Nearly 100 low-income residents of Arlington's Gates of Ballston apartment complex turned out for a meeting with county officials last week to protest proposed rent increases that they say will force many of them to move.
AHC Inc., a private, nonprofit developer of low- and moderate- income housing, purchased the aging, 465-unit garden-style property in Buckingham in 2002 for $37 million with plans to conduct an extensive $30 million renovation.
Although AHC bought the building, formerly known as the Gates of Arlington, with the intention of preserving affordable housing -- 75 percent of the units will be set aside for those making no more than 60 percent of the area's median household income of $85,400 for a family of four -- all rents would be subject to an increase.
A tenant survey completed this month by 71 percent of households found that 38 percent of the building's current residents had incomes equal to, or greater than, 60 percent of the median income. Another 26 percent had incomes that fell within 51 percent to 60 percent of the median; 19 percent were between 41 percent and 50 percent of the median; and 17 percent earned 40 percent or less of the median.
AHC officials said that based on survey data and according to federal guidelines, 64 percent of those surveyed will be able to afford to stay at the Gates after the renovation, without additional subsidies from the county.
Not so, say residents.
"The proposed rents are too high," longtime tenant Angel Flores said in a statement released by tenant activists before an Aug. 18 meeting of the county's Tenant-Landlord Commission.
Johnny Gonzalez, a leader in the Buckingham tenants association, agreed. "We have suffered through years of leaking roofs, mold in our apartments and deferred maintenance," Gonzalez said. "Now we're afraid we'll all be thrown out."
County staff members said the new rent scale will increase the cost of an efficiency apartment by 15 percent, to $913 a month. A one-bedroom, which currently rents for $850, would go up to $978, and a two-bedroom, which currently rents for $1,025, would increase 15 percent, to $1,174.
AHC officials said the agency has worked hard to preserve the property, which was at risk of being sold to a for-profit developer before the county stepped in. But to afford the extensive restoration the building needs -- everything from plumbing and heating systems to new paint -- as well as pay the mortgage and maintain the property, they have to raise the rents.
"We certainly understand what the residents are saying," AHC spokeswoman Catherine Bucknam said. "We're in a tough situation. We have a property that had been neglected for 20 years. It was in terrible condition. We have a situation where we have to renovate just to make it livable."
AHC got a $17 million loan from the county to push the project forward. Officials say the money will be repaid early next year when AHC refinances to pay for the renovation, which is targeted for the spring. Residents would be temporarily relocated in stages while the renovation is underway. AHC would pay moving expenses, and each tenant would receive a relocation payment determined by the county. Bucknam said AHC understands residents' concerns and is talking with county housing officials to see whether anything can be done.
"If the county can help us by putting more financing into the property, we won't have to raise rents as much, but I'm not sure the county's in a position to do that financially," she said.
County officials say it would cost about $1 million to subsidize 20 apartments, an amount that is prohibitively high. "We'll do the best we can," said David Cristeal, a development specialist coordinator for the Department of Community Planning, Housing and Development.
However, "I don't know if we'll be able to do anything to lower the rents."
The county's housing commission is expected to address residents' concerns at its Sept. 16 meeting. The commission will make a recommendation to the County Board, which probably will make a final decision on AHC's plans in October.