When Norka Viricochea walked through a shabby duplex on Seventh Place in Arlington recently, she looked past the boarded-up windows, gutted interior and weedy lawn, picturing instead the great cookout she could have in the back yard.
They'd be sitting outside with the children playing on the lawn while a spicy carne asada with lemony marinade sizzled on the grill, she said.
"This will look nice when it's remodeled, I'm sure," Viricochea said, standing inside the darkened interior of the abandoned house strewn with trash and leaves. Viricochea, a Bolivian immigrant who works as a waitress, shares a tiny apartment with her two children, ages 7 and 15. "Oh, I wish I could buy this house," she sighed. "The prices for homes in Arlington are outrageous."
Until recently, the house on Seventh Place in South Arlington was one of 78 properties on Arlington County's blight hit list, a group of abandoned, neglected and unkempt homes that the county has targeted for cleanup over the last year.
Although some neighborhood leaders have been frustrated by the slow progress of the cleanup, county officials say that their "fight blight" initiative has had a measure of success.
To date, 39 of the properties that the county targeted last summer have been demolished, sold, renovated or cleaned up. The duplex on Seventh Place is among four properties that have been purchased by AHC Inc., Arlington's nonprofit affordable housing agency, which will renovate the duplex and sell it as affordable housing.
"I think it's going very well," said Bob Brosnan, the county's planning director. "There were some properties that had sat there for a number of years, some which were very well known. I think putting the focus on it and then staying after them has really caused them to come into compliance."
On June 3, the Arlington County Planning Commission officially declared two homes as blighted, the first test of the county's blight ordinance passed in September. The County Board will take up the matter Saturday. If the board decides to follow the commission's recommendations and officially declare the two properties -- at 2712 Arlington Blvd. and 620 S. 20th St. -- blighted, the county will then have the authority to seize and sell abandoned property if the owners are unresponsive.
Some neighborhood leaders who live near blighted properties that remain untouched say progress has been too slow. Code enforcement officials say they have been hampered by staffing shortages and the inexperience of some of the department's 10 employees, many of whom are new. And often, finding the owners of vacant and neglected property can prove difficult. Many of the owners have died, and property ownership is tied up in probate, which can take months or years to settle.
"It's clearly taking an extraordinary amount of time," said Robert Phillips, a retired Navy admiral who has been trying to get something done about the property at 620 S. 20th St. for more than two years. "They've chosen to invent a new ordinance, and they're struggling their way through it."
Many of the properties that have been demolished or sold were snapped up by investors looking for a bargain in Arlington's hot real estate market, where the price of an average single-family home is now $369,600, up 17 percent from last year.
The county was inundated with calls from developers looking for bargains after it published the blight hit list last summer, according to Janette DeJesus, the county's code enforcement program supervisor.
Mortgage broker Jewelie Ashton was searching for an investment property when she first glimpsed the arts and crafts-style bungalow on Madison Street in North Arlington last summer.
"Poor little old house. Nobody loved it," Ashton recalled. "It was called the ugliest house in Arlington on the five o'clock news."
The house's paint was peeling, and the roof sagged. The yard and house were littered with car engines and buckets of nails, left by the previous owner, an auto mechanic.
Despite its shabby appearance, Ashton bought the property -- still no bargain at $379,000 -- then poured more than $300,000 worth of renovations into it. Enduring inconsistent contractors who often disappeared for days on end, she ultimately oversaw a complete overhaul of the home, including a new front porch, a deck and a back patio, an air conditioning system, custom-made cabinets and inlaid tile.
Though Ashton had initially hoped to live in the house herself, she ultimately decided it was too big for one person and put it on the market for $749,000. It is now under contract.
Given the rapidly rising land values in Arlington and the ever-narrowing pool of land in the area, anti-blight proponents say they can't understand why some absentee landlords hang onto property so long that it falls into disrepair. The county began notifying property owners on the blight list last year that their properties were at risk of seizure unless they came up with a written plan to address code violations.
Carlton Miller, the director of the homeownership division of AHC Inc., said he had to hire a professional property locator firm to find the owner of the Seventh Place duplex, William B. Hilbish. The duplex had been vacant for 10 years and was infested with weeds and rodents. At one point, it was torched by vandals.
Investigators eventually tracked Hilbish to an address in Chester Gap, Va. AHC was then able to negotiate a deal to buy the property for $117,000 in March. With an additional $100,000 in federal funds, AHC will renovate the property into a three-bedroom home and sell it -- likely for around $250,000 -- to one of the 70 families on the county's affordable housing wait list.
"The way these landowners let these properties go to pot, it's despicable when so many people in Arlington need safe, affordable housing" said County Board Chairman Barbara A. Favola (D).
Paul Derby, treasurer of the North Rosslyn Civic Association, said that neighbors in his community have been pushing county code enforcement staff for more than two years to help clean up a rat-infested stretch of North 19th Street in Rosslyn. Derby's neighborhood has one property -- on Colonial Terrace -- that has been named to the blight list. It has remained vacant.
According to county real estate records, the property's owner, James Wrathall, listed an address in Portland, Ore. Wrathall -- who no longer lives at that address and does not have a telephone -- did not return a telephone message left with a neighbor in Portland.
"It's frustrating for the whole neighborhood to have this abandoned property sitting in the middle of our neighborhood," Derby said. He said one problem is that the county code enforcement staff is overburdened.
The little red shack on 20th Street in Crystal City is also in the center of a snarled web of legal red tape, officials said. Once home to a squatter taxicab driver who shocked neighbors by flying a Nazi flag, the falling-down structure is now boarded up and home only to rodents who have burrowed underneath the foundation. Phillips calls it the "poster child" for the county's blight ordinance.
County officials say that the legal quagmire surrounding that property is a good example of why, by some neighborhood standards, the cleanup seems to be inching along.
The property -- now worth $350,900 -- is listed in Arlington County property tax records to trustee Patricia A. Daoust, a Dearborn, Mich., resident. Daoust said she long ago sold the property to realtor Patrick Monahan, a transaction that was never officially recorded. Monahan later died, and the property has been tied up in probate.
Realtor Frank Dove, who works for Monahan's realty company and is Daoust's local agent, said that the business has been trying to get a demolition permit to tear the structure down, but it has been slow going. Last week, workers finally began surveying the property in advance of the demolition. Phillips said he was glad to stroll by the property on a recent hot sunny day and see the beginnings of the demolition -- two large holes at either side of the ramshackle building.
"If this blight ordinance provides the leverage to get people started doing something, then that's progress," Phillips said.
"Has it taken too long? Of course."