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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 Virginia Attorney General’s Office says D.C. officials have agreed to meet with representatives from Virginia and Maryland about the District’s Wildlife Protection Act of 2010.

Earlier this month Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli publicly spoke out about the law, which is intended to ensure the humane treatment of wildlife by animal control personnel. Cuccinelli told WMAL radio that the law prevents the use of lethal traps against certain pests, while increasing the likelihood that trapped animals — which may carry diseases or parasites — will be illegally brought into Virginia and released. The attorney general called the law “a triumph of animal rights over human health.”

Conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh later picked up on Cuccinelli’s complaint and blasted D.C. officials on his radio show.

Despite the heated rhetoric, Cuccinelli’s office announced today that D.C., Virginia and Maryland officials have begun a dialogue regarding the Wildlife Protection Act. Cuccinelli issued the following statement this morning:

I have recently expressed concerns publicly that the D.C. Wildlife Act of 2010 could potentially lead to nuisance wildlife being dropped off across the Potomac River into Virginia. Nuisance wildlife includes certain rodents, raccoons, and other animals known to carry rabies, Lyme Disease, and other diseases which can potentially infect humans. These concerns are shared by such organizations as the bipartisan Maryland and Virginia State Sportsmen’s Caucuses, the National Wildlife Control Operators Association, the Wildlife Society, and the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.

Like others, I want to ensure the humane treatment of animals, but when it comes to rodents and other animals that often carry diseases, human health must come first.

While I expressed these concerns publicly only recently, I had tried to get the attention of District officials for the last 10 months. After we brought this issue to the public’s attention last week, my staff had a conference call with Mayor Vincent Gray’s office, Councilmember Mary Cheh’s office, Virginia Congressman Frank Wolf’s office, and other D.C. officials. As a result of that call, Mayor Gray has agreed to convene a meeting within the next three months among representatives from the District, Virginia, Maryland, and Congressman Wolf’s office. I want to thank the mayor for his willingness to discuss the concerns his neighbors have.

I am hoping that we can also convene a panel of scientific and wildlife experts, as well as officials from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, to discuss how to best deal with the public health ramifications of this act for our jurisdictions. The alarming increase in vector-transmitted diseases in the metropolitan area is not just a D.C. problem. That is why a regional approach is needed.

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Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli called a local talk radio show on Tuesday to complain about rats in D.C. Specifically, Cuccinelli was peeved about a D.C. law — the Wildlife Protection Act — which, since March 2011, has outlawed some common pest control practices including the use of lethal traps on certain species of rats and mice (and on other wild animals that get stuck in homes).

“Last year, in its finite wisdom, the D.C. City Council passed a new law — a triumph of animal rights over human health,” he told the hosts of WMAL’s ‘The Morning Majority‘ show. “Those pest control people… aren’t allowed to kill the rat. They have to relocate the rat. And… that’s actually not the worst part. They cannot break up the family of the rat.”

“Oh no,” one of the hosts said solemnly as another loudly gasped. But what does any of this have to do with Virginia? Cuccinelli explained that wildlife trappers might now simply take the rats they catch in D.C. into Virginia.

“Actual experts in pest control will tell you, if you don’t move an animal about 25 miles, it will come back,” Cuccinelli said. “So what’s the solution to that? Across the river.”

“It is worse than our immigration policies, you can’t break up rat families or racoons and all the rest,” Cuccinelli continued. “And you can’t even kill them. It’s unbelievable.”

(The audio can be found at 92:35 here.)

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For the past few months, we’ve been hearing anecdotal evidence of a rodent resurgence in Arlington.

At least one well-known local civic leader has privately identified the burgeoning rat population in the Clarendon area as a significant problem facing the county. And then we get emails like the following:

I’m interested in whether or not there’s been an uptick recently in Arlington residents reporting rodents in their homes? Recently, I found a pair of rats that had made a home in the wall of my 6th Street S. ground floor apartment. I’d heard from coworkers and neighbors that they’ve been finding mice recently too. Apparently we’re experiencing a perfect storm of conditions that can cause rodents to enter homes: cold weather, construction nearby (we have alot), [and] heavy acorn/nut production.

