Arlington, VA

What’s Next with Nicole is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in the column are those of the individual and do not necessarily reflect the views of their organizations or ARLnow.

Laws protecting Virginia renters finally went into effect this month. Thanks to an update of the Virginia Residential Landlord and Tenant Act, the 60% of Arlingtonians who are renters will be realizing sweeping protections and seemingly basic rights in our day to day lives.

Arlington should see this as an opportunity to take a leadership role in implementing this law by creating a civil landlord-tenant specific court docket. In D.C., this type of court parallels their small claims court and does not require the burden of attorney fees that are often too great of a hurdle for renters.

If we are able to have renters bring situations like this easily to court, we will put more money in renters pockets that might have been wrongfully taken from their security deposit, provide basic utilities in the home, and provide a fair legal fee balance in disputes with landlords.

Below are two situations I heard on my campaign trail that put renters in inexcusable positions that used to be legal in Virginia and are now protected by the new Virginia Residential Landlord and Tenant Act, and two situations that should still be addressed.

Situation – Security Deposits & Attorney Fees:

After moving out of an apartment, the landlord withheld the entirety of a $3,000 security deposit. When asking why it was being withheld, the response was scuff on the walls. The tenant did not feel that paint and labor amounted to $3,000 for a small apartment wall being repainted.

Old Law: There was nothing protecting the tenant from this. They could take it to court, but even if they won, they were required to pay the landlord’s attorney’s fees amounting to more than the amount disputed. 

New Law: Requires landlords to itemize anything that is taken out of a security deposit. Landlords also cannot make renters pay for their attorney fees if they lose.

Situation – Basic Utilities

An old single family home did not have adequate running water with water coming out of half of the spickets at a dribble. When inspectors came, the county said the water pressure was fine for a single family house, but because the house was split into two units it was insufficient for both families. The owner refused to update the piping and would not let them out of the rental agreement early.

Old Law: If an owner rented out less than three units, they did not have to meet any basic housing requirements such as heat, water, cooling etc. Again, if they brought it to court they would still have to pay the landlord’s attorney fees.

New Law: All landlords have to provide basic housing necessities no matter how many units they lease.

Situation Still Not Covered – Disportionate Fees:

A political sign was hung from a window against the lease terms. The landlord withheld the entirety of the security deposit of $6,000 as a fee for breaking the terms of the lease.

Suggestion: Require fees of breach of a lease to be clearly defined or for any undefined fee be reasonable and commensurate to the breach of contract.

Situation Still Not Covered – Condo Owners/Renters: A renter broke two minor Homeowners Association (HOA) rules. This resulted in the HOA board requiring the unit’s owner to evict the tenant, even though the owner did not want to take this action. This put both the owner and tenant in a bad position because the tenant would have to sue the owner for damages, not the HOA, for an action the owner did not want to take.

Suggestion: Allow grievances from a tenant to be taken straight to an HOA, not the owner, if action is required by the HOA and not the owner.

Arlington has an opportunity to be a leader in Virginia to make renters rights a priority. Renters are vastly underrepresented and should continue to hit the hammer home for just laws and systems. If you have suggestions please reach out to me on social media with your stories, suggestions, and even alternate points of view.

Nicole Merlene is an Arlington native and former candidate for Virginia State Senate. She has served as a leader in the community on the boards of the Arlington County Civic Federation and North Rosslyn Civic Association, as an Arlington Economic Development commissioner, in neighborhood transportation planning groups, and as a civic liaison to the Rosslyn Business Improvement District.

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What’s Next with Nicole is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in the column are those of the individual and do not necessarily reflect the views of their organizations or ARLnow.

As technology changes, we must reframe our mindset on public transportation, specifically our bus systems.

Metro and ART Bus ridership have continued to decrease annually while the use of rideshare and mobility services such as Uber, Lyft, and Bird scooters have skyrocketed.

This year, D.C. area rideshare revenue is estimated to be double that of Metro. Projected operational revenue for Metro in 2019 is projected to be about $830 million while the American Community Survey estimates that rideshare revenues in the Washington D.C. area will be about $1.5 billion.

I would estimate that this discrepancy is linked to a simple cost-benefit analysis for commuters. Think about it. You have two options for getting to work in the morning:

Option 1: You leave your home, walk/drive/bus/bike to the nearest metro station, hop on a train, switch lines if you have to, and then walk/drive/bus/bike the last mile to work. The minimum fare is $2.25 for the train during peak hours (not including an extra $2 if you take the bus to the station)

Option 2: You order an Uber Pool or Lyft Line which arrives right outside your home, the driver picks up one or two passengers along the route, and then drops you off right in front of your office door. Many times the cost of these ridesharing services are competitively priced as compared to Metro at around $7 and will continue to go down, especially with the advent of autonomous driving technology.

