Grounds for Dispute: Mesfun Berhane, left, and Hector Zelada question the motives behind their co-op?s fee hike. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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The people living at the Arlandria-Chirilagua Housing Cooperative have, at times, thought themselves lucky. They are in control, after all, and have been since 1996, the year they organized and bought their 282-unit low-income development in Alexandria. As a result, occupancy-fee increases, evictions, and utility hikes became the will of the residents—or so Mesfun Berhane thought.

Berhane, who moved into his one-bedroom apartment 11 years ago, is among a group that has refused to pay a 15 percent occupancy-fee increase passed by a board of elected residents in December 2007. He faces eviction as a result.

“A co-op is supposed to be different than the traditional landlord-tenant relationship,” he says. “We don’t have a landlord. We’re not tenants.”

What they do have at Arlandria-Chirilagua is infighting, politics, and charges of corruption. Dissident residents blame the board, claiming it is raising fees in an effort to get rid of members who would vote boardmembers out in a fall election; the board says the fee hike would’ve gone over smoothly had it not been for the bad advice and influence of Tenants and Workers United (TWU), an Alexandria advocacy group with a long history at Arlandria-Chirilagua.

The battle over the hike came to a head on May 14, when residents organized a protest outside the complex’s management office. About 50 of them—many of them members of a group they call the Movement for a Democratic Cooperative—showed up with signs and demands that the financial books be opened.

One protester claimed the board management was withholding hot water in an attempt to push residents out. He was tired, he said, of giving his children cold baths.

Others alleged fraudulent elections, nepotism, and shady investments while the units fell into disrepair.

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Berhane, who frequently distributes fliers about the board’s actions and sometimes carries around a copy of the bylaws when walking around the complex, compares the board to a dictatorship. “They’re trying to run it like their family business,” he says.

Kathleen Henry, vice-president of the board, denies their allegations. The fee hike is not a sinister act, she says. The decision was made based on an increase in the property’s mortgage, its water bill, and legal fees.

“We take extraordinary lengths, within the confines of our bylaws, not to evict,” says Henry. “But people are not paying the charges, and the co-op has to pay the bills.” Residents, she says, “still are paying at least $300 to $400 less than market rate. That’s proof enough we’re doing out best.”

And as far as its accounting practices, Henry says accusations of improper investments—or residents’ public charges of outright stealing—are false. There are external audits to prove that, she says.

There is a place for blame, though, says Henry: Tenants and Workers United, which played a role in the occupancy fee strike, is forcing the board into eviction proceedings. “Because of interference by TWU, which was giving false information, there is the idea that the increase is not proper or necessary—and that is not true,” she says.

The face of TWU in this dispute is Jon Liss, its executive director since 2003. Liss’ name appeared on a sharply worded notice passed out to the residents announcing the occupancy fee increase and its necessity:

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Liss says he knows what’s really going on. “Essentially, without striking memberships, through a free and fair election, residents capable of making up their own minds would vote for a new regime,” he says. “[The board] would probably be voted out by a ratio of 75 to 25 percent—the 25 percent would be friends and family of the current board.”

In Liss’ experience, which he describes as organizing “against landlords in Northern Virginia for 20 years,” the worst housing practices involve managements that threaten to investigate tenants’ immigration status, intimidate them with yelling, use housing codes against residents, and squeeze as much as possible on rent. “And from what I’ve seen,” he says, “they’ve all been carried out by the current board and staff” of Arlandria-Chirilagua.

Henry denies all of Liss’ claims. “There is absolutely not—on our part, in terms of the board or management company—any calls to Immigration. Immigration does come here and, if asked if someone lives here, we feel we need to tell them, but we never call them.”

She further states that although TWU helped the tenants go co-op in the 1990s, the complex was at its most dysfunctional when Liss’ organization served as consultants—a relationship that changed two years ago when the board hired a new manager of the property. She alleges Liss’ involvement is a direct attempt to destroy the co-op by putting it out of business.

“Our residents are really intelligent people,” Henry says. “But they’re being misled.”

Berhane believes the board is simply attempting to paint a portrait of Liss and his group as brainwashers so that Henry and her colleagues can turn around and put the co-op out of business themselves. “They told us Jon was bad but could never come up with a reason why,” Berhane says. “Even if he were bad, it doesn’t give them a right to be worse. If they would hold a fair election, that would be the end of Jon’s involvement.”

And there’s yet another wrinkle: The board recently announced it is no longer accepting Section 8 housing vouchers. Henry says that the complex has such a small number of occupants using the vouchers that it decided it would make more sense to help residents find either alternative housing or other programs that will supplement their living expenses.

Hector Zelada, who has lived in the complex for 20 years, uses Section 8 vouchers and is among those in opposition to the current board, says he has heard little about getting help to supplement his income. He did, however, receive a notice telling him he’d have to start paying the full occupancy fee or find a new place to live by the end of June. He believes it is another attempt to eliminate occupants who will vote the board out.

“I don’t understand—why now?” Zelada says. “Why stop accepting Section 8 now?”

The election that will determine whether Henry and her fellow board members remain in control is in September. Henry says that almost all of the residents who were in the midst of eviction proceedings have paid back fees, plus the increase, and that at least one person involved in the fee strike has regained membership.

Berhane goes up against the co-op in an Alexandria court on June 19 and is looking forward to it. “Fighting and challenging them—those are the basic rights of a member,” he says. “It is why one becomes a member in the first place.”

He says he’s aware of the consequences if his co-op membership is revoked and the decision is upheld. It’s one of the few facts on which all parties can agree: “You can’t vote,” Berhane says, “if you’re evicted.”