Squeezed Out of Northern Virginia

Magazine cover reading "The Best of the Press: Southern Journalism Awards"

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 15 No. 3/4, "The Best of the Press: Southern Journalism Awards." Find more from that issue here.

The four-part series "Squeezed Out" in the April 14-17, 1987 Fairfax Journal examined Northern Virginia's low-income housing crisis. The articles covered the struggles of families being forced to move because they won't be able to pay rents in renovated apartments, the ethical predicament for developers renovating buildings, and various remedies. 


Fairfax — Each afternoon when he gets out of Washington-Lee High School, 16-year-old Oscar Sandoval has three hours to study before he goes to Rosslyn to clean offices there. He makes $3.35 an hour, which helps his aunt Zoila, who has a job stocking a restaurant's salad bar, pay the $450 monthly rent for their apartment at Lee Gardens in Arlington County, Virginia. 

A slight young man who speaks in gentle, barely audible Spanish, Sandoval left El Salvador three years ago with his aunt to escape his country's civil war and find work. He has not lived with his parents, who were impoverished farmers in El Salvador, since they went to Houston to find jobs when he was a baby. 

Sandoval's about to move again. 

At the end of January, he and his aunt and 138 other families at Lee Gardens were told they'd have to move out by May 31. They live in buildings included in "phase one" of changes planned at Lee Gardens. That means their apartment will be among the first to be renovated. The developers, the Artery Organization of Bethesda, Maryland, plan to strip, rebuild, rewire, dress up, and re-rent the apartments for a lot more money. 

So much more money, in fact, that Sandoval and his aunt won't be able to afford to live in the future glitz that Lee Gardens' stark, orange-red brick buildings will become. 

They'll have plenty of company on the road out. Many more Lee Gardens families are expected to leave the complex's 963 apartments as phases two, three, four, and so on are completed within the next year and a half. The question is: where will they go? There's precious little low-income housing available in Northern Virginia; the vacancy rate for apartments in Arlington, for example, is 1.4 percent. The overall vacancy rate for Northern Virginia rental apartments is about 3 percent. 

And the market is about to be flooded. Besides the thousands of Lee Gardens tenants, another 2,000 people in two low-income complexes in the Arlandria section of Alexandria — the Bruce Street Apartments, owned by Washington developers Conrad Cafritz and John Freeman, and Artery-owned Dominion Gardens — are also looking for places to live. 

Many of the tenants are like Sandoval and his aunt: people scraping by at low-paying jobs sweeping floors for national associations, washing dishes in downtown restaurants, or dusting the file cabinets of Crystal City weapons lobbyists. "We are people who are used to washing our dishes by hand," said Blanca Munoz, a Lee Gardens tenant from Guatemala. 

Finding new homes they can afford won't be easy. Immigrants like Munoz and Sandoval and his aunt face a double whammy: not only are they restricted by their income, they also are burdened by a limited knowledge of English. 

Other Lee Gardens and Arlandria families have a third strike against them: about 28 percent of the apartment complexes in Arlington don't permit children. In Alexandria, 20 percent of the apartments refuse children and another 70 percent restrict the number of children allowed. 

With those obstacles, it's not surprising that many of the 5,000 tenants living in Lee Gardens, Bruce Street, and Dominion Gardens have decided to fight the evictions. Some have banded together to demand their apartments be maintained for low-income people. They also have developed a different tactic: with the help of Northern Virginia Legal Services and the Institute for Public Representation at the Georgetown Law Center, they've headed straight for the courts. Their targets are the two developers: the Artery Organization and Freeman and Cafritz. 


In Alexandria, the Campaign to Save Our Homes, a Hispanic-dominated but racially mixed tenant organization, has demanded the city use its powers to condemn and purchase property to save Arlandria's low-income housing. It has about 15 to 30 staunch organizers. "We don't need no relocation money" offered by the developers, said Rena Brown, a Dominion Gardens tenant and leader of the campaign. "We want to buy the whole place." 

Alexandria officials applied to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development last September for subsidies for 315 apartments in Arlandria. But because HUD is named in a federal suit filed by Arlandria's tenants, federal officials said they cannot approve the application. 

A second, less active tenant group, the Alexandria United Tenants Organization (AUTO), doesn't buy the campaign's approach. Instead, the black-dominated AUTO advocates better services for those who are going to be displaced. 

They don't think HUD programs are a good answer to housing problems. That's because HUD subsidy schemes regulating the number of people allowed to live in an apartment would be more strictly enforced, which would leave many people who were crowded into Arlandria apartments without a home, said Barbara Harris, a consultant with AUTO. "No matter who purchases or owns them, many of the people who are being displaced are living in an overcrowded situation," she said. 

In Arlington, tenants have welded an alliance of 24 organizations, known as the Lee Gardens Interest Group. It was formed soon after the apartments were sold to Artery in November. Members of the group have lobbied for the tenants, kept in constant contact with county officials, and negotiated with Artery to buy some of the apartments. Reverend Horace "Tuck" Grinnell of St. Charles Catholic Church, a spokesman for the coalition, said the county's "priorities are not addressing the more fundamental needs of the community — housing, shelter, food." 

