Issues Persist at Affordable Apartment Complex

Members of Kettler, the management company of the Fields Apartments, home to a large number of residents benefiting from a deal to ensure affordable rental rates there in the last decade, were set to come before the City Council in November to address ongoing issues of mold, mice and other problems faced by tenants. However, they never made an appearance. 

Accompanying a forceful letter to the editor this week (published elsewhere in this edition), a new battery of photos was sent to the News-Press showing that some of the issues have still not been resolved. This, despite promises made to the City’s Housing Commision by the Kettler team in mid-October. These gross photos show mold covered walls, dead mice and broken appliances. 

The  challenge now falls directly into the lap of Dana Lewis, who, it was announced this week, has been elevated to head the City’s Department of Housing and Human Services. With the departure of Nancy Vincent, she’s taken over the point in the City’s response to the need for affordable housing that includes seeking to extend an arrangement whereby the Fields offers rents at a reduced rate for some tenants. 

The Fields Apartments, located on Ellison Street, constitute some of only a few affordable apartments in the area for lower income families due in part of a deal with a third party affordable housing entity to keep its rents low. It’s a deal that is due to expire in the next few years, while the issues at these apartments have been ongoing even as many residents do not have anywhere else they can live. 

“While Kettler has been reporting progress, I’ve been getting contradictory reports from residents and volunteers,” said council member Letty Hardi. “This will continue to be a top priority for us— it goes without saying that the mold and rodent issues are unacceptable living conditions, so I want the city to take every measure we have available to us to hold Kettler accountable and address the issues.”

Any reports of mold are legally required to be looked at within five days of a complaint being filed but tenants have been living with mold in their living spaces for much longer. Mold can cause many health issues, especially for children, many of which live in these apartments. 

“What we’re really unsettled about is the delay of supporting families with the repairs that need to be done in these apartments that are substandard living conditions,” said Jennifer Santiago, Director of Equity and Excellence Falls Church City Schools and one of the co-authors of the letter published in this week’s edition. “Those aren’t living conditions that I would ever allow people that I know to be living in. It’s hard as a community to know that this is how our neighbors and friends are living.”

Members of Kettler’s team were invited to speak at multiple City Council meetings but never appeared. All communication has been carried out virtually. 

Based on accounts by multiple residents, there is no tracking system for requests for maintenance or repairs. Rather than having an electronic log, requests are written down on a sticky note which is passed along to those completing the work. 

“A couple of families have indicated that there have been some improvements made,” said Santiago. “One family indicated that almost all of the repairs that they needed are almost complete. Other families have indicated that contractors have come in and done parts of the work and then left.”

Santiago also noted that there may be a lack of communication due to the lack of a tracking system to know what the status is of these requests. 

Susan Finarelli, Director of Communications and Public Information Officer for the City, stated that “[t]he City’s Building Inspection team will conduct on-site inspections at The Fields in response to complaints that have been received. These inspections will be in coordination with the Fairfax County Health Department, Office of Environmental Health.”

While the Fields Apartments are considered “affordable” housing, and there is a third party affordable housing entity agreement to keep them that way due to expire in a few years, they are not directly subsidized in any way, and many of the adults who live there are working multiple jobs to make ends meet while coming home to less than ideal conditions. 

“We started educating the family on their rights to make complaints and ask for repairs to be done,” said Erika Siguiera, Parent Liaison/Director of the Family Resource Center for Falls Church City Schools, who has been involved in solving these issues for a few years. “We heard from many families that they were painting the mold or hiring outside people themselves and helping others who live in the building.”

One woman sustained an injury while cooking on a stovetop that she had asked to be replaced, leaving burns on her body. She did not go to the hospital over a fear of an extensive amount of medical bills. It was months after this accident occured that repairs began to be made. 

Kettler was reached out to but did not provide a comment in time for publication. 

Following Vincent’s retirement next month, Lewis will be promoted to Director of Housing and Human Services. 

City Manager Wyatt Shields stated that, “Dana has been a positive leader for the Department for over 15 years and a recognized City wide leader for many of these years as well.  Some of the attributes that stand out for me after many conversations with people in the community and on City staff is her knowledge and experience with City programs, her ideas on how to grow these services and broaden their reach, her dedication and commitment to the people we serve, and her positive and collaborative leadership style.”

Lewis will move into her new role on January 4, 2022.