Leading visitors this week into the bedroom of his Silver Spring home, Luis Sanchez showed off the white window frame as if it were a work of art.
Just that day, the walls had gotten a new coat of paint, covering the black mold that had been creeping across them for years. A few days before that, managers at the Northwest Park apartment complex had replaced the drafty windows that let in winter chill and the humid summer air that had fostered the mold.
“The new windows are a lot better,” Sanchez explained in Spanish.
On Wednesday, Sanchez and his neighbors gathered outside his unit to raise cups of sparkling juice in a toast to a multimillion-dollar window replacement project that represented the culmination of a roughly two-year struggle.
Tenants at Northwest Park, a loop of 876 apartments off New Hampshire Avenue, say they believe the mold issues have caused asthma in some of their children. Others have complained about rodent problems; former resident Elinor Velasquez said mice and rats dart through some rooms “like members of our families.” At one point, more than half the complex’s washers and dryers were broken, they reported.
But their early attempts to push for better conditions went nowhere with Kay Apartment Communities, the same company that owns the Flower Branch Apartments near downtown Silver Spring where an August explosion killed seven people.
In Northwest Park, a community with a high population of immigrants, many residents said they felt vulnerable and easily ignored by Kay representatives.
“Many of us were afraid to speak up, ask for better service, or push back against unjust policies,” Velasquez said to a group of neighbors and reporters. “We feared coming home, seeing the eviction notice stuck to our door.
Elinor Velasquez, a former Northwest Park resident, helped create the tenants association that pushed the management company for change. Credit: Bethany Rodgers
Now, they say they’re seeing results thanks to their persistence, their decision to form a tenants association and the help of allies at Action in Montgomery and St. Camillus Catholic Church in Silver Spring. Kay replaced all the washers and dryers in the complex, established a new policy for treating mold and agreed to install new windows in Northwest Park. The project to install more than 4,100 new windows will take four years and cost about $2 million, according to AIM organizer Katie Ashmore, but residents expressed a sense of victory this week after work began on the first seven buildings.
“The celebration today is because the residents united to find a way to have a dialogue with the people who could fix these problems,” Northwest Park resident Ana Argueta said in Spanish. “The project of the new windows in our community that we are celebrating today was not easy, but not impossible.”
Since beginning their advocacy work, the tenants have seen a management change at their complex, and they say the new Kay representative has been more open to hearing them.
Nancy Gonzalez, who became community manager for Northwest Park in October, mingled with the tenants as they celebrated the window project.
“We are happy to be here to support the residents and the tenant association in this event, and we are really looking forward to continuing to work together to maintain a good quality of life here at the community,” she said.
Ashmore said Kay representatives have expressed openness to applying some of the new policies in other apartment complexes if they work well in Northwest Park. She said by replacing the windows, apartment management is demonstrating willingness to fix some of the underlying problems that cause mold rather than just covering it up.
“It would get painted over and come back and painted over and come back,” Ashmore said. “This is one of the actual systemic ways that you can reduce the levels of humidity.”
Calls to Kay's corporate office were not returned.
Joe Theis, a parishioner at St. Camillus, toasts to the arrival of new windows at the Northwest Park apartments. Credit: Bethany Rodgers