In March, in response to requests from tenants of the Vista Gardens apartment complex in the Culmore area of Bailey’s Crossroads, Fairfax County fire marshals and zoning enforcement personnel inspected more than 100 units in the decades-old, privately owned, brick, multi-family buildings.
Fire safety violations – missing smoke alarms, inoperable or missing fire extinguishers, gas leaks, and fire exit signs – were repaired or replaced immediately at the direction of the fire marshal. Virginia Maintenance Code violations took longer to compile and, on April 2, dozens of pages of violations were cited to Vista Gardens by the county’s Property Maintenance Code Official, directing the management company to abate the violations within 60 days. That clock is ticking…
On Mother’s Day, Father Tuck Grinnell, the fire marshal, and I accompanied more than 100 tenants and members of V.O.I.C.E. (Virginians Organized for Interfaith Community Engagement) in a pilgrimage from St. Anthony’s Catholic Church to visit three Vista Gardens apartments and view the progress of repairs. Sadly, progress is probably not the word to use. Although smoke alarms and fire extinguishers in the stairwells were in working order, almost nothing had been done to improve the interior of the units and comply with the property maintenance code.
In one apartment, the living room ceiling was bowed and moldy from a roof leak. The oven door hung clumsily on its hinges, and two drawers in the kitchen cabinets had no bottoms, making them useless. The new tenant pays more than $1000 a month for the small two bedroom apartment. In another building, a living room window crisscrossed with large cracks has not been repaired, the kitchen cabinets are sagging, and the stove, perhaps the oldest gas appliance I have ever seen, needs to be replaced. At a third apartment, the tenant told me that the refrigerator repairman dismissed the complaint, saying that “the compressor just isn’t working right.” In the bathroom, a repair obviously had been started, but never completed. Nearly the entire ceiling was pulled out, leaving a network of old studs and drywall – a filthy mess but no follow-up. I asked if I could visit an apartment that had been repaired; I was told they hadn’t been able to identify a single one!
The Mother’s Day walkabout fulfilled a promise I made in early March when I took the fire marshal with me to a tenant meeting to discuss what needed to be done to improve living conditions at Vista Gardens. When I was asked how long it would take to get an inspection, the fire marshal and I rejected their suggestion of a week or two. The meeting was on a Wednesday; on Thursday, the fire marshal created an operational plan; on Friday morning, county staff was on-site to begin an intensive four-day inspection of the common areas and individual apartments. As word spread, tenants came forward and asked inspectors to come into their apartments, indicating remarkable cooperation in a population sometimes fearful of government officials.
The Vista Gardens management has a few more weeks to abate the violations. In June, county inspectors plan to revisit the complex and perform a reinspection of the buildings. If no demonstrable progress has been made to comply with the law, the county can take the cases to court for adjudication. The intent of the enforcement effort, however, is not to clog up the courts; the focus is on providing clean, decent, affordable housing for the tenants of Vista Gardens, who have been living in deplorable conditions for far too long.