Keep the lights on

JSblogA recent spate of winter storms reminded me how desperately the county—and indeed the region and nation—need to get on board with installing electric and communications utility lines, below ground.

Weather and falling tree branches cause 40 percent of power outages in the United States, according to Erich Gunther, a fellow at the Institute of Electrical And Electronics Engineers. Another 10 to 35 percent are caused by animals—mostly squirrels—and traffic accidents involving utility poles. During last month’s storms, over 100,000 people in Fairfax County were left without power.

The electric grid consists of thousands of fuses, junction boxes and other electro-mechanical parts. Like your cellphone, these systems work best when exposed to the middle of the temperature and moisture range they were designed for.  However, even the best designed above ground utility transmission systems rarely survive being struck by high winds or vehicular traffic. Systems that pass through forested areas or heavily traveled roadways, like Richmond Highway, are especially vulnerable.

So it was with great interest that I recently read that legislation introduced by Virginia state Senator Scott Surovell would provide a funding mechanism to finance the installation of underground utility lines.  Surovell’s bill, SB1759, would enable Fairfax County to levy a tax of not more than $1 per month on electric bills throughout the county to help pay for placing electric distribution lines underground alongside roads with transit-oriented development.

It can cost as much as 10 times as much to bury power wires instead of stringing them overhead, according to some industry estimates. So paying for buried power lines is not inconsequential. What’s more, not every typography, such as areas prone to frequent flooding, can accept buried lines.

Still, much of Europe is powered by underground utilities as is Wall Street and the federal district of our Nation’s capital. As a result, power outages in these areas are rare. In addition to the improvements in the reliability of power transmission, installing power lines underground helps prevent electrocution deaths and keep the public and utility workers safer.

Surovell’s bill passed both houses of the General Assembly last month and is awaiting the Governor’s signature.

I encourage you to urge Gov. Ralph Northam to sign this sorely needed legislation. I also urge you to keep pressure on law makers and regulators to require that utility power lines be buried as a part of any major infrastructure project, such as the widening of the Richmond Highway corridor.

A Free Press

I‘ve been absent from these pages these past few months because much of my time has been consumed by activities involving, not housing and property management, but my former profession: journalism.

  • In July I attended the closing of the Los Angeles Times newspaper’s historic headquarters.
  • In August, I spoke at the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication conference in Washington, D.C. on the occasion of the 50th year anniversary of the Urban Journalism Workshop program for young minority journalists
  • And in September, I held a book party for a former newspaper colleague who authored a new book on racism, and injustice in American law enforcement.
  • Today, as a consumer rather than a producer of daily journalism, I had almost forgotten the powerful and necessary ways in which the press carries out what Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black said, is its essential role in our democracy to “to serve the governed, not the governors” and “expose deception in government.”


    The three events I participated in this past summer reminded me how much the journalism mandate Justice Black described can shape and impact our lives on issues as disparate as politics, technology and climate change. (The picture at left shows the 2018 class of UJW students and mentors).

    In recent years, the power of the press has sometimes extended even to social media and blogs like this one, which, over the years, has focused attention on digital red lining, subsidized housing injustice and homelessness.

    Martin Baron, my former editor at the Los Angeles Times, who is now editor of the Washington Post, told me last year that “these are exhausting but energizing” times for journalists. Indeed, in addition to journalism’s traditional bread and butter of crime coverage, politics, business and sports news—journalists must now grapple with the seemingly intractable rise in political gridlock and social division, as well as an escalation in mass shootings and skyrocketing opiate drug abuse.

    So I wanted to take time in our last post of the year, to reaffirm my appreciation for the men and women (and the generation to come) whose tireless search for the truth and support for the free exchange of ideas will, hopefully, help our democracy navigate these increasingly turbulent waters.

    Affordable Housing Shortage

    Darius In the wake of the nationwide affordable housing shortage, the federal government has proposed tripling rents for the poorest tenants receiving federal housing assistance and encouraging some 4.5 million households enrolled in federal voucher and public housing programs to shorten their stays in order to make way for new tenants.

    The plan put forth this spring by Ben Carson, secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, has been criticized by experts who say it will do little to create more affordable housing at a time when stagnating wages make it hard for the poor to pay rising rents and the construction of affordable rental apartments lags far behind the need.

