At Arlington's decaying Columbia Heights apartment complex, graffiti scars hallways and mice scamper across kitchens not remodeled since 1948, the year the complex was built. There is no air conditioning, and in winter, the heat barely works in bottom-floor apartments, yet stifles residents on upper floors.
But change is coming. The Arlington County Board has approved a redevelopment package for the decaying complex on South Greenbrier Street, which abuts the critical area of shopping centers and restaurants along Columbia Pike that will be the board's focus for redevelopment in the coming year.
According to the plan, Leesburg-based developer Mark Silverwood, who signed a $10 million contract to purchase the 152-unit property in September, will raze two of the existing garden apartment buildings, remodel the remaining five into 109 affordable housing units, upgrade landscaping and parking and construct a new four-story condominium building.
Housing advocates, County Board members and tenants spent several months last year working with Silverwood to help preserve a number of existing apartments as affordable housing for lower-income residents.
Under a compromise among the parties, 75 percent of the new apartments will be leased to residents who make 60 percent or less of the area's median income ($64,050 for one resident, $91,500 for a family of four) and 25 percent of the garden apartment residences will be leased to those who make 50 percent or less of the area's median income.
"On balance, this seems to be one of the best projects we've been able to put together," said County Board member Chris Zimmerman (D). The complex will be renamed the Monroe Apartments, in honor of the late Arlington County Board chairman Charles P. Monroe, who had a special interest in the project.
On a tour of the complex last July, Monroe "was appalled at the conditions," Zimmerman recalled. "He said, 'We shouldn't have that in Arlington.' "
However, Columbia Heights resident Ghulam Akram, 50, said many of his fellow tenants are apprehensive about the proposed changes and worry that they won't be able to meet the rent increases.
"Some people are leaving from here," Akram said. "Some are happy and some not. They're not sure what is happening and can't understand what's going on. That's the problem."
Akram, who is disabled, lives in a $735-a-month two-bedroom apartment that he shares with his wife, Hameeda, 46, and the two youngest of their three children, ages 13 and 11. He says he expects to see his rent increase to $890 after renovations are complete but does not plan to move.
Others are staying because they cannot find cheaper rent elsewhere, Akram said. "They know what the rents are around here," he said. "It's still very low."
Last Saturday, residents took a bus tour of the nearby Quebec Apartments to see what their residences might look like one day. Silverwood & Associates Inc. completed the 172-unit renovation of Quebec Apartments -- 75 percent of which is affordable housing -- last year.
The county contributed more than $3.2 million in an affordable housing investment loan to the $17 million projected cost of the Columbia Heights redevelopment.
Kristin Carbone, coordinator for the advocacy group Buyers and Renters Arlington Voice, said that the Columbia Heights plan appeared "good on paper" but that her group was concerned that the relocation process will be difficult for tenants. Current residents will have to move at least twice -- out of their old apartments and into the new ones -- before renovations are complete.
Carbone said families overcrowd, meaning more than two people per bedroom, 45 percent of the units at the property, according to a tenant survey done by Silverwood. Those families could be displaced, Carbone argued.
The poorest tenants will also need help to apply for federal housing vouchers or a county assistance grant, she said.
Silverwood said that he agreed to fund the salary of a tenant assistance coordinator who could help tenants relocate and that he made other concessions to tenants and neighborhood groups. Silverwood had initially proposed to renovate 152 existing rental units, for example.
But neighbors wanted more homeownership opportunities, according to Todd Endo, director of the nonprofit neighborhood group Urban Alternative. Silverwood modified the plan to add 96 condominiums.
"This is being received as a good plan overall," Carbone said. "These apartments definitely needed renovation and we got it to be as affordable as we could. We need to keep a watchful eye to make sure the tenants are treated better."