Photograph of a dead rodent caught by tenants of Rock Creek Woods Apartments the week before Christmas. Credit: Jessica Guerrero

Editor’s note: This story was updated at 8:28 a.m. to include an additional comment from the Office of the County Executive. It was updated at 4:15 p.m. Jan. 13 to state that mildew is a kind of mold, to clarify a timeline statement from Tanya Aguilar and to incorporate a statement from Rock Creek Woods Apartments’ attorney indicating that complainant Jessica Guerrero is living there in violation of the lease.

A pipe that burst Christmas Eve at Rockville’s Rock Creek Woods Apartments flooded the complex — and “inhumane” conditions persist amid a slow, incomplete remediation, residents and officials say.

A county housing inspector last week documented a rodent infestation, and state, county and school officials who have visited the site this month have described encountering black mold and vermin. Affected residents, many primarily Spanish speakers, are reluctant to speak out for fear of retaliation, according to a state delegate and a tenant.

The episode comes about 16 months after floodwaters took the life of a 19-year-old Rock Creek Woods Apartments resident, and at least one tenant says the recent flooding has exacerbated severe problems with living conditions at the complex that management has repeatedly failed to address.

Without providing evidence, Rock Creek Woods denies the presence of a rat infestation and says there is no black mold but rather mildew, which is also a form of mold. The company attributes the mildew to poor housekeeping on the part of tenants. A spokesperson said in a statement that all of the units impacted by the September 2021 flood have been “completely remediated, treated and repaired” but that management has “elected not to lease those units for the foreseeable future.”

Of the recent pipe break, the spokesperson wrote:

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“Undoubtedly this was a terrible inconvenience to our tenants particularly given the Christmas holiday, but fortunately no unit was ever considered uninhabitable or unsafe,” the company said in a prepared statement from a spokesperson.

‘Deplorable’ living conditions

Amid extreme cold temperatures on Christmas Eve, a pipe burst around 8 p.m. in the laundry room of 13206 Twinbrook Parkway. Water flooded six terrace-level units spanning two buildings, destroying carpet, furniture and anything touching the floor.

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Building management shut off water to the buildings, according to both management and tenants. Affected residents were given the option to stay in a hotel with the understanding that they would be reimbursed for the cost. Residents in two of the six units elected to move to a hotel. Four days later, management switched the water back on and put an end to any further hotel reimbursements, according to resident Jessica Guerrero. But when tenants returned, they say they found the conditions of the water-damaged units far from habitable.

Tanya Aguilar is the community liaison officer for Twinbrook Elementary School, where children of two of the affected families are enrolled. She said the students alerted her to the situation upon their return from winter break. She said when she first visited families at the property, the conditions she found shocked her conscience.

“The living conditions are deplorable, cruel and inhumane,” she said. “All the carpet was ripped out, furniture ruined, floor completely soaked — and nothing was done remediation-wise until we found out about it when school started back up.”

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Mattresses, furniture, food and other necessities had to be thrown away, Aguilar said, and families have been left to sleep on water-logged couches or wet plyboard. On top of the severe water damage she witnessed, she said she also saw evidence of rat and cockroach infestations on the property.

Unprecedented cold weather over the holidays resulted in flood watches and hazardous weather advisories across the county. A spokesperson for Rock Creek Woods Apartment told Bethesda Beat in a prepared statement that what happened on Dec. 24 “was not a flood” and that maintenance nevertheless did its best to “mitigate this unfortunate situation” for affected tenants.

Rock Creek Woods pointed out in its statement that “in spite of the frigid weather and difficult location of the leak,” the plumbing company was able to “restore the water in phases and ultimately repair the leak.”

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‘Just the tip of the iceberg’

Rock Creed Woods Apartments is a 60-year-old complex consisting of nine buildings scattered across either side of Twinbrook Parkway just off Veirs Mill Road. Its website claims to offer “exceptionally large, well maintained and reasonably priced apartments in one of the most convenient locations in Montgomery County.”

Listed prices range from $1,280 for a studio model to $1,970 for a three-bedroom unit. The complex is owned by a “small investor group” called Bullis Tract, LLC, according to a spokesperson.

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At the time of the fatal 2021 flood, a resident told Bethesda Beat that management knew of water drainage issues at the complex and did not make any significant improvements to eliminate the hazard. An attorney for the complex said at the time there was “no indication” of any drainage malfunction.