    Under Carson’s plan, maximum rents paid by the poorest households in public housing would triple from $50 to $150.

    A report released last year by the National Multifamily Housing Council (NMHC) and National Apartment Association (NAA) projected that 4.6 million new housing units will be needed to meet the demand in 2030. Yet land use rules have become more restrictive over the years, choking off the development of affordable housing, the study noted.

    For every 100 extremely low-income households in need of an affordable dwelling, only 29 units are available, according to the Urban Institute, a Washington D.C.-based think tank that studies U.S. economic and social policy.

    In addition, as we have previously pointed out in this blog, some of HUD’s own rules can prevent the poor from qualifying for affordable housing.

    So instead of adding yet another rule that could, effectively, make affordable housing more costly and less accessible, I spent the last few days scouring the Internet for more practical and creative solutions to the affordable housing crisis. These are some of the ideas I found:

    Clean up and promote Low-Income Housing Tax Credits. Dubbed the most successful social program that nobody’s ever heard of, by Health Affairs, the federal LIHTC program has financed the construction of nearly three million rental units for low-income Americans since 1986.

    Lower affordable housing construction costs by streamlining building regulations, using vacant government property like closed schools and utilizing off-site construction techniques to reduce construction time and lower material costs.

    Offer density bonuses, like the City of Alexandria, in return for providing affordable homes.

    Give credits or tax breaks to encourage homeowners to rent or sell a livable portion of their home like a basement or carriage house as Accessory Dwelling Units.

    In order to provide more affordable housing policy-makers must think outside of the box and utilize innovative solutions to address the problem without dramatically raising rents or forcing landlords to kick poor people out of their homes.

    If you have any ideas or resourceful information, comment and share your thoughts below.

    Bugging Out

    Darius Sleep tight and don’t let the bed bugs bite is a phrase many of us heard during childhood and, later, paid little attention to once we became adults. But according to Orkin – the Atlanta-based pest control company – there are more people affected by bed bugs in the United States now than ever before.

    That’s especially true in our area. According to the latest Orkin list of the Top 50 Bed Bug Cities Baltimore and Washington D.C. ranked No. 1 No. 2, respectively, among cities metro areas where the company performed the most bed bug treatments from December 1, 2015 – November 30, 2016.

    For those lucky enough to have never encountered bed bugs, they’re flat, reddish brown tiny pest that feed on blood (humans are their favorite). Don’t let the name fool you. Bed bugs are not limited to only beds. They can be found within the crevices of furniture, headboards, electrical outlet sockets, luggage & even in unsuspecting places such as bathroom vents & public transportation seats.

    Despite how awful the thought of having bed bugs appears, treating these bugs are more of an inconvenience then a serious health concern. Yes, when they feed, bed bugs do leave behind itchy welts on their victims. However, there is no substantial research indicating that bed bugs transmit diseases.

    One of the main reasons people hate bed bugs is that treatments in most cases require throwing away the infested items, such as mattresses, sheets, clothes and other costly household items.

    The treatments in itself are not expensive but costs can mount if repeated treatments are required.

    Under the Virginia Residential Landlord and Tenant Act, landlords are held accountable for keeping an apartment unit safe and habitable. As a result, apartment owners find themselves spending and budgeting more money for pest control treatments annd bed bug mattress covers due to the huge increase of bed bug sightings.

    In April 2012, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) issued Notice H 2012-5, which addresses pest infestations. With help from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), HUD encouraged Landlords to develop an Integrated Pest Management Plan (IPM), which serves as a guideline to prevent & control infestations.

    Some key principles from the plan include, raising awareness through education, encouraging tenants to reduce the clutter that attracts bugs and to take precautions when brining in luggage, coats and other items that may have come in contact with bed bugs outside the home.

    Election Motivation

    Election observers have long lamented the fact that only roughly half of registered voters cast ballots in presidential elections, and even fewer vote in other races.

    A 2008 study by Stanford University researchers Joshua Harder and Jon A. Krosnick found that “an individual citizen’s turnout behavior is a joint function of his or her social location, his or her psychological dispositions, the procedures involved in voting, and events that occur at the time of each election.”

