At the close of the day, after their work had been done at the dry cleaners, the construction sites and lawn services, the residents of the Presidential Greens apartment complex in Arlandria gathered on the hard-packed ground under an old maple tree to share their bewilderment and rage as they struggled to understand what is happening in their home, the same way many of them struggle to understand the strange language and life in America, their new home.
Men such as Jose Garcia, dressed in jeans and work shirts who, with furrowed brows, carried papers that they had folded and rolled and worried over -- water bills, gas bills, late fees. "Por que?" he asked. Why? Why $17.15 for gas and $45.75 for water. He can hardly pay it.
Women carrying babies, pushing strollers, keeping one eye on the squealing children on the play structure, or standing defiantly with arms crossed on their chests, complained in Spanish about mice, ants and maintenance problems that never seem to get fixed. Rats that eat through sofas. Children who sleep with cotton in their ears so the roaches won't climb in. Chinches, bedbugs, that bite at night.
"My neighbor's killed 38 mice in 11 months!" Peggy Sholes, a tenant for 18 years, said indignantly in English.
"We have rat holes in the wall," volunteered Jose Lemus, 13.
"Yeah, and they leave rat poop all over. Every day, it's in the corner," said his friend Jaime Quevedo, 14. "And the cucarachas shed their skin on the tables and stuff."
What began as grumbling in the communal laundry rooms and over balconies of the sprawling, three-story brick complex has become a full-fledged tenant protest. With help from the nonprofit Tenants' and Workers' Support Committee, the residents have been meeting every Thursday since early September under the maple tree near the dumpster and the playground to share their complaints and talk about what to do. They've taken pictures. They've invited city code enforcement inspectors to visit. They've talked to reporters from Univision. "It's not fair," they say over and over. "No justo."
"My guess is no one is paying this much for apartments in this bad of shape," said John Liss, director of the Tenants' and Workers' Support Committee, a grass-roots group that advocates for economic and social justice for Latinos, African Americans, tenants, immigrants, workers, youth and low-income residents of Northern Virginia. Tensions between some tenants and management have gotten so high that someone shoved two dead mice through the management office mail slot recently.
"That was not pleasant," said Maribel Castellon, who manages the property.
That there are rats and roaches, there is no doubt -- even the complex's owner, United Dominion Realty Trust, has conceded as much. That there is anger is also clear to anyone who has attended one of the Thursday night meetings. But mostly, however, there is rumor, miscommunication and confusion.
Still, the story of what is happening at Presidential Greens is an all-too-common tale for those who live on the margins in this area: rising housing costs that outpace the money that low-wage jobs bring in. Rents are being increased by between $15 and $50 a month when leases come up for renewal.
In addition, the property's owners have begun billing residents for utilities such as gas, water and trash collection, costs that can add up to $60 or more a month. Tenants already pay for electricity. And the hikes come on top of the rent increases, which like rents at many other properties in the region have risen at least 50 percent in the last four years.
"There is a real dearth of affordable housing in this area," said Ron Minionis, managing attorney for the Alexandria office of Legal Services of Northern Virginia. "It's very hard for the working-class poor to live in Northern Virginia. The logic, which doesn't necessarily always apply, is, hey, if you don't like the terms of these new leases, vote with your feet. And sometimes that doesn't really work, because there's no other place to take your feet to, at least in this area."
And sometimes, he said, the only place to go is directly into someone else's already crowded apartment.
A Steady Decline
The 396-unit Presidential Greens, on a corner where Mount Vernon Avenue meets Russell Road, was built in 1938. It was first a hotel and later marketed, with only 24 two-bedroom units and the rest with one bedroom, as a premier location for single federal workers. Postcards from the 1950s show shiny Packards lined up along Executive Avenue under a canopy of leafy trees.
Over the years, the complex changed as the area changed. New immigrants from Central America arrived, and Presidential Greens became the place where many of them landed. Now, nearly 98 percent of the complex's tenants are immigrants. Management staffers all speak Spanish. Nearby stores reflect the residents' preferences: the Huascaran restaurant, La Feria Latina market, Tienda Victoria and a Western Union with its bright yellow sign announcing in Spanish that it cashes checks.
The apartment complex changed hands a few times during the 1980s and 1990s until two years ago, when United Dominion, one of the oldest and largest real estate trusts of "middle market" apartments in the country, bought it for nearly $30 million.
For decades, problems waxed and waned. Maintenance was done or, more often, not done. But inspectors say that is changing. At a recent annual check of 40 units, city inspectors found 100 violations, from broken railings and windows to doors that wouldn't shut. But Art Dahlberg, director of code enforcement for the city, blamed vandalism for most of the problems and said that owners are promptly correcting them.
"Compared to other complexes, in terms of the age of this complex and its size, I think [its inspection record] is consistent or better," Dahlberg said. "Now management is being more proactive in doing maintenance rather than waiting for our annual inspection to figure out where to spend their money," as was the case in the past, he said.
And some of the infestation problems the residents are complaining about, Dahlberg said, have a lot to do with the fact that busy workers, families and children are cramming into small, old apartments that were never designed to hold that many people.
Once the tenants began protesting, Dahlberg returned to take a look, he said, and ended up putting out 36 rodent bait boxes.
"We didn't find the deterioration of the apartments that we were anticipating. But we did find overcrowding, lack of cleanliness and lack of proper taking care of foodstuffs, which certainly encourages roaches and rodents," Dahlberg said. "The only conclusion we could draw was that this was really something the tenants needed to take responsibility for."
On another Thursday, property manager Castellon, who has worked at Presidential Greens for 15 years, came to talk to the angry tenants under the gathering tree.
"There is nothing you can do," one told her in Spanish. "We need to talk to the owner."