Melkin Daniel Cedillo, the 19-year-old resident who died in the flood, helped support his family by working almost 60 hours a week as a busboy at Rockville’s Iron Age Korean Steakhouse. He graduated from Richard Montgomery High School.

Over a year later, Guerrero continues to report unremedied water damage from the last flood, among other chronic maintenance issues — including flooding, black mold and rat and cockroach infestations.

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Guerrero, 28, has lived at Rock Creek Woods Apartments with her partner and two children — five years old and seven months old — for just over a year. She shares a unit on the terrace level with her immediate family, her in-laws, and her sister-in-law and her 10-year-old son. Prior to Guerrero moving into the unit, her in-laws lived there for five years.

In a letter issued Thursday to Bethesda Beat, Joseph Lynott, an attorney for the complex, said Guerrero was living there “in violation of the apartment lease.” He went on to write that “the mildew referenced in the article is the product of housekeeping deficiencies and the unlawful occupancy of eight people in an apartment authorized for five.”

Guerrero’s unit was one of the most severely impacted by the Christmas Eve flooding. But she said even prior to the floodwaters, her family has dealt with a host of unaddressed health hazards in their unit.

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“These issues have been going on since I can remember,” she said. “Nothing gets done here. This was just the tip of the iceberg.”

She added, “I never imagined living somewhere where I didn’t feel safe. It’s devastating not knowing if it’s safe for me to feed my children the food we have at home because of the infestation.”

Aguilar said the two Rock Creek Woods students at her school, one of whom is Guerrero’s son, have been conditioned to accept these living conditions as an expected part of home life.

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“Rats jumping out of their cabinets, sleeping in their beds, biting at their feet at night — the kids here talk about it like it’s a normal thing,” she said.

In a prepared statement, a spokesperson from Rock Creek Woods Apartments wrote to Bethesda Beat:

“There is no ‘rat infestation’ at RCW.  We were made aware in December of an isolated issue of a small rodent in one unit. That unit as well as the building has been and continues to be treated for any issues.”

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The spokesperson added in a second statement that when it comes to pest control, “We treat the entire property on a regular basis.”

Video footage provided by Jessica Guerrero shows what Guerrero describes as water damage and repairs following the Christmas Eve pipe break; a hole where rodents chewed through the wall, found on Sunday, Jan. 8; various rodents captured in the unit during the week before Christmas 2022; sewage seeping up into the bathtub, found on Dec. 18, 2022; and water leaking through a bathroom light fixture, found in July 2022.
Credit: Jessica Guerrero

A delayed reaction

At first, Aguilar said she didn’t contact the media because families were concerned about retaliation from the building management. But she said when she realized nothing was being done to remedy their situation, by Jan. 4 she was contacting “every councilmember and their mother” to ask for help.

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She specifically said she reached out to County Council members Sidney Katz (D-Dist. 3), Kate Stewart (D-Dist. 4), Kristin Mink (D-Dist. 5), Natali Fani-González (D-Dist. 6), Gabe Albornoz (D-At Large) and Laurie-Anne Sayles (D-At Large). She coordinated her efforts with Alex Vazquez, lead community organizer for CASA, a leading Maryland immigrant rights organization.

Management took no action on remediation until Aguilar started making calls, she said — and then things started happening, but not fast enough. Half of Guerrero’s unit was recarpeted on Jan. 4, and the other half was scheduled to be completed Monday, Jan. 9.

But Aguilar said without first taking care of the rat infestation and black mold issues, new carpet won’t fix anything. Guerrero was told that rodent treatment would be provided Wednesday.

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Much remediation still needs to be done to fix the “disgusting” apartment conditions, Aguilar said, adding that management is doing “the bare minimum — just enough to get these people to shut up.”

On Thursday, the county’s Department of Health and Community Affairs sent employee Rudy Castro to conduct an inspection of the property. Guerrero said building manager Denis Grieve accompanied Castro on his walkthrough and made efforts to hide water, mold and rat damage from him.

For example, she said, the family had caught a rat and left the trap in the in-laws’ bedroom for the inspector to see. Grieve went into the bedroom ahead of Castro, kicked the trap into the bathroom and shut the door, she said. She said he also refused to let her move the kitchen stove to show Castro water damage and holes from rats in the wall.

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The entire inspection lasted less than five minutes, according to Guerrero. Bethesda Beat requested an interview with Castro, but he was unavailable for immediate comment.

