The first time that N. Zimmerman saw a mouse in her home, she did not expect to have an infestation on her hands, but the rodents just kept coming.
When the U.S. Army veteran first moved into Arbor Park of Alexandria with her autistic son in 2012, the newly renovated, three-bedroom townhouse seemed perfect, she says.
After six years without any major issues, Zimmerman’s husband spotted a mouse in Oct. 2017. A pest control visit from the residential complex’s maintenance department and some mice traps baited with peanut butter appeared to solve the problem…temporarily.
However, two months later in December, the family saw two more mice in their kitchen.
From there, Zimmerman says her life became “complete chaos,” as the townhome became overrun with mice despite the traps set throughout the residence.
“We just kept seeing mice, mice upstairs, mice downstairs,” said Zimmerman, who requested that the Fairfax County Times not use her full first name.
“I started cleaning up more. Maybe I’m leaving food, something that’s drawing these things, so I started cleaning up even more…I couldn’t take it. It was just so many at one time,” she said.
A pest control expert sent to inspect the townhome by Arbor Park discovered large holes behind the stove and in the heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning room. He placed traps by both holes but declined to check the rest of the home to see if there were any other holes that the mice were using to enter, according to Zimmerman.
When Zimmerman woke up around 10:00 p.m. on Jan. 3 to find mice coming up a heating vent, she woke up her son, and they left the house to spend the night at a nearby hotel.
The next day, she went to the Arbor Park rent office and brought up the issue directly with property manager Fabian Casares, who told her that the problem stemmed from the townhome’s renovation.
The workers who renovated the home had neglected to install shoe molding, she was told, which is used to fill gaps where walls meet the floor. As a result, mice had managed to chew through the walls over the years and were now able to enter through spaces between the baseboard and the floor.
Casares told Zimmerman that he would send a maintenance worker to put in shoe molding and treat the townhome with a poison behind the walls that would kill the mice as they climbed up.
Arbor Park’s maintenance crew installed shoe molding around Jan. 15, but the pest control worker who came to treat the house only laid down more traps instead of putting down poison, according to Zimmerman.
Despite assurances that the issues with the townhome had been taken care of, mice continued to show up, and Zimmerman started throwing food away for fear that it had been contaminated by mouse feces.
While living with a mice infestation would no doubt be distressing to anyone, it presented particular challenges for Zimmerman’s 15-year-old autistic son.
Around Jan. 23, Zimmerman woke up in the middle of the night and went to check on her son. While looking around his room, she turned around and saw two mice run out of the townhome’s guest bedroom before disappearing downstairs.
The sight gave Zimmerman an anxiety attack, prompting her to email Arbor Park’s management.
“I told them in one email that I feel this is a personal attack, and I take it as a threat,” Zimmerman said.
According to Zimmerman, Arbor Park management was aware of her son’s autism but refused to let them move into another unit or compensate them for the nights that they stayed at a hotel to get away from the mice.
In their response to her email, Arbor Park’s management team told Zimmerman that she should no longer contact them and must instead communicate through their lawyer.
An employee in Arbor Park of Alexandria’s leasing office told the Fairfax County Times that they were “not allowed to talk about anything with anybody” due to an ongoing legal case and directed inquiries to Arbor Park’s lawyer.
Arbor Park is represented by Offit Kurman Attorneys at Law counsel Crystal Kramer.
“Arbor Park has no comment,” Kramer said in an email on Tuesday.
Zimmerman filed complaints against Arbor Park with Fairfax County’s Department of Code Compliance, the county’s consumer affairs branch, and the Fairfax County Health Department’s Division of Environmental Health.
According to the county’s Fairfax Inspections Database Online for community complaints, code compliance opened an inquiry into Zimmerman’s Arbor Park address on Jan. 25.
Fairfax County Consumer Affairs’ index for consumer protection complaints publicly lists five closed complaints against Arbor Park of Alexandria since May 23, 2015, though none of the summaries match Zimmerman’s situation.
After she filed the complaints with Fairfax County, Zimmerman continued to live at the Arbor Park townhome, but her son left to live with a relative until the mice infestation could be fixed.
