Tenants of Tyrol Hills received notices in the mail recently, notices that their apartments would be unavailable in four months’ time: the apartment complex in South Arlington will begin to redevelop and renovate, upgrading the apartments and raising the rents.
It was an especially rude awakening for some Tyrol Hills residents, said Farrah Fosse, a coordinator with BRAVO, or Buyers and Renters Arlington Voice, a tenants’ rights organization. Many Tyrol Hills residents moved to their current apartments after receiving 120 days’ notice that their apartments in Columbia Hills, another South Arlington complex, would also become unvailable due to renovation.
“In eight months time, they will have moved twice,” Fosse told the County Board on Saturday, just before Board members took action they hope will help renters in other Arlington apartments.
At their May 15 meeting, Board members approved new rules on money distributed to residents forced to move out of county apartments.
Board members increased relocation payments to tenants displaced by renovations by 50 percent. Under the new guidelines, landlords would pay tenants who must move out of their apartments up to $1,200 to pay for movers, utilities and application fees, payments that go as high as $1,800 for low-income tenants.
“We’re attempting to help with the cost of moving,” said William Ross, head of the county’s tenant-landlord commission, “not pay the next month’s rent.”
The county’s tenant relocation guidelines apply only to apartment projects undergoing renovation or redevelopment when the owners must seek County Board approval for their plans — when they need land rezoned, or when they seek to build bigger buildings or more apartments than the law allows.
“We don’t have a hard and fast mandate to apply these guidelines across the board,” said Board Chair Barbara Favola. “I really wish the state was a little more enlightened about that.”
<b>FIRST PRIORITY</b> for apartment owners should be keeping current tenants, the guidelines say, through phasing in rent increases or federal rent assistance programs.
But if those programs will not keep current tenants, then the county requires specific steps. State law requires landlords to provide tenants notice of redevelopment that could displace them by 120-days, or four months, before work will begin.
Under county regulations, landlords would also hold several meetings at the apartment complex, and conduct a survey of tenants at the site, to see who would be displaced.
After going through those steps, the landlord would begin paying the relocation allowances authorized by the county, money that would go out in two installments.
Tenant-landlord commission members proposed higher relocation fees, Ross told the Board, because they heard stories from tenants displaced in recent redevelopments that the old guidelines didn’t come close to paying for their moves.
“Things have gotten sophisticated and complex in terms of the fees” that renters must pay to move into a new apartment, he said.
<b>FEW SPEAKERS</b> questioned increased moving fees for developers and landlords . But members of the public and Board members did dip into controversy involving surveys of displaced tenants.
An early questionnaire proposed by the county would have asked tenants to provide their age, race and ethnicity, alongside questions about their income, monthly rent and their children.
Those questionnaires would let the county know who is affected by renovations, said Gail Hunsicker, county housing division staffer, and mirror questions on current surveys.
<b>BUT THE COUNTY</b> does not have enough staff to distribute and collect those surveys, and instead have relied on apartment owners to do that work.
Developers protested that questions about age, race and ethnicity would leave them open to lawsuits under the federal Fair Housing Act, and those questions were removed from surveys attached to the new guidelines.
But County Attorney Stephen MacIsaac said his office had not been involved in reviewing the proposal, and after a quick review of Fair Housing Law, he concluded there was no reason not to ask for data on race or age.
“The problem is not in the collection of information, but in the use of it,” he said.
That led Board members to reinstate questions about age and race on tenant surveys. “If we’ve collected it to date, there’s value in it,” said Vice Chair Jay Fisette. “If we heard evidence it was misused, it would be different. But we haven’t heard that.”