A spokesperson for Rock Creek Woods Apartments did not directly respond to a request for comment about Grieve’s conduct during Castro’s inspection. When informed of the existence of video footage showing evidence of rodent and insect infestation, unfixed water damage and low-level flooding, a spokesperson provided the following written response on behalf of the complex:

“Our mission is always to provide all our residents a safe living environment at an affordable price. We take pride in the maintenance of our buildings and grounds and our goal is to respond in a timely manner to all our residents’ issues or concerns.”

The spokesperson added that the complex continues to make “significant capital improvements” to the property, including roof replacements, new insulation, improved pavement and plans for a playground replacement.

Two inspections, 23 violations

Around 4:30 p.m. that same afternoon of Jan. 5, state Del. Emily Shetty (D-Dist. 18) and Sylvia Tognetti from Fani-González’s office visited the property to connect with families, accompanied by Aguilar and Vazquez. Fani-González was out of town and unavailable to make the visit herself. The affected apartments fall partially within her district and partially within Katz’s, she told Bethesda Beat.

Shetty said the group spent around two hours speaking with residents and touring the property that day.

“Truthfully,” she said, “the experience was quite haunting in many ways.”

She described seeing “a lot of harrowing situations” in Guerrero’s unit, including visible black mold, holes gnawed through walls and multiple traps with dead rodents in them. She said she saw rat feces in multiple areas, including in the children’s beds and the refrigerator.

Shetty has asthma and said she wore a KN95 mask during her visit. Even still, she said her asthma symptoms were triggered and she could “physically feel the presence of black mold in the unit.” Both Guerrero and her 6-year-old son have asthma as well, she said.

The prepared statement from the building owners firmly denies the presence of black mold on the property, stating that any discoloration visible in photographs is due to mildew, “which is often caused by overuse and can be caused by a lack of cleaning.”

Shetty said while she was speaking with tenants outside the complex, she received a call from the DHCA inspector’s manager, who went over the findings of the inspection with her. The manager told Shetty that Castro’s report found no evidence of rodent infestation, which Shetty said she politely refuted.

“I saw at least three dead rats and feces everywhere,” she told Bethesda Beat.

She requested that Castro coordinate with residents to conduct a follow-up inspection without Grieve present. Accordingly, Castro made a second tour of the unit the next morning at 7:30 a.m., which generated a second inspection report.

Shetty said she has since received both reports from DHCA. Castro’s first inspection found 21 violations across two buildings, she said, which management was given 14 days to remediate before the county would prosecute the violations in district court. Bethesda Beat requested a copy of the full reports through DHCA but was not provided immediate access.

Shetty sent Bethesda Beat Castro’s written summaries from both reports. In the report on the second inspection, conducted “without the property manager,” Castro describes two health concerns:

“Inspector Castro issued the property an emergency field notice to immediately perform a search and seal throughout the bottom units, place traps to start the process to eliminate the rodent infestation. In addition, the property manager was ordered to reinstall smoke detectors in the units that had been removed.”

Yaakov “Jake” Weissmann, assistant chief administrative officer for the county executive, confirmed to Bethesda Beat that DHCA found 23 total violations between the two affected buildings. He described “search and seal” as a procedure used to remedy rodent issues, where specialists search the building walls to find and lay traps, then seal up all holes to prevent further infestation.

A spokesperson for Rock Creek Woods Apartments told Bethesda Beat in a text message that, “As per management there was no follow-up inspection that we were either made aware of or know about.”

Intimidation and fears of retaliation

Historically, Guerrero said when she and other residents reach out to building manager Denis Grieve or members of his staff to report these issues, they’re often met with defensiveness, hostility and even intimidation.

“You really can’t ask a question and receive an honest answer — or at least a compassionate one,” she said. She described Grieve himself as “very intimidating” and prone to raising his voice at residents.

Dealing with the aftereffects of the Christmas Eve flood has only aggravated tenant relations with Grieve, she said.

Almost immediately following Castro’s second inspection on Jan. 6, she said Grieve “knocked on our door, didn’t wait even two seconds for us to answer, and just walked in.” When her husband confronted him about the intrusion, she said the building manager raised his voice and said, “Do you know who I am?” He proceeded to go into their bedroom and take photographs on his cell phone, she said.