According to Zimmerman, Arbor Park offered to let her out of her lease without any penalties, but at that point, she still had no intentions of leaving the place she had called home for six years.
“I wasn’t going to leave,” Zimmerman said. “[My son] was in the middle of school. I was there six years, so it wasn’t like I was just getting there.”
Zimmerman says her assigned consumer affairs contact recommended that she find a lawyer, so she eventually turned to George Mason University’s Mason Veterans and Servicemembers Legal Clinic. She continues to work with the clinic’s attorneys but says she had been advised not to discuss details of the legal case.
Records show that Fairfax County’s environmental health division issued a warning letter to Arbor Park on Feb. 5 giving the property two weeks to address the issues with Zimmerman’s townhouse.
A code compliance inspector visited the house in February and issued a notice of violation on Feb. 22.
The notice of violation, which Zimmerman showed to the Fairfax County Times, mentioned a $100 fine against the property owner, but according to Fairfax County Office of Public Affairs spokesperson Brian Worthy, that was merely an indication of what the county would ask the Fairfax County General District Court to impose if legal action was required.
The Department of Code Compliance does not directly determine whether to impose fines.
“They’re always trying to seek voluntary compliance and work with people to get the problems fixed first,” Worthy said. “If something needs to go to court, they would take it that route, but the first step is really to work with property owners to see if they will voluntarily address whatever the issue is.”
The violation notice gave Arbor Park 30 days to address its property maintenance issues, but repairs were still not made by the time the inspector, who is identified as Latycia Tanks in the county’s complaint database, returned for a second visit.
Zimmerman’s attorneys asked Arbor Park to let her out of her lease and to return her rent for December through March.
An independent pest control worker who Zimmerman hired to look at the townhome in February found more holes and deemed the house uninhabitable.
Zimmerman says she started sleeping on a cot since the mice had ruined much of her furniture.
On Mar. 24, when a mouse woke up her and her son--who had stayed over for the night after going to the March for Our Lives in Washington, D.C., that day-- Zimmerman decided that she had finally had enough.
Zimmerman talked to the management at the nearby Sullivan Place Apartments in Alexandria, since she frequently passed the complex while driving.
She not only found an apartment at Sullivan Place, where she now lives with her son, but the management team at Sullivan Place also offered to let her stay for free in a furnished unit until she could move into the permanent apartment on Apr. 18.
Arbor Park of Alexandria and Sullivan Place Apartments are both owned by UDR Apartments.
“It is a lot better here. They’re more accommodating. They’re more understanding,” Zimmerman said. “…It’s owned by the same company, but the management and the workers here are so very different.”
When Zimmerman officially moved out of Arbor Park on Mar. 31, she had to get rid of her furniture, because it had been ruined by holes and droppings made by the mice. The stench of dead mice had also started to fill the townhome at that point.
A video that Zimmerman took while walking through the townhome before leaving on Mar. 31 shows gaps between the walls and the floor, as well as a sizable hole in the wall of her bedroom closet.
When Zimmerman returned to do a final inspection on Apr. 5, she found that all of the holes had been sealed up.
“That’s their defense: ‘we fixed it,’ but it was after I was gone… after my son was gone, after my son had issues,” Zimmerman said. “As a child with autism, you already deal with things that people can’t understand… He suffered, and it was business as usual for them.”
According to the Fairfax County consumer complaint inquiry database, the Department of Code Compliance closed Zimmerman’s complaint on Apr. 24, though Zimmerman says that two other investigations are still ongoing as of May 23, when the Fairfax County Times went to print for this issue.
Though she has now moved into a new apartment, Zimmerman says that she wants other people, particularly other veterans and people with disabilities or disabled children, to know about what she experienced in case they are facing similar challenges.
Fairfax County has more than 77,000 veterans, and 4.2 percent of the county’s population under 65 years old has a disability, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s population estimates.
“I want them just to be aware that they don’t have to be bullied,” Zimmerman said. “…They played the waiting game. They would rather pay their attorneys thousands and thousands of dollars just to make you sweat and suffer before they break down and say I’m sorry that this happened to you. I want people to know that they can fight.”