Instead of competing with these ridesharing services, Metro needs to partner with them. Contracting with ridesharing companies is already a reality in cities across the country, even just across the river in D.C. In the NE and NW parts of the city, D.C. is testing DC MicroTransit to offer free rideshare through a public-private-partnership with the rideshare app, Via. In other areas of the country, cities have piloted rideshare programs for seniors aging in place, rail users needing a lift for “the last mile,” and more.

At a minimum, Arlington should require companies like Uber and Lyft to share their metadata on rider’s routes to identify hot spots. This would allow us to understand more clearly where people are going to and from and where there is demand for transit in order to optimize our service routes.

When looking into the not so distant future, we know that autonomous vehicles are coming and must be considered for long term planning. Almost all ART bus operational costs are inflated by labor costs (80%) which will only exacerbate the fight with autonomous ridesharing services in the future. Olli, a company that operates autonomous 3D-printed buses, is already in service on Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall in Arlington. Olli is merely the first generation of autonomous bussing technology and at a cost of $100,000, is less than half the cost of Arlington County’s minibuses.

As we contemplate improvements to bus service along Columbia Pike and Route 1, the most heavily used bus service areas in Virginia, we must make sure costly long term infrastructure improvements consider very near term technology changes. Arlington has been at the forefront of transportation innovation and as our public transit system continues to decrease in both ridership and revenue, it is time to shift the paradigm on how to invest in our future.

Nicole Merlene is an Arlington native and former candidate for Virginia State Senate. She has served as a leader in the community on the boards of the Arlington County Civic Federation and North Rosslyn Civic Association, as an Arlington Economic Development commissioner, in neighborhood transportation planning groups, and as a civic liaison to the Rosslyn Business Improvement District.

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What’s Next with Nicole is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in the column are those of the individual and do not necessarily reflect the views of their organizations or ARLnow. 

Antiquated Prohibition-era laws are still alive and well in Virginia.

These regulations have become a burden on restaurants and entertainment-oriented businesses operating in the Commonwealth. For Arlington and Northern Virginia at large, this means lost business opportunities to competitors in Washington, D.C. that don’t have to abide by such outdated regulations.

Democrats this past session passed a law that allows restaurants to merely advertise happy hour but opposed numerous other reforms. For example, the Virginia Alcoholic and Beverage Commission, or ABC, requires that 45% of total gross sales at restaurant establishments be comprised of food and nonalcoholic beverages while alcohol purchases should not exceed more than 55% of sales.

Senate Minority Leader, Dick Saslaw, has said,  “If you can’t meet that ratio, you ain’t running a restaurant, you are flat running a bar. If you want saloons in Virginia, say so.”

So, here I am, saying so. We would like not only saloons, but restaurant wedding venues, music and dance venues, cigar lounges, cocktail bars, bottomless mimosas, and the like. A few examples of overburdensome regulations in Virginia that I hope Democrats will support overturning or reforming include:

Food to Alcohol Ratio

Virginia ABC’s 45/55% ratio rule should be overturned. The whole concept of having such a ratio to avoid drunkenness in our community is laughable. If you want to have a drink at a restaurant, you can have a drink. We are no longer in Prohibition. Bartenders are required to cut patrons off if they’ve had too much, but none are going to tell customers “sorry we’ve hit our food to drink ratio, so we’re going to have to stop serving you.”

What this really does is stifle certain business models like music venues (think: U Street Music Hall or 9:30 Club), cocktail bars (think: The Gibson or Left Door), art museums (think: Artechouse), and more. While I think we should wash the ratio altogether, Democrats have actually opposed even a reduction of the ratio, which seems irrational.

Open Bars for Events in Restaurants

Restaurants are also banned from allowing open bars for private parties. Want to host a corporate or conference event and provide an open bar? Head to D.C. Want to have your wedding reception at a local restaurant? Tough luck.

Wonder why Arlington’s New Year’s Eve celebrations are barely worth the cost, and make a large market of customers cross the river every December 31st for unlimited drink passes? Taking away this regulation would allow for a potentially large revenue generator and perhaps even help reduce the number of ARLnow articles we see about restaurant closings. This is silly, let’s scrap it.

Drink Specials

Drink specials such as bottomless or “2 for 1” deals are banned in Virginia. These regulations are essentially obsolete because they do allow for sort of bottomless where you pay a fixed price for your meal and as little as a penny for each drink. This rule has no tangible benefits and unnecessarily hinders restaurants from marketing competitively.

