María Lara and her 10-year-old daughter, Ashley, live in Langley Park, Md., a densely populated, low-income suburb of Washington, D.C. She says the worst part about living in the Bedford and Victoria Station complex, a multifamily residential property, is that she and her daughter don’t feel safe.
“These apartments are rotten,” Lara says, because the place is “roach- and mice-infested, water leaks everywhere, [the] walls have holes and pipes are exposed.” Her kitchen floors are buckling, and Lara can see down to her neighbor’s first-floor apartment.
“I feel like the ceiling is going to collapse on us or we are going to fall on my neighbor below us,” the 44-year-old native of El Salvador says.
Ashley worries about being bitten by bedbugs or rodents at night.
“Sometimes my daughter wakes up in the middle of the night when she hears rats and mice roaming around,” Lara says, fighting back tears. Ashley asks her mom if rodent traps are set up in the apartment. “She’s anxious and stressed and often develops difficulty breathing.”
Lara, along with six more residents, is a plaintiff in a class action lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court for Maryland this week against their landlord, Arbor Realty Trust Inc., and its subsidiaries. The complaint alleges violations of the Fair Housing Act, including intentional discrimination based on race and national origin. The company’s business strategy, the complaint alleges, involves the “intentional targeting of these low-income communities of color.”
“Basic maintenance and necessary repairs to both properties have been ignored and neglected to the point that the exclusively minority families living in them are forced to live in conditions that belie expected housing conditions in the region,” the complaint states.
CASA de Maryland, an immigrant advocacy organization headquartered in Hyattsville, Md., organized the tenants for months and is also a plaintiff in the case.
“The conditions at the BVS [Bedford and Victoria Station] properties, deteriorating in real time around the families living in them, would shock the conscience of most Marylanders and others living only a short distance away,” according to the complaint.
The Bedford and Victoria Station complex is managed by Ross Companies, a defendant in the class action. According to the company’s website, Ross is “a premier owner, renovator and manager of multifamily assets in the Mid-Atlantic region since 1983.” NPR reached out to the company’s public relations office in Bethesda, Md., and was told that “the company has seen the complaint, but it’s not talking to the media. We speak with our residents.”
NPR reached out to Arbor Realty Trust but got no response to requests for comment. According to the complaint, the company owns “over 8,000 units and has acquired more than $1.75 billion of multifamily properties across the country.”
With few options, tenants often must stay in poorly maintained apartments
Like many immigrants, Lara says crushing poverty pushed her to migrate to the Washington area in 2006. She thought life in the U.S. would be easier, but it has been a struggle. Ashley’s father abandoned them when Lara was expecting the baby. Lara works in construction, cleaning and prepping materials — work that isn’t always reliable. The coronavirus pandemic severely cut her work hours to less than half.
Lara has lived in the Bedford and Victoria Station complex since 2009, and though Lara says management has neglected the units for a long time, she says that the pandemic lockdown seems to have emboldened her landlord. When she has asked for needed repairs in her unit, “the manager says, why don’t you leave if you don’t like it here?”