As the giant puppet got ready to go, down the street teenagers in soccer uniforms ran across a synthetic field. Sunday soccer was in full swing on the fields at Gunston Middle School, but down 28th Street, signs were being unfolded, marbles doled out and John Liss wriggled into an oversized torso and head. “It’s doubled as the head of the World Bank a couple of times,” said Liss.
He and some 30 others gathered outside the Colonies of Arlington apartment complex on Sunday afternoon to protest renovations to the property, renovations that residents and tenant-rights groups say are driving up rents and driving out long-time residents. Spanish and English mingled throughout the protest, a sign of the Colonies’ Latino population.
Changes began in September, when residents say they received letters from Colonies ownership group Dweck Property Management, notifying residents in 431 units that they had four months to find new homes. Those letters prompted the Feb. 29 protest, a bilingual mock trial of Colonies owner Ralph Dweck. The Leap Day protest was the first organized public protest over affordable housing in Arlington in five years.
But some of the organizers and participants were members of affordable housing groups who have appeared before the County Board to protest the loss of housing for low-income families, and to ask the county to take more action to protect apartment complexes like Colonies of Arlington.
“I come here for support,” said Willians Silva, president of the Buckingham and Gates of Arlington Tenants’ Association, near Ballston. “In the future, I’m thinking, there’s no area for poor people in Arlington, only for the rich. I’m a little scared.”
<b>WEARING HIS GIANT</b> puppet labeled “Ralph Dweck — <i>Dueño</i>/Owner,” Liss, director of the Alexandria-based Tenants’ and Workers’ Support Committee, presented a case for renovating the apartments at the Colonies. “The apartments are old, they’re in bad shape,” said Liss as Dweck. “I want to fix them up for you. Everybody wants new apartments, right?”
Colonies resident Gary Ogbazghi wasn’t sure. Carrying a sign that said “We’re Not Rich,” Ogbazghi said he was being priced out of his apartment in the Colonies, where he’d lived for 18 years. “Every year it’s getting higher,” he said.
When he first moved to the Colonies in 1986, Ogbazghi said, his two-bedroom apartment cost him $475 a month. Two years ago, rent was $825. Now it’s $935, “plus water and electric.”
During the mock trial, Edgar Rivera, a community coordinator for the Tenants’ and Workers’ Support Committee, said such increases were not driven by altruistic motives. Instead, he accused the Colonies’ owners of using the renovations as a way of getting rid of long-time residents and attract a more upscale clientele. “He wants rich white people to come live here,” said Rivera.
From the edges of the protest crowd, Alexandrian Gustavo Monje led a chant in response. “Families, not greed!” Monje yelled.
Rivera pointed to Liss as Dweck, and asked Colonies residents to pass judgment: Was the manager of the apartments working for their own good, or for greed? “Do you think it’s fair that he’s going to increase rents? <i>Innocente, o no innocente</i>?”
<b>MARBLES PASSED OUT</b> by protest organizers were the jury ballots in the mock trial, cast by protesters, and Colonies residents who gathered on front porches to watch the protest.
Two water bottles were set up, one with the sign “Innocent/<i>Innocente</i>,” the other labeled “Guilty/<i>No Innocente</i>.” At the end, only one marble sat in the Innocent bottle, dropped in by Liss’s puppet hands.
“Guilty, guilty, guilty!” cried Silva.
The situation at the Colonies is frustrating for county officials, said Walter Tejada, current County Board member and one-time member of the county’s affordable housing commission.
Speaking after the mock trial, Tejada said that County Board members hoped to defuse the problems in the Colonies without many evictions. “We don’t want to see anyone displaced from this community.”
Tejada’s Board colleague Chris Zimmerman agreed. “For over six months, we’ve met with the owners or their representatives. We’ve asked them to work with us,” he said. “We want to make sure there’s a place here for everyone.”
<b>BUT THE COLONIES’</b> owners weren’t discussing their plans with the county, he said. Dweck Properties manages the apartments for Fairfax-based Gates, Hudson & Associates. Steve Larimer, vice president for multi-family property management at Gates, Hudson, did not return calls seeking comment for this story.
The protest ended on a hopeful note, with the crowd chanting, “<i>Uno pueblo unido nunca será destruído!</i> A people united will never be defeated!”
Colonies resident Barbara Revis was less hopeful. Like Ogbazghi, Revis has lived in the Colonies for 18 years, and she was happy to see the protesters outside the apartment complex. “I think it’s a fair protest. I made a couple posters for them Wednesday night at Gunston,” she said. But protests won’t make a real difference.
“The thing is, they don’t have any rent control in Virginia. So we can talk as much as we want,” Revis said.