These regulations seem like one of those things that we will look back on one day and think to ourselves about how silly things used to be. During the next legislative session, I encourage our delegation to think about these issues in a new light and finally overturn these antiquated laws 86 years after Prohibition ended.

Nicole Merlene is an Arlington native and former candidate for Virginia State Senate. She has served as a leader in the community on the boards of the Arlington County Civic Federation and North Rosslyn Civic Association, as an Arlington Economic Development commissioner, in neighborhood transportation planning groups, and as a civic liaison to the Rosslyn Business Improvement District.

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What’s Next with Nicole is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in the column are those of the individual and do not necessarily reflect the views of their organizations or ARLnow.

High speed rail isn’t just a pipedream. But to make it a reality in Arlington, it will require a new bridge.

In the next decade or two, high speed rail lines will shuttle passengers between Richmond and D.C. in less than an hour. A train ride between Arlington and Baltimore will take the same amount of time as taking the Metro to Union Station. This will only happen, however, if we approve and fully fund the Richmond to D.C. Long Bridge rail project.

Long Bridge is the only railroad crossing between D.C. and Virginia — spanning from Crystal City to L’Enfant Plaza. The bridge is 115 years old and currently owned by the rail transportation company CSX. At 98% capacity, it serves 76 trains per day and has become a massive bottleneck for our regional train network.

The five year, $1.9 billion project would expand Long Bridge from two to four tracks and increase the number of trains served everyday by over 250% to 192.

Doubling the number of tracks at Long Bridge is now the highest transportation priority in Virginia, according to state officials. This month, the federal government cleared the environmental impact study requirements to build a high speed rail line between Richmond to D.C., which includes making significant improvements to the Long Bridge. While the project is currently underfunded, it is now eligible for federal transportation funds.

I strongly support the Long Bridge project for four primary reasons:

  • It creates not only a more connected Richmond to Baltimore regional economy, but it will also create the potential for high speed rail spanning the entire East Coast along I-95
  • To relieve congestion along I-95, thus creating a more efficient workforce
  • It is environmentally beneficial, helping to get more cars off the road
  • It will help decrease regional housing costs by making it faster for people living further from urban centers to get to work, expanding what we consider to be Northern Virginia’s housing stock.

I strongly support the Long Bridge project and hope you will join me in showing your support during the public comment period, which ends October 26.

Nicole Merlene is an Arlington native and former candidate for Virginia State Senate. She has served as a leader in the community on the boards of the Arlington County Civic Federation and North Rosslyn Civic Association, as an Arlington Economic Development commissioner, in neighborhood transportation planning groups, and as a civic liaison to the Rosslyn Business Improvement District.

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What’s Next with Nicole is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in the column are those of the individual and do not necessarily reflect the views of their organizations or ARLnow.

My name is Nicole Merlene and I’d like to welcome you to my new column, What’s Next with Nicole. Thank you to the ARLnow team for inviting me to write this regular opinion column.

I plan to write about a wide range of topics that impact our community. My hope is to not only provide a forward-thinking perspective on current policy considerations, but also to shed light on less publicized topics.

A bit about me: I am a 27-year-old Arlington native. I grew up in the Tara-Leeway Heights neighborhood, where I attended Glebe Elementary School, A.T.S., Swanson Middle School, and Yorktown High School. Currently, I am a renter living in a “market-rate affordable” garden apartment in Virginia Square.

This spring I ran for Virginia State Senate in the 31st district to represent areas of Arlington, Fairfax, and Loudoun counties. I have also served as the Vice President for both the Arlington County Civic Federation and North Rosslyn Civic Association, and currently serve on the Arlington Economic Development Commission. Prior to my run for office, I was Policy Director for the international trade association, Invest in the USA.

Arlington has one of the most educated populations in the country and I relish the opportunity to productively advance our public discourse in a new way. This column will focus on providing solutions rather than simply presenting problems, and while the solutions presented may not always be perfect, the goal is to bring thoughtfulness and a forward-looking perspective to local issues.

It is a wonderful thing that in contrast to what is happening on the national stage, our local community is able to have respectful conversations on substantive policy topics. I’m honored to be writing this column for ARLnow and look forward to kicking off my first full piece next week.

Nicole Merlene is an Arlington native and former candidate for Virginia State Senate. She has served as a leader in the community on the boards of the Arlington County Civic Federation and North Rosslyn Civic Association, as an Arlington Economic Development commissioner, in neighborhood transportation planning groups, and as a civic liaison to the Rosslyn Business Improvement District.

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