When spindly shrubs and saplings began appearing on the worn lawns of Alexandria's rundown Arlandria Court Apartments soon after the complex changed hands last year, the rumor was that the building had been sold and that condominium conversion was imminent.
It wasn't, but another kind of conversion was coming: utility conversion. This winter, individual hot water heaters, baseboard heaters and meters were installed in all the apartments. The first bills arrive this month, and the Virginia Electric and Power Company estimates they will average more than $100 a month per unit for heat alone--compared to past years when tenant utility costs were included in the rents.
The change will stretch thin the incomes of many Arlandria Court residents, especially the elderly and those living on fixed incomes, in a scenerio experts say is likely to repeat itself again and again as landlords pass on the cost of skyrocketing energy costs to tenants. And it will be worst for those in dilapidated, 30-year-old buildings like Arlandria Court--where windows, doors and walls are not well insulated.
"I hate to bug anyone," said 74-year-old Brownie Shephard, a retired, 14-year resident of Arlandria Court, who said he has never taken charity. "But I would highly appreciate it if I could get some help this time. I've never asked for it, but I think this time I need it."
After paying his $255 monthly rent, Shephard said he has $76 left for the month. He said this now must cover the heating bill for his one-bedroom basement apartment, where his new baseboard electric heater is barely warm and his oven is on and its door left open to heat the room.
Arlandria Court tenants have complained to the city's housing office that Vepco letters informing tenants that a $150 security deposit would be required on each account were received just a week before the deposits were due, said Mark Looney, of the landlord-tenant office. It wasn't until later that tenants were told payments could be made in installments and that not all tenants would have to pay a deposit.
"Conversions cause a lot of headaches," said Vepco spokesman Jim Buck. "There are certain things that may be needed to keep electric costs down, like weatherstripping, caulking, fixing holes. The question is always, who is going to pay for it?" Arlandria Court tenants, who plan to meet with their management this week, said a winter rent reduction would help cover the cost.
"I don't have any intention of lowering the rents," said Charles Akre, president of Port City Builders and one of two general partners in the limited partnership that owns the building, and which includes Arlington Board member Dorothy Grotos. "It may be that the units are an energy sieve, but the cost of heating those units was over $60,000 a year," Akre said.
The conversion was undertaken to keep rents, which hover around $300 a month, from going up, Akre said. Electric baseboard heat a relatively inefficient form of heating, said Vepco's Buck was the only system that wasn't prohibitively expensive to install, Akre said. "People may have to adjust their heat from 85 to 65," he said. "And that may be a tough psychological adjustment."
Arlandria Court is named after Arlandria, the lower-income neighborhood on the border of Alexandria and Arlington County. Two weeks ago, a city housing inspector cited the complex for a number of housing code violations: including broken windows, leaking plumbing, missing hallway lights, cracked plaster and a roach and mouse problem. No locks are on the front doors, tiles are missing from hallway floors, paint is peeling.
Akre said that more than $100,000 has been spent on improvements--most of it the heating conversion--since he and his partners bought the apartments last July, and that life there is better for the residents.
Lee Powell, who has shared a two-bedroom apartment with her husband and their two children since 1978, is not so certain.
She said her baseboard heaters get barely warm, even when turned up all the way. Her new water heater produces only enough hot water to wash a sinkful of dishes and take one shower. After that, it is three hours before hot water is available again.
Powell said she's tried to meet with her building manager, but that he was unable to attend a meeting scheduled with a city official because of a snowstorm. Nor did he attend any of the tenant meetings held at a nearby school when tenants discussed the conversion, Powell said.
"We've tried," said Powell. "I can understand how they might not want to talk to us all at once. But it seems only fair for at least one of us to get a chance to talk to the people we're paying our money to."