respond to the census online, by phone, or by mail until Aug. 14. Households should have recently received census mailers.

Schwartz said county officials are still hoping to set up mobile census assistances stations outside places like grocery stores and community centers once the pandemic concerns have died down.

Many of the traditional methods the county uses to encourage people to fill out the census, like pop-ups, have been canceled. The county government is still finding other ways to promote responding to the census.

“We’re including information about the census with food distribution that’s going on,” Schwartz said. “Several hundred tote bags have been given to AFAC as a way of emphasizing that.”

If you were curious about whether County Manager Mark Schwartz has a poem for the moment, you won’t be disappointed. He recited the following self-written verse at the meeting.

Covid has us all feeling frustration

What a great time to ensure our county’s enumeration

Take a minute or two to complete your census form

Perfect to do while social distancing is the norm

Just go to census.gov and complete all the questions

So Arlington can get our full representation

Schwartz’s full presentation is below.

Image via Arlington County

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Several senior Arlington County employees left the Saturday, Jan. 25, Arlington County Board meeting with renewed contracts and some notable pay bumps.

The County Manager, County Attorney, County Auditor and Clerk to the County Board all had their contracts unanimously approved in a 5-0 vote with no discussion.

County Manager Mark Schwartz got a 4.5% raise to $282,489 annually. It’s a little less than his neighbor, Alexandria City Manager Mark Jinks, who earns $288,000 annually, according to the Alexandria Gazette Packet. On the other hand, it’s a little more than the $268,000 salary for Bryan Hill, who has the equivalent position in Fairfax County.

This is also the first time Schwartz’s salary has surpassed his predecessor, Barbara Donnellan, whose salary was $270,000 annually by the end of her five-year tenure. Schwartz became County Manager in 2015.

County Attorney Stephen MacIsaac, meanwhile, got a 3.5% raise to $261,933 per year — more than the $243,812 annual salary paid to Alexandria City Attorney Joanna Anderson.

County Auditor Christopher Horton got a 3.25% raise to $147,493 per year. Horton became the county auditor in 2016 and is the County’s second auditor. The first left the job after less than seven months.

Kendra Jacobs, Clerk to the County Board, had the biggest raise at 6.75%, increasing her salary to $115,749. Jacobs was appointed to the role in 2018.

The top county employees also received a raise last year; for all but Horton the raise was higher this year.

Staff photo by Jay Westcott

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