    Translation: citizens with lower incomes and education are less likely to vote; married couples and people who participate in civic organizations are more likely to vote; convenient voter registration and polling site locations mean higher turnout and, lastly, significant events—like the 2008 recession—can affect turnout.

    But up until today’s gubernatorial election in Virginia, my motivation was much simpler: I voted because of my mom.

    My mother, Mildred L. Shiver, was a poll watcher for Fairfax County for more than 40 years.

    When I graduated from high school, she insisted that I register to vote; when I was away in college in Syracuse, New York, she arranged to send me absentee ballots; and, after I returned to northern Virginia, she served as a poll watcher at various Mount Vernon District polling sites for every off-year and presidential election since Jimmy Carter.

    The last time I cast my ballot in the presence of my mom was in June 2017, when I took her to vote in the Virginia primary election. Too sick to walk, she filled out a ballot from the passenger seat of my car while I went inside to vote. She died less than two months later.

    I often encounter people in my travels who say they don’t vote because it doesn’t matter. “It’s all rigged; there’s no difference whether there’s a Democrat or Republican in office” one store clerk in Atlanta, Georgia recently told me, after he lamented the state of the area’s economy.

    Indeed, few Americans trust the integrity of their elections.

    A Gallup poll conducted two weeks before Election Day last year found that only 35 percent of Americans were “very confident” that their vote would be counted accurately, according to an article in the Washington Post written by Pippa Norris, Holly Ann Garnett and Max Grömping. That sentiment helped rank the United States 90th out of 112 countries, when people around the world were asked how confident they were in the honesty of their elections.

    I’m not sure what fuels this sentiment. I know that my vote has made a difference. And I thank my mom for motivating me, all these years, to vote in every election. It’s a motivation I’m passing along to my two sons. I hope you encourage someone to vote today, and in every future election, as well.

    We’re Back. . . and Looking Forward to 2017

    Darius It is great to be back, after suspending our blog several months ago to complete our office move to a new location in Alexandria.
    And as we settle in to welcome in a new year, we are thankful for the continued support of our tenant community as well as the contributions we have been able to make to affordable housing in Northern Virginia.
    But to be honest, our social media skills grew, ahem, a little rusty during our off time. But that’s OK. To make up for it, we had a great new office celebration in October and a Christmas party in December to get back on track and show appreciation for all the craftsmen and women who worked on our new facilities.
    Besides the building contractors, our own staff members and their families, a number of other notable folks attended the Shiver Management Group party in October including Virginia state Senator Scott A. Surovell and Mount Vernon-Lee Chamber of Commerce Executive Director, Holly Hicks Dougherty.
    We want to thank them and everyone involved in our office move as well as our Office party celebration. We asked several of the office party attendees for their observations about the new office construction and thought we would share them with you.

    Chang Soo Rhee: Office Project Architect – “The most challenging part of this project was connecting the two buildings together. I did not want to let Mr. Shiver down because you can tell the process of getting approval became frustrating.”

    Julius Washington: Retired Employee
    – “It is a lot more spacious than the previous office. Overall it turned out better than I expected”.

    Pedro Rivas: Electrical Engineer – Facilities Manager “Mark (Jackson) is a great leader; He will let you know if you mess up in a heartbeat. You need people like that when doing projects like this because there are so many aspects.”

    Tadasha Culbreath-Shiver: – “It’s great to see an idea come into fruition after months of continuous labor and planning. The overall design is professional and looks comfortable for employees.”

    Moving Our Offices

    MovingWe will be moving our offices over the next few weeks and hope to resume posting later this summer.

    Women in Construction

    Darius Although women working in construction numbered just 1.2 percent of the entire U.S. workforce in 2013, an increasing number of construction industry vendors that we do business with are headed by women or employ women.

    Our experience is apparently an anomaly: Government statistic show that while women have made significant gains in other male dominated fields, including jobs such as firefighting, the gains in the construction industry have been painfully slow over the past half century. The share of women in such construction jobs as brick mason (0.1%) and drywall installers (0.3%), for instance, pales in comparison to the percentage of women automotive service technicians (1.2%), according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

    The low numbers are surprising in an industry bursting with high-paying jobs that don’t require a college degree or much in the way of brawn–now that power tools and heavy equipment machines do most of the grunt work. What’s more, there is even a Fort Worth, Texas-based trade group lobbying on behalf of women in construction.

