Saturday, June 02, 2007

Gates of Ballston

After a Major Renovation, Some Tenants Feel Harrassed

Elmer Umanzor, a dark-skinned man with long fingernails and hands that look like he works for a living, sat on one of his three dining room chairs around his small, new dining table, and opened a Reebok shoebox full of papers. He flattened them out and ran through them, 21/30 notices, court summons, letters.


They all deal with problems he has had with AHC Management, Inc., which operates Gates of Ballston Apartments where he lives with his adult daughter Ziomara Umanzor on N. 4th Street in the Buckingham neighborhood.

And AHC knows all the months-old correspondence has been rectified, he said. But in mid-March he still did not have a letter from AHC confirming this.

“I feel harassed,” Mr. Umanzor said in mid-March. He spoke in Spanish translated by Lois Athey, a civic activist with BU-GATA, the tenants association.



Elmer Umanzor in his living room.

The 21/30 notices are the third warnings given out to tenants, after AHC has inspected the unit, found problems, returned for a second inspection and found the problems unresolved, said Richard “Rick” Leeds, the CEO of AHC Management Inc. After those two inspections, a renter receives the 21/30 notice.

The tenant has 21 days to fix any problems; if the problems are not fixed, the tenant has another nine days to vacate the apartment or face an appearance in Arlington’s General District court. Usually, the process is not quite so draconian, people have said, as tenants might get a couple 21/30 notices before facing eviction.

In the case of Mr. Umanzor, management found overcrowding, dirtiness and “chinches,” bedbugs, which are becoming a serious problem at The Gates [and nationally].

Mr. Umanzor did not deny that he had the bedbugs, but there was confusion as to when the exterminator would come. He got in trouble with AHC when his apartment was not prepared for extermination. Or it was prepared on a day they should have come, but no note was left saying that they did come, he said.

Mr. Umanzor and Ms. Athey blamed the citation for overcrowding on the fact that Mr. Umanzor sleeps on the floor of the living room so that his daughter can have the bedroom. It appears as though more people than should, live in the apartment.

The cleanliness issue is tough to see given that the apartment is spartan. He has little on the white living room walls other than a United States flag crossed with a flag of El Salvador; another, small United States flag is tucked in between them. Below them sits his small, flat-panel television on a coffee table. An end table sits nearby. An old, rolling desk chair rests in front of the television. There is nothing else in the living room.

Ms. Athey, who works with many Gates residents, has accused AHC of using the bedbugs as a way of rousting unwanted tenants because it is easy for AHC to accuse tenants of having the bugs but difficult for the tenants to prove they are gone.

“In 14 years working in this complex, I’ve never seen this,” she said, calling the notices “overkill,” and “harassment.”

The county put money into this reconstruction to have families in the area, but the families in the rent-controlled housing are being forced out, she said, because they have to submit to semi-annual apartment inspections and provide documentation such as income statements or birth certificates.

[Look for a post next week which addresses some of these issues, all which fall under “overcrowding.”]

300 families live in the Gates, and about 30 of the units have turned over since the apartments reopened last year, Mr. Leeds said. This is well below the average turnover rate county-wide.

[See the Jan. 31 post for more on the redevelopment and the Feb. 7 post for more on the community center to be built on the property. Click and then scroll down to find Feb. 7—it’s a blogspot thing.]

Given that AHC, with financial help from Arlington County, has put $100 million into rehabilitating the units and holding onto the tenants from before the renovation, AHC’s Rick Leeds asked, “Why would we go to all this trouble to retain the residents and then turn around and want to throw them out?” It costs $1,000 to prepare a unit for a new tenant; it’s much cheaper to keep the tenants that they have, he said.

“I don’t need excuses to get rid of people. If people mess up, I’ve got many of the rules of law to use. I don’t need the subterfuge of bedbugs,” Mr. Leeds said.

[A story at the bottom of this one takes a quick financial picture of AHC and Arlington County.]

++++++++++

The problem may be one of a new management style that comes with the renovated buildings.

JoAnn Cubbage said AHC since the renovation is more strictly enforcing rules of the lease and occupancy.

“Their vision is that when you drive by their property you don’t know that it’s low income housing,” said Ms. Cubbage, the chief of the county’s Housing Services Sector, who said she thinks AHC is a fine management company. She said there are more rules regarding where to park bicycles and taking trash to the dumpsters, and they are being enforced more so than in the past. “[People] are going to chafe at that.”

Ms. Cubbage said it may be a matter of educating the renters.

Walter Tejada, the vice chairman of the Arlington County Board, said that too many people have similar stories of harassment for them to have been “concocted.” But he also said that emotion sometimes gets the better of people and may cloud some judgments. Although AHC does a fine job of managing their properties, some of the complaints at The Gates may have been better handled with more communication. When that has happened, he said he has seen some positive results.

On a similar vein, Ms. Athey has said that AHC needed to use fewer 21/30 notices and more outreach.

Mr. Leeds admitted to being surprised early last year at the number of 21/30 notices sent out in the first phase of relocation, as tenants began to move back in. He estimated that as many as 40 percent of the 112 newly-renovated apartments were sent the notices.

He said that fewer and fewer people get the 21/30 notices now that the first and second phases of relocation have had their second, semi-annual inspections.

AHC has started working with people who have been sent the notices in an attempt to retain the clients and keep from going to court, Mr. Leeds said. Maintenance staff has started going to apartments to train individuals on the new central heating and cooling systems and on the new kitchen appliances. Management also holds monthly meetings to help with tenant complaints.

