A major renovation is in the planning stages for Gates of Ballston, but residents are facing rent increases now, along with the prospect of having to vacate their homes sometime soon to make way for the renovation.
AHC Inc an affordable housing company that bought the Gates of Ballston, plans to completely renovate the garden apartments, which consists of 465 units. The residents complain that AHC has already started raising the rents without having done any construction.
"I am asking that they don't increase the rent until they renovate," said Luis Montoya, a resident.
The Tenant Landlord Commission held a meeting regarding the renovation on Wednesday, Aug. 18, at the Barrett Elementary School. "The purpose of the meeting is for the commission to review the relocation plan," said William Ross, the chairman of the commission.
AHC bought the Gates of Ballston in 2002. The Gates Working Group, comprised of county, housing, and community advocates chose AHC to purchase the property from Hall Corporation. Welsh said that AHC had to pay nearly $5,000 per unit just to make them habitable.
"We spent over $1 million to address twenty to thirty years of neglect," said John Welsh, of AHC, "to avoid mass displacement we had to do repair work before we started significant renovations." Immediate repairs included work on heating and roof repair. According to Welsh, there are significant problems with the maintenance, as Gates of Ballston is almost 70 years old. On top of that, there is a significant number of maintenance requests, and this combination is linked to the rent increases.
Whatever repairs that have been done are not improving quality of life in the apartments, say residents. They complain of rats, mice, and cockroaches inside the apartments.
Elliott Burke, the landlord representative on the commission, said that it is the duty of the landlords to provide services for the tenants. One of the services is vermin control. "It is rather onerous to give the tenants a 120-day notice to move and a rent increase," said Burke. He said he understands that there is no law in Virginia to prevent AHC from raising the rents, but that, "a little compassion is needed."
Victor Gutierrez, a resident, believes that AHC is set on forcing the residents out of their homes. "They will keep increasing the rent, one way or another," said Gutierrez, "until they are not affordable anymore." Gutierrez asked why AHC is charging the residents when it is getting money from the county to renovate the Gates, "Are they lending this money to help AHC's business or to help us?"
"What my neighbor says is true," said Montoya of Gutierrez's comments, "They are increasing my rent without doing what they said they would."
Beth Powell, a member of the commission, spoke out against raising the rent due to the immediate repair work. "These people are paying for twenty years of neglect that they had nothing to do with. It is absolutely wrong." In a survey conducted by AHC, it is concluded that 55 percent of the residents have lived at the Gates for five years or less.
"It is the most disgusting thing I'd ever seen in my life," said Christian Dorsey, a member of the tenants landlord commission, "no one expected that rents would be jacked up before improvements were made."
Renovation is planned to begin in the Spring of 2005 and will likely last 24 to 30 months. It will occur in five phases, each lasting 4 to 6 months. "Our emphasis is on creating new larger units," said Christopher Donald, the project manager for AHC, "to keep the larger families at the Gates." The renovation will bring the number of three-bedroom apartments at the Gates from one to seventy-two. During the renovation, the residents will have to find other housing options. AHC will provide the residents who are in good standing, not in violation of their lease and pay their rent on time, with a relocation payment and assistance in locating new housing.
Bucknam said that the residents are not being charged for the repair work. The rent increases are to cover the operating expenses for the upcoming year, "Like all landlords we raise prices each year."
Welsh added that costs of utility, insurance, and liability have been rising over the years. He mentioned that the liability cost was greatly affected by the events of Sep. 11, given the property's proximity to Washington, D.C. and Reagan Airport.
The agreement between Arlington County and AHC was that the county would contribute $16 million for funds to facilitate the renovation. After the renovation is over, AHC is to designate 75 percent of the units as affordable and the other 25 percent at market rate.
Angel Flores, a resident, said that the residents were cheering for AHC to win the ownership of the property from the group, but that they have been tricked. "We've been tricked by this company and the county," said Flores, "they painted a pretty picture for us and now they tricked us."
All residents will have to move temporarily during the time their units are being renovated. They will be informed about the time period when they have to relocate through a written notice, which will be given to them a 120 days prior to their departure date. The first of the 120-day notices will be going out in November or December of this year.
Since renovation is to start in Spring of 2005, members of the commission asked AHC not to raise the rents yet. Burke said that raising the rent during the time before the tenants move out will not have an impact on AHC's financial status, because it is such a short time. Welsh responded by saying that renovations will happen in a number of phases, and that some residents will not be asked to move for another year and a half.
"It appears, even with the county assistance, that you made a bad deal," said Burke addressing the AHC representatives, "and that you're going to have to live with it. Don't make the tenants pay for it."
Donald said that a part of AHC's job is to take bad deals and make them better. "We are by no means shifting the whole burden on the residents at the Gates," said Donald, "but we are asking to work in a partnership with the tenants."