|Olde Salem Village|
The website for the Olde Salem Village apartments in Bailey’s Crossroads describes them as “beautiful” with “well designed kitchens” and “close to the East Falls Church Metro.”
In fact, Olde Salem Village is a bug-infested, poorly maintained apartment complex with outdated appliances in tiny kitchens. It’s located in the crime-ridden Culmore area three miles from Metro.
What’s worse, the landlord, JBG/Residential Management Inc., charges hefty rents and piles on extra fees, including charges for using electricity to run tenants’ air conditioners, which is illegal, says Simon Sandoval-Moshenberg, an attorney with the Falls Church-based Legal Aid Justice Center
|Roger Job Rodriguez and daughter Briza in their Olde Salem Village apartment.|
That group is representing Olde Salem Village tenants Everth Romero Sanchez, Amanda Quinteros, and Jose Viera in a lawsuit filed in the Fairfax County Circuit Court Aug. 20 against JBG/Residential Management and co-owners of the apartment complex, Cartagena Inc. and Sabadell Inc.
The suit charges the landlord “has been forcing the tenants of Olde Salem Village to pay for their use of electrical utilities to air condition their apartments in addition to rent in direct violation of their lease agreements.”
Sandoval-Moshenberg calls JBG a “slum lord” who is “nickel and diming the poorest of poor immigrants.”
His clients pay a base rent of $1,650 for a two-bedroom unit at Olde Salem Village, but end up paying much more. There’s an annual $150 lease renewal fee. A second parking sticker is $50 a month. Tenants are charged fees for hot water and trash service. And there are exorbitant late fees.
If you’re just one day late with the rent, the fee is 10 percent of the entire month’s rent. Even if a tenant has paid most of the rent, the fee is calculated on the entire month’s rent. For example, if a tenant only owes $100, the fee could be $150, for a total charge of $250.
|The kitchen in the Job Rodriguez apartment.|
“In Virginia, there is nothing you can do about the rent. Landlords can charge whatever the market bears,” Sandoval-Moshenberg says. As a result, the lawsuit is going after the air conditioning fees.
Tenants have to buy their own box air conditioner and are charged for using it. Tenants can either pay $325 by the end of March for each AC window unit for the whole summer, $450 if they miss the March 31 deadline, or $75 per month for each AC unit.
Sandoval-Moshenberg calculated that for the average apartment size and average cost of electricity, “you’d have to run it 30 hours a day to get your money’s worth.”
“They are essentially making a profit off this,” he says. And that’s illegal. “Landlords are supposed to pass through utility costs to the tenant, not profit off it.” The statement on the Olde Salem website that says there’s an extra charge for air conditioning was added after the suit was filed.
He estimates JBG is raking in $400,000 a year from tenants on the AC fee. The prepaid AC fees have been going up every year, and tenants who miss a payment are charged excessive late fees. Last year, plaintiff Everth Romero Sanchez was charged a $157 late fee on an unpaid $123 AC bill. When he couldn’t pay, JBG threatened to evict him, even though his rent and other fees had been paid.
On a recent visit, we met Roger Job Rodriguez, originally from Bolivia, who’s lived at Olde Salem Village for a year and a-half with his wife, Ayde, and children Briza, age 2, and Michael, age 3. He can only afford one AC unit for which he pays $75 a month.
His rent is listed at $1,500 but says he pays $1,700 a month with all the extra charges, including $185 a month for hot water plus fees for trash service and air conditioning. Because he pays so much for housing, he doesn’t earn enough from his construction job to pay for anything beyond his family’s basic needs.
In the rental office, former tenant Jhakelinne Vasquez was waiting to ask about a $538 bill she received for “damages” with no explanation included. She had paid her rent and all fees before moving out, she says. “They just want to get money out of you any way they can.” She expects she’ll have to go to small claims court to fight those charges.
Old Salem Village was “horrible,” Vasquez says. “It was filled with bed bugs. The paint was peeling off. There were rats and cockroaches everywhere. I had to get rid of all my furniture.” Vasquez moved to a nicer and cheaper apartment at Willow Run at Mark Center in Alexandria, which has a pool and gym.
Sandoval-Moshenberg calls the outrageous fees at Olde Salem Village an “immigrant surcharge.” JBG doesn’t charge extra for AC or have such extreme late fees at its apartments in Rosslyn or Ballston, he notes.
Despite the excessive extra charges, Olde Salem Village—and other complexes in Culmore—continue to attract immigrants as there are few other housing options in the area close to stores and services that cater to people with without good English language skills.
“The biggest problem we have in this area is the high cost of rent, which inevitably leads to tremendous overcrowing, which causes a great number of social ills,” Sandoval-Moshenberg says.
He hopes the lawsuit will be resolved before next year’s air conditioning season. The lawsuit requests a jury trial and seeks a declaratory ruling that the AC fees are unlawful, injunctive relief against future AC fees, and monetary damages to the plaintiffs.