Generally, AHC gets some response to the first notice of violation that is left in apartments after the property manager and maintenance personnel inspect the unit, notices that Ms. Athey said sometimes are not left or are misunderstood.

Management gets a little more response from the second notice, or “lease violation,” Mr. Leeds said.

“However, the issue that we find is that residents don’t believe that they need to comply with our request to correct deficiencies,” he said, adding later, “Some of this, as I see it, is denial….We’ve had a situation where we’ve had infestation in the unit. Our exterminator has been in the unit; they’ve identified the problem, and the resident says, ‘You’re wrong.’”

This goes back to the proof of whether the bedbugs are really there.

Ms. Athey said that “bedbugs” will appear on the 21/30 notice, but it is unclear where and how the bedbugs were found.

AHC sees the problems that they find as serious maintenance issues. Management must consider that an infestation in one apartment can quickly become a problem in the entire building, Mr. Leeds said.

People are very afraid of the semi-annual inspections, Ms. Athey said. They are afraid of eviction and so are hyper-vigilant, worried not just about infestation, but marks on the walls and dirt on the carpets.

“The message is, ‘I have to be so careful,’” Ms. Athey said.

Johny Gonzalez, the treasurer of BU-GATA, and his wife Daysi live on N. 4th Road with their school-aged children. Much of the beige carpeting in the living/dining room in the two-bedroom apartment is covered with plastic: under the dining room table, between the table and the kitchen door, in front of the couch. The plastic cost him $100 Mr. Gonzalez said.

They have had one inspection since moving in, and they were told one bedroom was cluttered, but overall the apartment was OK, Mr. Gonzalez said in Spanish through Ms. Athey.

“It’s hard to keep up an apartment with kids,” he said.

Mr. Leeds said AHC needs the newly renovated units to last decades.

“Well, again, we’re asking residents to maintain their units, and we expect some level of wear and tear. We expect that if the carpets get dirty they’re cleanable, and we expect when someone moves out that we can come in and shampoo them and turn it over to the next resident,” he said.

++++++++++

Cleanliness has not been the only problem. Mr. Gonzalez said that his September rent check had been applied to his old apartment, one that was under renovation at the time. Since the check was applied to the wrong apartment, he was told his rent was late, and he faced eviction. The problem was resolved in meetings with AHC and Arlington County in November; he got a letter from AHC saying it was resolved in March, he said.

Lauren Uranga who lives on N. Thomas Street had a similar problem in February. However, she wrote in an email that AHC quickly found the rent and applied it to her account. But she never received a confirmation letter, even though AHC said they would send one, she wrote last week.

Ms. Athey has blamed these sorts of problems on the high staff turnover rate (Mr. Tejada echoed that sentiment) and a general disorganization of the office. Mr. Leeds is quick to say that many of the people in the office have been with Gates or AHC for years.

The problems with Mr. Umanzor’s 21/30 notices ended with a “Summons for Unlawful Detainer” (a civil claim for eviction) to appear in Arlington’s General District court.

According to court records, his was one of 59 cases brought against people in the Gates by AHC Management, LLC between July 2006 and April 2007. In the vast majority of those cases, 49, AHC dropped the suit. Of the remaining cases, there was one dismissal and nine favored AHC.

Mr. Umanzor’s case was filed in early February and set to be heard on March 1. By the time of this interview in mid-March, the summons had the word “Cancelled 2/12” written across its front in ballpoint pen, but was unsigned. On another was written “Void” neither signed nor dated. He was still waiting for official word from AHC that the ordeal really was over. According to court records, the case was “nonsuit” meaning dropped by AHC.

[During a May interview with the Herald Trib, Mr. Leeds promised to double check that Mr. Umanzor’s letter had arrived.]

“I’m worried that my credit will be affected,” Mr. Umanzor said in broken English. A future management company or creditor might call AHC at some point asking whether Mr. Umanzor has had troubles with AHC.

Mr. Leeds admitted that they need a letter themselves in Mr. Umanzor’s file saying that the case was resolved so that they report correctly to the next creditor.

“I pay rent right on time,” Mr. Umanzor said. “I’m on time. I want them to do the same.”

++++++++++

Quick Financial Picture of The Gates and Arlington County

The Gates is entering a final phase of a $100 million renovation project which updated all of the complex’s 465 units in its 44 buildings; 350 of the units are reserved for people who earn low to moderate incomes, which is the core mission of AHC.

All of the units were gutted, recarpeted and painted. They each received new appliances and central heating and air conditioning. Additions were built onto some of the buildings creating two- and three-bedroom units from one- or two-bedrooms.

The final 70 units are expected to be completed this summer, ahead of schedule, AHC officials said.

(See the Jan. 31 post for more on the redevelopment and the Feb. 7 post for more on the community center to be built on the property. Click and then scroll down to find Feb. 7—it’s a blogspot thing.)

In 2004, Arlington County approved a long-term financing package for the project, consisting of an $8.5 million Affordable Housing Investment Fund loan, a $480,000 grant to fund a tenant assistance program and a credit enhancement for approximately $23 million in tax-exempt revenue bonds, said a press release at the time.



AHC's Walter Webdale at a December 2002 press conference, announcing the takeover of The Gates.


AHC owns and operates 19 properties in Arlington, according to their web site. With the county’s help, AHC bought the Gates for about $35 million in the last months of 2002 and took ownership on Thanksgiving Day that year. The complicated finances and historic status of the complex meant that renovations had to wait.

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