    I sat down with a few of our female vendors to find out how they got started and what, if any, obstacles they faced.

    Lydia Martinez is operations director of P & J Cable Construction, which installed conduit for telecommunications cable at one of our properties.

    Born in California, she moved to Mexico at the age of eight and returned to the U.S. when she became 18. She started supervising the installation of underground conduit after a construction owner struggled to communicate with his mostly Spanish speaking laborers. For the past 15 years she has run her own conduit installation business with her spouse. Martinez mostly handles business negotiation with clients and helps her husband supervise the foremen and laborers in the field.

    Although Martinez said the career break left her “blessed to have a great situation that allows me to work and still spend quality time with my three girls,” she says her career rise has not been easy.

    “Some people reject the notion of a woman giving orders to a group of guys even if it’s for a bigger cause,” Martinez said. “I’m at a point in my career where I understand the circumstances. I tend to hold my tongue about a lot of things because I know my actions have consequences that may affect potential business opportunities.”

    Nevertheless, Martinez is optimistic about the future for women in construction: “Believe it or not, more and more women are becoming laborers in my line of work,” Martinez said. “The best advice I can offer women entering the field is to never get discouraged in the face of adversity. Men will look at you differently until they see you handle your business as a professional despite being a woman.”

    Carolyn Brown, a ceramic tile installer, who has remodeled bathrooms and kitchens on our properties and who has worked in the construction industry for 26 years, entered the field after studying the trade in vocational school. Fresh out of school, she started her career out with a team of six men. However, within a few years Brown decided it was too much responsibility to manage such a large group so she started her own business laying ceramic tiles.

    “Being from a small country town in North Carolina, I was always engaged in tasks with my hands” so I loved laying tile, said Brown. The key to success, she added, is to “simply love what you do and put your best foot forward.”

    Spring Break

    We will have a new post in May.

    Ghost Tenants

    Nowhere is the nation’s affordable housing crisis more evident than in the rise of a phenomenon known as “ghost tenants,” or people attempting to live in government subsidized affordable housing, secretly, off lease.

    At Spring Garden Apartments, the number of people caught in this illegal arrangement jumped to 10 last year from three in 2014 and just one in 2013.

    The problem of “ghost tenants” is world wide and likely affects all types of apartments, as people double-up to save money on rent or take in a family member who has no place else to go. Though the problem is hard for landlords to spot and even more difficult to quantify, a recent article on estimated that the actual “population living in New York City’s publicly owned housing units could be 25 to 50 percent larger” than the official count of 400,000 residents in the city’s public housing units.

    The problem has been fueled by growing demand for affordable housing amid skyrocketing rents.

    In Fairfax County, for instance, there are just 26 units of affordable housing for every 100 eligible extremely low income housing seekers, according to the Urban Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based research group.

    Enterprise Income Verification, the main database tool that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development requires landlords to use to ensure that only qualified low income families are eligible for affordable housing, isn’t really helpful in catching ghost tenants since these tenant are off the books and never provide personal information that a landlord can check.

    So catching ghost tenants often becomes a game of cat-and-mouse or happenstance.

    Some ghost tenants are outted by the mail carrier questioning whether to leave mail for an unfamiliar name; others are caught by maintenance staff when they carry out apartment inspections or repairs.

    But some residents, perhaps unaware that ghost tenancy is illegal, behave as if they are the official tenant. We have had several come in the rental office after being locked out of their unit, for instance, and ask for a front door key.

    “Well let’s see, we don’t recognize your name; do you live here?” is our usual response, before a lease violation notice is sent to the official tenant.

    Like other Section 8 housing complexes, rents at Spring Garden Apartments are based on income. So when an individual moves in or out, the household income is reassessed and the rent—which is 30 percent of total income—is adjusted accordingly.

    In the end, ghost tenancy spooks the real tenant more than the “ghost.” Punishment, ranging from eviction or a big increase in rent, is more often levied against the official tenant, not the person living in the unit illegally.