A Metro article Monday incorrectly reported what organization housing activist Mary Ann Gleason works for. She is executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless. (Published 12/22/1999)
Neftali Hernandez circled the old neighborhood one last time in his beat-up pickup truck, driving slowly past the rows of boarded-up buildings once home to friends and relatives and the patchy lawns in front where their children used to chase each other during lazy summers.
Pulling over to inspect a scratched chest of drawers discarded on the curb, the 33-year-old construction worker described how it felt to be among the last residents to leave the Arlington County neighborhood known as Arna Valley.
"It's a little sad," he said. "I've been here nine years, and it was home. There were so many friends around, but who knows where they are now?" Then, loading the dresser into his truck even though a few drawers were missing, Hernandez explained what he would miss most: "The best thing was the low rent."
When Hernandez and six other families moved out of Arna Valley on Wednesday, a community that had been home to a generation of immigrants disappeared forever. The aging suburban barrio--where neighbors once watched each other's children, where women cooked meals for men separated from their families, where successive waves of newcomers living in tiny quarters were introduced to the United States--simply ceased to exist.
Hernandez and the others were the last of 3,000 predominantly Hispanic residents evicted this year from the eight-block complex of cheap apartment houses near Interstate 395 and South Glebe Road. A developer intends to raze the brick buildings and erect a luxury apartment complex.
During the noisy battle over the project last year, tenants and housing activists decried "massive displacement." Arlington officials who approved the development preferred the term "relocation." But now that it's over, everyone agrees that the families forced out of their homes in the middle of one of the region's tightest housing markets in decades are now paying more in rent--in many cases, more than they can easily afford.
"There's no question there's an affordable housing crisis in the area," said Mary Ann Gleason, executive director of the National Low Income Housing Coalition. "This booming economy has opened the doors to jobs, but it has closed the door to housing for the poorest people."
Consider the predicament of Hernandez, his wife and young daughter. In Arna Valley, the family paid $450 a month for their one-bedroom apartment. Now, after months of searching for new housing, he ended up with a $900-a-month, two-bedroom apartment elsewhere in Arlington.
How will the family afford to pay twice as much rent? "I'll just have to work to pay for it. I already have two jobs, so I don't know what will happen," Hernandez said. "Maybe my brother-in-law will move in. We'll have to see."
The Arna Valley families are paying more in part because they moved into apartment complexes that strictly enforce occupancy limits. In Arna Valley, the rules limiting a one-bedroom apartment to two people were not enforced, and almost all the units housed three or four people and sometimes as many as eight.
Luis and Elena Fuentes and their twin sons moved into a $790-a-month, two-bedroom apartment a few weeks ago after squeezing into a $450-a-month, one-bedroom unit in Arna Valley for three years.
"It's nice to have the space, but I don't have the money," said Luis Fuentes, 24, who earns $24,000 annually at a bakery in the District. "I think I'll have to work more hours, maybe get a part-time job. Elena will have to work now, too. Maybe we'll have to eat only two meals a day. I don't know yet."
Dawn Pilkington, who managed the relocation office established by the developer to assist evicted tenants, said the families on average are paying $200 to $300 more in rent each month than in Arna Valley--about the best they could do, given the market.
She said she and her staff combed the real estate listings, made weekly calls to large apartment complexes and locked horns with landlords who seemed reluctant to accept Arna Valley residents. In the end, she said, no one was referred to a homeless shelter and more than half the families were able to stay in Arlington. Another 30 percent settled in nearby Alexandria.
At least 28 families managed to buy new houses with the help of a county homeownership fund, and nearly 100 families are receiving one-year rental subsidies from a tenant assistance fund. The developer, Avalon Bay Communities Inc., contributed to both funds and offered a one-time $1,000 to $1,600 relocation payment to each household.
But some families never collected the relocation payments. Others, such as Rosalva and Carlos Villagran, decided against applying for the rental subsidies because they wrongly feared such assistance might affect their immigration status.
The Villagrans will pay $290 more in rent each month. But as Rosalva Villagran packed the contents of her kitchen cabinets into cardboard boxes Wednesday and watched her 2-year-old daughter, Luvia, run in circles, the 37-year-old mother said they would find a way to survive--just as they always have.
"We know how to adjust. To come to this country, that was very difficult. We had to leave behind our parents and loved ones," she said, recalling the journey a decade ago from Guatemala. "Now, moving from here to somewhere else, it will be hard but not as much."
Villagran said she would miss the neighborhood, the only one in the United States she has known. "I'm going to miss all the friends. They're all gone now. The lady upstairs went to Rockville, the family next to her went to California. And next door, I don't know where they went. It's sad."
Abayoni Babatunde, 40, a bellman at the Four Seasons who lived with his wife and two children in a one-bedroom apartment for seven years, said he would remember the old neighborhood as "peaceful and nice and cheap."
"The children had so many friends there," he said. "One was from Bangladesh, one was from Ethiopia, two were Hispanic. Now we don't know where any of them are. My children always ask, but I say, 'There's no way I can tell you.' "
Of course, there were problems in Arna Valley, too. Built for defense workers during World War II, the neighborhood deteriorated over time and suffered from vandals and drug dealers for a few years during the 1980s.
Eugene Spencer, 64, a cabdriver who moved into Arna Valley nearly 30 years ago, said youths would slash the cab's tires and smash its windows. And there were cockroaches. "I still have the marks where they chewed on me at night," he said.
But as the residents tell it, the neighborhood pulled together during its last decade. A health clinic opened, as did a bilingual employment center. Residents built a playground, painted murals and planted a community garden. Sometimes, they organized picnics and neighborhood cleanups.
"It was a real community," said Norma Santaolalla, 30, a mother of two who lived in Arna Valley about five years. "To people on the outside, it was an ugly place. But for the people who lived there, it was wonderful. You didn't worry about the children because you could always leave them with neighbors."
In October, Santaolalla and her husband, Rudolfo, a roofer, moved into a new neighborhood, where they pay $340 more a month in rent. "I'll have to start working, too," she said. "I don't mind working, but I don't want to leave the children because it's not like before. We don't know anybody around here now."