Cold weather does drive mice to take shelter in buildings and construction has been known to send rats scurrying. The bumper crop of acorns is indeed credited with fattening up local squirrels — we’re not sure if mice and rats are benefiting as well.

The rodent problem has the email listserve of at least one South Arlington neighborhood buzzing.

In Alcova Heights, neighbors are sharing rodent control tips with one another. Among those weighing in are a few conflicted animal lovers, who are searching for a more humane way to get rid of the pests.

One resident expressed frustration with the options.

Well, these mice are turning out to be extremely smart…or the humane trap is not extremely well designed. I put peanut butter in there, thinking they’d spend a little more time while the doors closed and then I actually thought about driving them out to the woods where there might be an abandoned structure or something they could live in. But they keep slipping away. I will probably need to take harsher measures, but you should have seen them staring up at us last year after we poisoned them. Like they were asking us for help, and to stop. So sad… I may be a soft heart when it comes to animals.

Another mentioned an alternative method of mouse execution.

I told you my story of how it broke my heart to kill them. I was crying, so; I understand exactly how you felt last year. I “kills” me to see any animal suffer. I do not know any good ways to get rid of them – I just know that it is best “to” get rid of them because they are very hard once they get a foothold.

I guess you could do like the one person suggested and put them in your freezer to have a peaceful freezer death…. However, then you might need to replace your freezer….I know I would!

Finally, one resident elaborated on the method. We’re still not sure how you’re supposed to get the mouse in the bag, though.

Put them in air tight zip lock freezer bag, before freezing. Leave them there overnight, the next day put them in the regular trash (outside).

Where are you finding rodents, and what, if anything ,are you doing to “thin the herd,” so to speak?

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The Ballston and Pentagon City mall food courts are great places to eat, if you’re a rat or a cockroach.

A review of health violations by the Washington Examiner revealed that every food court vendor in each mall has been cited for one or more “critical health violations.”

Signs of roach or rodent infestation were found in sixteen food court vendors, the Examiner reports. Subway and Texas BBQ Factory get the dubious distinction of being cited for infestation in both Ballston and Pentagon City.

To see the health violations for yourself, click here then search for “4238 Wilson Blvd” (Ballston Common Mall) or “1100 S Hayes St” (Pentagon City mall). The search box is in the upper left-hand corner.

Flickr photo by Daquella Manera.

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Morning Notes

Hey Look, There’s Nightlife in Pentagon City — When the shoppers go home for the day, the mice come out to play. At least that’s what one graveyard shift employee at the Pentagon City mall told WJLA (ABC 7). She reported seeing as many as ten mice scurrying around the food court at night. She even captured some cell phone video of the rodents inside the new Yogen Fruz frozen yogurt stand. WJLA says their story prompted a visit from an Arlington County health inspector. We’re sorry to hear that the inspector had to take a break from tackling the county’s rampant lack of bread packaging in order to address a trivial rodent problem.

WUSA9 Attends Change-of-Government Debate — If you’ve been following the back-and-forth over the proposed change to Arlington’s form of government, you won’t learn anything new from this story. WUSA9’s Brittany Morehouse went to last night’s change-of-government debate at the Cherrydale Volunteer Fire Department and found a passionate but polite crowd. Morehouse summarized the arguments made by both sides, then described the genesis of the ballot initiative. “The issue stems from a beef between fire and police unions and the County Manager,” she said.

More Revelations in Wake Of Arlington Cemetery Scandal — Arlington National Cemetery spent more than $5 million on computerizing its antiquated records system with little to show for it, according to Salon.com. The site reports that criminal investigators have looked into questionable contracts authorized by Arlington National Cemetery Deputy Superintendent Thurman Higginbotham. Also this morning, the Washington Post is reporting that it has found several gravestones of unknown origin lining the banks of a small creek on the cemetery grounds. The cemetery says it’s investigating the finding.

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