She led a small procession back to her office, a brightly refurbished basement space with new carpeting, wood furniture and glossy oversize photographs of the Washington Monument and a couple happily rollerblading. She handed them the number for Theresa Barker, the district manager. And they left.
Now Castellon was angry. In the past year, Dahlberg said the city has received only 11 complaints about Presidential Greens. The Landlord-Tenant Relations Office received none, said Melodie Baron, division chief for the office, who plans to meet with residents this week to investigate complaints. At Presidential Greens, every maintenance call is logged in the computer, Castellon said, and then resolved. No one came to her with complaints, she said. "I cannot solve what I don't know about."
Many residents say they mention their complaints to maintenance workers they see walking by. Complex procedures require residents to make complaints or requests at the management office. Liss said his group decided to protest and go to the media rather than talk to managers because residents say management has been unresponsive.
"Anybody who has been there for more than a couple of years ends up painting and doing their own maintenance, " he said. "They more or less give up."
Castellon hauled out yellow receipts from Alexandria Pest Service. When residents started complaining about roaches, she ordered the entire complex to be fumigated. To really get rid of them, every single apartment must be sprayed, she said. In the last month, she has sent out flyers in English and in Spanish announcing the day each apartment is scheduled to be sprayed and instructing residents to remove everything from kitchen cupboards and counters.
"Look at this," she said, referring to the pile of receipts. Of 20 apartments scheduled to be sprayed one day, half weren't ready and couldn't be treated. On another day, of 19 apartments, three tenants refused to let the fumigators in and five others weren't ready. "The treatment will never be effective this way," she said.
To that, Liss of the Tenants' and Workers' Support Committee said: "I'm not saying every resident follows the rules perfectly or is a saint. There's clearly resident error on this." But he also said a number of tenants have complained that they had cleared out cupboards only to have no one show up on the day they were told, and when they put their things back, they were threatened with a $50 fine.
Castellon hauls out another folder, this one with a notice of the rent increases. "You will also be billed for the consumption of gas and water," it read.
But somehow, the message never got through. Residents began to complain that they were being charged for new refrigerators or for repairs. Liss blamed management for "explaining it poorly and incorrectly, because we've got such confusion down here."
In addition, many of the complex's residents are illiterate, unable to read either English or Spanish.
Of the 32 million apartment units nationwide, an estimated 85 percent of landlords pay water costs for their tenants. But as utility costs have continued to rise in recent years, more and more landlords are passing the costs on to tenants in separate bills.
Some states, like Texas, require new apartment complexes to include individual meters for each unit -- something U.S. Environmental Protection Agency-funded studies have found can lead to water conservation and lower costs. For older units, like those at Presidential Greens, owners are subtracting the cost of water used in common areas and simply dividing the rest of the cost among tenants. This method is not likely to conserve water, some studies have found, but does save landlords money.
Liss, who wants to see Presidential Greens become tenant owned, said the higher costs are a "body blow" to already struggling tenants and suspects the beginnings of a plan to push the residents out.
Not so, say city officials. When United Dominion bought the property, Alexandria officials told the company that they wanted Presidential Greens to remain affordable, said Kimberley Fogle, chief of neighborhood planning for the city. However, the city does not have the authority to ensure that costs remain low.
"We got some great assurances from the new owners that they intended to make improvements, keep things up, but they intended to maintain the residents that they had and retain some of their rent levels," she said.
Theresa Barker, United Dominion's district manager, said the company is replacing all the toilets, plumbing and boilers to make water usage more efficient and help cut down on the costs tenants will bear. She said they are also investing in improvements -- installing new benches and mailboxes, outdoor lighting, landscaping and sprinklers and repainting and re-carpeting hallways. They are planning to build a health clinic and an after-school center. They have closed down the card playing, alcohol-serving cantinas that were operating in empty apartments.
"We're not bad people. We're trying to do the best we can," she said. "It's not as if I don't have the staff, it's not as if I don't have the funds. I'm more than willing to give them housing that they're comfortable with and not embarrassed to have."
On a recent night, broken glass sparkled under the streetlights in the alley that runs through the complex, dividing the buildings named after presidents Thomas Jefferson and James Madison from one named after James Carter (aka Jimmy). Berthe Ramirez was soaking pork in a tub of water in her sink. Her husband, Rosario Luna, watched soccer on their large-screen television, 1-year-old Ricardo sleeping soundly beside him.
Her large eyes worried, Ramirez, 30, fingered a scab on 3-year-old Carlos's eyebrow. Something bit him last night, she said in Spanish. She's not sure what.
In her kitchen, she has lined her shelves with paper to protect her things from roaches. She has put traps on the walls behind the refrigerator and the microwave. Still, mice scrabble in from an open space under the sink that leads directly to the laundry room. Bedbugs torment the family at night. One morning, as she was pouring cereal for her children for breakfast, cockroaches came out with the flakes.
Her stove is broken. Some bathroom tiles are missing and more than once she has found her baby putting the rocks underneath into his mouth.
Food used to freeze in her refrigerator, so for about one month she left it out and it would go bad. She has spent a lot of money replacing food and buying cleaning supplies, she said. She has gone to the office to complain. They did fix her refrigerator, she said. But not her stove.
(Castellon checked her computer and found no record of a complaint about the stove.)
Ramirez wakes early to take her children to a babysitter and catch a ride with a supervisor who lives nearby to her job at a Maryland dry cleaners. Her husband is a construction worker. They pay $885 in rent each month and are barely making it. Now they pay an additional $49 a month for water and $20 for gas.
Ramirez left her family and came to the United States from El Salvador in 1995. When an aunt in Los Angeles didn't want her, she came to Alexandria with a friend she met on the way north. This is not the life she imagined.
At night, she leaves the closet light on, she said, the better to see the cockroaches that might climb over her babies' sleeping faces.