RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Cockroaches scatter under the burners on Marcela Xitumul’s stove.
Xitumul says a crew came by to fix it recently but it only took four days to stop working again.
In the next room, where an expecting mother sleeps, Xitumul says bugs come out of cracks in the floor at night. Strips of black tape cover the slits as a temporary fix.
Down the hall, Xitumul uses a wad of duct tape to clog a hole in the closet where she says rats are making themselves at home. She holds up a banana and a mango with bite marks and jokes that her dog doesn’t care for fruit.
Xitumul says pests have been a problem since she moved into The Communities at Southwood, Richmond’s largest Latino neighborhood, about five years ago. She says the issues have never been fully resolved, despite regular pleas with maintenance.
“They just give rat traps like those over there,” translated Sofia Vega, an immigrant justice community organizer with the New Virginia Majority. “She’s exhausted from having to constantly go and ask maintenance to help fix the issue and then they just tell her they don’t have the staff or they’re too busy or they will check in later but they never do.”
Just down the street, mother Sindy Cabrera fears her microwave will catch fire. She says her toilet won’t flush without a mess.
“Everything will come out from where that black duct tape is,” Vega translated.
Cabrera said she has been waiting for more than two months for maintenance to fix it but she’s not holding her breath. Frustrated by inaction in the past, she says she has used her own money to repair her flooding bathtub and sink.
Mother Natalia Najarro says she is constantly scrubbing mold off of her bathtub and, now, she’s worried about a crumbling ceiling caving in. She cut a pool noodle in half to block the space under her door where she says pests have previously gotten in.
Vega said advocates have heard hundreds of similar stories from tenants here. They held a rally alongside residents pushing for change in November of last year.
“I think it’s the reason they go out and fight everyday for better repairs because, obviously, as a mother or a father you don’t want your child to live in conditions like these where they’re worried bed bugs or rats or cockroaches are going to crawl over them when they sleep or even bite them, or that the mold and the humidity that they live in is going to give them some type of diseases like asthma,” Vega said.
That fight was dealt a setback earlier this week when Governor Glenn Youngkin rejected a bipartisan bill that advocates say could be a big help in situations like this.
In his veto explanation, Youngkin said, “This legislation contains unnecessary and duplicative provisions, already established under the Virginia Uniform Statewide Building Code (USBC), that provide effective powers to localities to enforce violations.”
Delegate Marcia Price (D-Newport News) sponsored the bill after hearing about problems in her own district.
“The justification that was given for the veto is not factually accurate,” Price said in an interview.
Price said, currently, localities have the power to condemn properties, which risks worsening the affordable housing shortage.
Alternatively, they can sue for a fine but that presents a problem too, according to Price. She said that money goes back to the localities–not tenants–and it often doesn’t cover the full cost of fixes.
Price said this bill would make a difference because it would empower localities to force repairs and allow them to take action against an entire apartment complex more swiftly than a private attorney could.
“This is really about the landlord having to live up to their side of the contract and that’s just what’s not happening,” Price said.
The Virginia Apartment Management Association, which represents more than 230,000 rental units, supported the legislation.
“VAMA strongly believes landlords and tenants have a responsibility to maintain fit premises, and our members constantly strive to maintain the highest quality rental housing available. To that end, VAMA worked with the bill’s supporters on amendments that preserved the intent of the bill while avoiding unintended consequences,” said VAMA Executive Director Patrick McCloud in a statement.
The General Assembly could override Governor Youngkin’s veto in a session set for April 27. Price fears they won’t have enough votes.
If the bill becomes law, it’s not yet clear if immediate action would be taken against Southwood. The City of Richmond’s Property Maintenance and Code Enforcement Division didn’t immediately respond when asked if the property had any pending or closed complaints.
Carroll Steele, Southwood’s property manager, didn’t take a stance on the legislation and declined to be interviewed.
Instead, Steele referred our request to long-time residents who say they’re pleased with the living conditions.
“When I request repairs, they’re done almost instantly,” said Tina Idlet Tonzo, who has been living at Southwood for six years.
“The place has changed since it used to be before, so I think this is a great place to live,” said Oscar Espinoza, a resident of nearly 17 years.
Mark Hubbard, a spokesperson for Southwood, said they’ve increased maintenance staff by 50 percent since a Richmond Times Dispatch investigation last year led to a housing discrimination probe by former Attorney General Mark Herring. Hubbard said there are currently 15 people working full-time.
Hubbard said they just completed assessments of all 1,300-plus units. He said they have already addressed several hundred issues he described as minor and they expect to address a backlog of more complicated repairs by the end of May at their own cost, regardless of the cause. He said there are more than one hundred on the list.
Hubbard said they’ve also hired a contractor to do ongoing pest control. He said they typically visit 45 units per week and he doesn’t believe there is a waiting list.
“In collecting this data and talking with residents, we discovered that over 70% of the issues found had not been previously reported. Part of our outreach is to help inform residents exactly who to call and what to do when they have a maintenance need in the future even though they are provided such information at move-in,” Hubbard wrote in an email.
While Hubbard was unable to disclose specifics without permission from tenants, he said it’s “factually inaccurate” that Southwood has done nothing to address problems reported by the three tenants we spoke to for this story. He noted that at least two had not reported an issue with pest control in the past six months and that they have completed several work orders in these units, though he acknowledged there are still some pending.
Advocates say many of the tenants are distrustful of the property manager’s promises.
While the progress may look good on paper, they fear the fixes will be band-aid solutions to long-standing problems.
“These are horrendous living conditions and nobody who pays rent deserves to be living in a situation like this,” Vega said.