In a prepared statement, Rock Creek Woods Apartments said this type of action is “not appropriate” and that the complex’s policy is to give residents 24-hour written notice prior to building management entering any unit. The complex did not directly respond to a request for comment on Grieve’s alleged conduct with tenants.

Shetty and several colleagues in Annapolis pooled together their hotel points to book a room for Guerrero’s family to stay over the weekend. The County Office of Landlord-Tenant Affairs secured a second hotel room for the family to give them additional space.

When the family gathered their belongings on Saturday morning and prepared to drive to the hotel, Guerrero said they discovered their car had been towed. When she called the towing company, she was told their permit sticker had expired and that it would cost $150 to get the vehicle returned. She said she believes the sticker was valid through March or April.

Bethesda Beat asked Rock Creek Woods Apartments whether it was aware of the towing incident, and the complex responded in a written statement: “A vehicle was towed due to an expired apartment complex permit.”

Shetty said the relationship between tenants and management has become increasingly frayed in the week since she and others first became aware of the situation.

“It’s been very evident that the building manager is retaliating against the family for reporting these very obvious violations,” she said.

A plea for community support

Aguilar said while she’s encouraged by the strong show of support from agencies like CASA and officials like Shetty and Fani-González, she’s discouraged by how much time and effort it’s taken to get help for the affected families.

“This is not a charity case,” she said. “They’re paying their rent, and they’re being treated like animals.”

She added, “Animals are treated better.”

Guerrero said her family has been trying to contact the Department of Housing and Community Affairs since the day the pipe burst, but things didn’t start moving until her voice was joined by Aguilar, Vazquez, Fani-González, Shetty and others.

Weissmann pushed back, saying Guerrero’s claim “doesn’t match up with any records that we have.” He said DHCA was first notified by Aguilar about the situation and immediately took action. “There’s no records of anyone reaching out prior,” he said.

Ultimately, Guerrero said she hopes public awareness of the chronic issues facing Rock Creek Woods residents will help secure necessary support and stop further harm.

“If nobody speaks up, nothing’s going to get done,” she said. “A lot of people here, English is not their first language, so advocating for themselves is that much harder. They want to feel like their voice is being heard and like someone’s defending them — like someone has their back.”

Fani-González said she was frustrated that the county didn’t have the resources available to move families out of the damaged units right away. She said she looks forward to working with County Executive Marc Elrich and his team to ensure the affected families have a safe place to live, and also to redevelop the area so that future storms don’t recreate disaster. She said infrastructure needs to be in place to prevent flooding — not just at Rock Creek Woods, but “all the way to the Twinbrook Metro Station.”

“It’s not going to get any easier. It’s going to get worse,” she said. “We need to solve this problem now.”

As a former member of the county Planning Board, she worked extensively on the Veirs Mill Corridor master plan — a plan that highlighted Rock Creek Woods as an area vulnerable to “extreme flooding during heavy rains” and in need of redevelopment. “This is nothing new,” she said.

In their written statement to Bethesda Beat, Rock Creek Woods Apartments emphasized that “no unit was ever considered uninhabitable or unsafe.”

Shetty reacted to the statement in a follow-up email to Bethesda Beat, writing:

“I don’t know if there’s a legal definition for ‘habitable,’ but I would personally have trouble living in a place with black mold, rodents crawling in my refrigerator and on my bed and that of my child, and no safe place to sit or sleep.”

She said she is committed to working with Fani-González to ensure necessary changes are made at the government level to ensure the safety of the community.

Fani-González’s staff met with members of the County Executive’s Office and with Health and Human Services on Monday morning to discuss redevelopment and coordinate finding a safe living space for the affected families.

Later Monday afternoon, Fani-González’s team returned to the property with Vazquez, Councilmembers Katz and Sayles and staff from the County Executive’s Office. There, they toured the property for almost two hours and spoke with both the property manager and several residents. A spokesperson for the complex said building management had “constructive and positive conversation” with the officials.

Of the units they toured, Fani-González said several had issues with mice, and said one unit is still waiting on carpet replacement — but she said none of the units they visited had issues as bad as what her staff observed in Guerrero’s unit. She said she and Katz will be following up with the building management to ensure all unit issues are resolved.

Guerrero told Bethesda Beat she doesn’t wish ill-will on the complex’s management team but wishes Grieve and his staff had shown some measure of empathy to her family at any point during their tenancy.

“Just showing some compassion makes a big difference, but there’s been none of that,” she said.