Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

“This structure is unsafe or unfit for habitation and its use or occupancy has been prohibited by the building maintenance official.”

So reads the black-on-orange sign pasted to the front door of a sad-sack red brick rambler not far from my north Arlington home, one of three blighted homes with which I’m familiar.

It’s a vision: corrugated plastic drainage pipe stretched across the yard, sagging front-door awning, faded trim paint and overgrown shrubbery.

The neighbors murmur (anonymously to me, understandably) their hopes that the county intervenes. “The hoarder on our block had his house condemned by the county about two years ago, but nothing ever happened,” one told me. “They just posted another condemnation sign, which starts the process all over again. I don’t understand why the county can’t move faster on this.”

The neighbor of another blighted home was more blunt. The owner is “a thoughtless slob, and we can’t put our trash out because he’ll go through it,” he said of a situation he and his wife have endured for decades. But this owner is “convivial and not violent, so it’s a low-temperature irritation. The county seems oblivious, and nothing ever changes.”

The government must balance such complaints against property and privacy rights, as well as evince sympathy for the disease of hoarding.

Arlington’s Department of Community Planning, Housing and Development maintains a public data portal with a list of structures declared unsafe or unfit for occupancy.

It lists a case number, street name, action date, action code, description and case status, but no exact addresses.

Not publishing addresses wasn’t always the practice. The Washington Post in 2003 reported specific homes on an Arlington blight list of 90 properties valued at $38 million.

“The county does not maintain a list of properties where hoarding is a concern,” I was told by Jessica Margarit, the department’s communications and engagement manager. “Whether compulsive or pathological, hoarding is an extreme behavior in humans where the collection of, or failure to discard, items impairs basic living activities and often creates unsafe living conditions which are addressed by standards within the Virginia Uniform Statewide Building Code. The medical information for persons receiving treatment for hoarding behaviors is protected” under the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.

The county has empaneled a Hoarding Task Force, she added, that includes members from the Fire Department, Human Services Department and Inspections Services Division, who collaborate with the Police Department.

Complaints from neighbors are investigated within 24 hours, the county’s website says.

Homeowners with “substandard conditions on their property” who need information on staying compliant are provided coaching on second chances before officials get tough with a court-ordered inspection, it adds. There’s a distinction between a building code violation and infringements on ordinances controlling noise and conditions of private property.

“Nobody wants to receive a notice of violation or order of correction identifying substandard conditions on their property,” the instructions note. “If it’s determined that you don’t have the skills to correct the violations, you may need the assistance of a contractor.”

My neighbor near a third blighted home counsels patience. “The owner isn’t a bad person,” she said. “The neighbors mostly tolerate the situation — nothing is going to change. No one seems worried about property values — houses on this street will sell.”


The term “country music” coined in Arlington?

Public broadcasting stalwart WETA, based in Shirlington, to its credit has supplemented the national Ken Burns documentary opus titled “Country Music” with its own localized mini-docs.

They tell the tale of 1950s local WARL radio impresario Connie B. Gay, who launched the careers of Jimmy Dean and Patsy Cline, as the insider who popularized the term as a more dignified alternative to “hillbilly music.”