The group that initiated the coalition, the non-profit Tenants of Arlington County, also has hired fiery Magda Gotts to work with tenants at the complex. Since the initial meeting after a Mass at St. Charles six months ago, Gotts has met every Sunday with a group of tenants to plan strategy. 

"For tenants to organize and to realize they have to organize is the most important thing," said Gotts, who is from Guatemala. "It's as important as working or doing something for your family." 

Julieta Nelson, who cares for children in her home at Lee Gardens and whose husband is a waiter, agreed: "Every man has a right to a home, however humble." 

"This is a problem the county should have known existed," said Nelson, who speaks in a lilting Jamaican dialect. "The governments are there to protect the needs of the people." 

Patricia Rodriguez, 22, a member of the group that meets each Sunday with Gotts, said, "They [developers] want to do their stuff wherever they want. They don't think of the people here." 

Rodriguez works as a cashier at Drug Fair so she can send money back to her family in Guatemala. "We'll show the people that they [tenants] can fight." 


So far, Lee Gardens tenants may not have won the war, but they've surely won some battles. After months of negotiations, Artery agreed to sell the section of North Lee Gardens above 10th Street — 362 apartments in all — to the Arlington Housing Corp. Artery has yet to set a price and won't until it can estimate the cost of the tenants' lawsuit, company officials said. 

In turn, the housing corporation is seeking state and county funds to obtain rental subsidies for those apartments. The federal government granted subsidies that could be used for at least 200 apartments in North Lee Gardens, provided the non-profit housing corporation can afford it. 

But those victories leave a difficult question for Lee Gardens tenants. "If they set aside 20 percent [of the apartments], who's going to decide who gets to stay?" said Pam Doran, who helps displaced tenants find new places to live through the Northern Virginia Family Service, another member of the interest group. 

LouAnn Frederick, director of the Arlington Housing Corp., said the interest group and tenant organization are just beginning to grapple with the problem, which she said needs "to be addressed with care." 

Not all the tenants are fighting eviction, however. Some, particularly immigrants who are in Northern Virginia illegally, have quietly accepted their fate and left their apartments without a sound. "Most people are not Gandhis or Martin Luther Kings," said Sarita Singh, 32, originally from India, who lives at Lee Gardens with her baby son and husband, a management trainee at McDonald's. 

Artery has offered relocation payments ranging from $320 to $1,000, depending on the size of the apartment, the wages earned by the tenant, and the tenant's age. Freeman has offered $1,050 to tenants who move within 60 days of receiving their eviction notice. 

As of April 9, 177 of the 499 apartments at Dominion Gardens and 197 of the 963 units at Lee Gardens were vacant, said Dan Mackesey, a spokesman for Artery. About 160 apartments at the 299-unit Bruce Street are empty, Freeman said. The most recent figures show 31 of the families who had moved out of Dominion Gardens had found apartments in Alexandria, said Mackesey. Others moved to Arlington, Washington, Maryland, and back to Central America. 

The tenants are leaving behind bittersweet memories. They speak of Lee Gardens as a transplanted Central American town where friends meet to chat, gossip, and picnic together. But every tenant has at least one maintenance horror story to tell. And questions about upkeep of the buildings are met with a weary rolling of the eyes or ironic laughter. 

One family, who asked not to be identified, noticed that water had seeped through to their ceiling in a Lee Gardens building on North Wayne Street. The couple complained to the management for months about the weak plaster, but no one came to fix it, they said. One day when they were in bed, the plaster came down, landing inches from them. "If the buildings are getting worse and worse it's because they don't take care of it," said the father of the family. 

The new developers would not argue that point. "When something broke, it was fixed with a Band-Aid when a Band-Aid was not enough," said Freeman, the Bruce Street owner. He said the previous owners were guilty of "a failure to maintain the property in a satisfactory fashion." 

Despite the constant maintenance aggravations, Lee Gardens and Arlandria tenants have a determined loyalty to their community. On a warm day, the dusty lawns that had once been lush grass are filled with children kicking balls and playing games. Salsa music blares from open windows and car radios. Women carrying babies and groceries stop to chat with each other. A van filled with tortillas meanders through the complex selling the Central American staple. 

"In the summer you can find people talking because that's what we do in our countries," said Rodriguez. "When we're here at home we like to hear music, cook, have fun, because we work very hard and we want to have fun." 

While the effort to preserve their community continues, the future is uncertain for the tenants. 

Frances Mae Byrd, 43, is the daughter of a Georgia sharecropper who has lived in her apartment at Dominion Gardens for six years. She and her daughter, Jannie, 21, who has a six-month-old son, collect $644 a month from the federal Aid to Dependent Children program. Meeting the $410 rent is a monthly struggle, said Byrd. She said she could not afford the new rents of the renovated apartments. "I haven't bought clothes in so long I don't even know what's in the store," said Byrd, wearing a torn house dress. 

She doesn't know where she and her family will be a year from now.