After 13 years of living in the Bedford and Victoria apartments in Langley Park, Juan Noel Santos says he is afraid.
Just two weeks ago, Santos said, he was walking from a friend’s apartment to make sure his car door was locked, when security guards in his apartment complex approached him in an unmarked black car.
Wearing black uniforms without name badges, the guards got out of the car and told Santos to freeze, Santos said. They asked for ID and when Santos told them he didn’t have any because he was steps from his home, they forced him to bend face down over the hood of his car while his wife and children watched from their apartment window, Santos said.
Santos shared his story at a rally Tuesday afternoon at 14th Avenue and Kanawha Street. The corner gets a lot of traffic in the afternoons as mothers wait for their children to arrive home from school on Prince George’s County buses. Some of these mothers also told stories of being harassed by apartment security while waiting for their children at the bus stop.
Tuesday’s rally was the latest in a long battle between tenants at the Bedford Station, Victoria Station and Newbury Square apartments and the company that manages them, along with the security company it has hired to patrol the area.
Over the past two years, residents have filed numerous complaints with the Prince George’s County Department of Environmental Resources against Laramar Specialty Group about infestations of mice, cockroaches and bedbugs, as well as the presence of black mold, falling ceilings and deteriorating floor boards, said Lindolfo Carballo, a community organizer with Casa of Maryland, a nonprofit immigrant advocacy group which has its headquarters in Langley Park.
Carballo said the apartments, which have more than 1,050 units, were built in the mid- to late 1940s and are in need of maintenance and renovation. It was not until 2010 when CW Capital acquired the properties through a foreclosure sale that residents’ concerns began falling on deaf ears, Carballo said.
In September 2011, longtime resident Victor Aldana sought an injunction against Laramar Specialty Group, which oversees the daily functions of the properties, to withhold rent payments and instead place them in an escrow account until complaints were handled. The injunction was granted.
According to the Maryland Department of the Environment’s Web site, Laramar reached a settlement agreement in December 2011 requiring the company to pay a $10,000 penalty to resolve alleged violations at 19 properties.
Laramar Specialty Group did not return several calls for comment. An attempt to speak with management on the premises of the Bedford apartments Tuesday was rebuffed by security guards. The name of the security company responsible for patrolling the complex was withheld from the news media as well as apartment residents.
Sandra Lopez, who has been a tenant for seven years, spoke in Spanish about her troubles in the Bedford complex. Standing in her living room and speaking through an interpreter, Lopez pointed toward several holes in the wooden plank floor, through which the home of the neighbors below was visible.
The planks are the result of several months of negotiations with apartment managers. Lopez had complained that the floor needed to be redone after sustaining severe water damage. Maintenance workers removed the floor, leaving the exposed wooden planks, and have never come back to complete the job, Lopez said.
Three weeks ago, a roof collapsed on another couple in the complex as they slept and they had to go to an emergency room, said Elizabeth Clarke, an organizer for Casa of Maryland in Prince George’s County.
“None of the apartments are good, but people are afraid to speak out,” Lopez said.
But some tenants have formed a group called the BVN coalition, based on an acronym for the apartment buildings. The coalition, along with Casa of Maryland, has held several marches and attended meetings with apartment managers.
Tuesday’s rally came to a head when residents tried to hand a symbolic violation ticket to apartment managers. The notice was similar to those that security guards have given residents for loitering. Armed guards blocked the entrance to the leasing office.