August 1, 2002
The Virginia Department of Transportation has responded to tenants’ concerns over living conditions and rent increases at Hunting Towers and Hunting Terrace.
VDOT purchased the two complexes last year to facilitate construction of the Woodrow Wilson Replacement Bridge. Although Kay Management, the previous owner of the properties, is acting as VDOT’s on-site management company, tenants feel that maintenance issues are not being addressed, that rent increases are out of line with living conditions and that accessibility for handicapped and elderly residents is not a priority.
VDOT has agreed to some rent rollbacks and to making some improvements in the buildings that will address accessibility. A rent freeze, however, is not seen by the agency as an option.
“A rent freeze is inconsistent with normal market reactions and will not be implemented during construction of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge and surrounding interchanges,” said Ronaldo T. “Nick” Nicholson, VDOT’s project manager in a letter dated July 10, 2002. “Kay Management or other property management firm will continue to run the HTHT complex as a normal business enterprise that will take local market conditions into account in determining further adjustments. Now that the construction at the complex has begun VDOT will be offering a number of lease adjustments to the HTHT residents in an effort to address the anticipated inconvenience and disruptions that will result from the project’s construction…”
Carl Ruthstrom has lived at Hunting Terrace for 41 years. Since 1997, his rent has gone from $890 per month to $1,255 per month. Most of that increase has occurred since January, 2000. That month, his rent was assessed at $1,015 and in January of this year, he got another increase to the current amount.
“I live on social security,” Ruthstrom, 69, said. “I have had five cancer operations and have to have a biopsy on another spot that may be cancer. I have lost my right eye because of the disease. This isn’t just an apartment to me: it’s my home. I have tried to talk to the managers about my feeling that this isn’t fair but no one seems to be interested. We are paying first-class prices for steerage service. It just isn’t fair.”
MANY LONG-TERM RESIDENTS complain that new tenants are paying less than they are because of the incentives being offered to those who are willing to move into the complexes knowing that they will be living in a construction site for the next five years or more. “We do understand that, because of some of the incentives that are being offered, some residents are paying more than some new tenants for the same types of apartments,” said John Undeland, the director of public affairs for the Woodrow Wilson Bridge Project. “Each tenant will receive a letter this week that will address his or her individual situation. No long-term tenant will be paying more than new residents for the same types of apartments.”
Residents have also expressed concern that the Tower buildings and the Terrace buildings are not accessible to residents with disabilities. “The complex was built before enactment of the Americans with Disabilities Act,” the letter said. “There is no requirement to bring the HTHT buildings into compliance with the ADA. However, when the Commonwealth purchased the properties, an independent ADA assessment was conducted. VDOT is reviewing the recommendations and has developed a list of immediate, short-range medium range and long-range ADA upgrades and projects that are to be accomplished during VDOT ownership years to improve ADA standards at the complex.”
Undeland said that the list of improvements and the timeline for accomplishing them was now complete.
Alexandria Mayor Kerry J. Donley said that ADA compliance should happen immediately. “The state owns these buildings and should comply with the law in an expeditious manner,” he said. “Even more than other private landlords, VDOT should be aware of the law and should make sure that these buildings meet these federal standards.”
Ardith Dentzer, the president of the Hunting Towers Hunting Terrace Tenants’ Association is not optimistic. “So far VDOT has not shown much sensitivity to our needs,” she said. “I am not certain that this is going to change as conditions get worse here.”
The city is reviewing all of the documents related to market surveys and ADA compliance. “Our Office on Housing has agreed to take an independent look at all of the documents related to rent increases and ADA issues,” Councilman William D. Euille said. “Once the city staff has reviewed these items, we will get recommendations from the staff. I hope that this will happen by the end of August.”
THE DOCUMENTS, however, are not available to the tenants at this time. In response to Dentzer’s Freedom of Information Act request that they be produced, VDOT sent a letter stating that the cost of reproduction would be $40,000 and that when the Association paid that amount, the FOIA request would be honored. Undeland said that all pertinent documents to rent increases and market surveys would be made available to the city. “We have made many documents available to the tenants and to the city and, while I am not familiar with the most recent request, I believe that all documents will continue to be made available to the city.”