Alexandria, VA

While residents at Southern Towers are preparing to strike, city leadership is caught in the middle of trying to negotiate a ceasefire before things escalate.

Residents at the West End apartment complex, many of whom have service industry jobs and were recently laid off due to the pandemic, have begun organizing for a strike wherein they refuse to pay their rent, WAMU first reported.

In a petition circulating around the buildings, organizers say rent should be cancelled during the duration of the emergency while the residents cannot work, plus one month as many of them get back on their feet and try to find new jobs. The petition demanded that property management meet with a committee of tenants and fix the safety and sanitary issues in the building. Lastly, residents said future rent at the building should be based on the income of the residents.

Councilman Canek Aguirre, who on the City Council has frequently advocated for lower-income families throughout the West End and areas like Arlandria, said he met with residents last week in a Zoom call.

Aguirre said resident concerns go beyond just problems with rent.

“Residents are concerned about the accumulation of trash,” Aguirre said. “Everybody is staying home and producing trash, but cutes either closed or compactors broken. So they’re putting trash in the hallways.”

The difficulties due to the stay at home order go both ways, Aguirre noted, with management trying to pick up trash daily, but they too are “having issues with stay at home orders.” To fix the trash compactors, for instance, Aguirre said the company is waiting on parts that are still being held up.

“You throw on top of that people’s concerns, fears and anxieties [about rent]… and there were mixed messages from email communications from management trying to clarify that,” Aguirre said. “They’re switching to a full online payment system, but we have to be cognizant of the digital divide. There are individuals who aren’t able to pay bills online. It’s one thing after another.”

Several residents at the building said they can’t pay their rent or are being forced to cut into savings.

Mustafa Urooj is an Uber driver that’s lived in The Sherwood apartment building for four years. Because of the pandemic, Urooj said he can’t work and hasn’t paid his April rent.

“I did not pay rent this last month, but it’s not just me,” Urooj said. “It’s all the people living in this building. I would say more than 80% of them because most of them I know, they are doing Uber, they’re driving for Amazon. They are buying food to survive for themselves.”

Urooj said he plans to sign the petition.

“As long as COVID-19 is like this, me and the people living here are not able to pay rent at all,” Urooj said.

Mujda Banadri, also a Sherwood resident, said he just moved to the United States from Kabul, where he was a security guard and translator. He moved on March 16, but because of the stay at home order he’s been unable to get a job and is stuck inside.

“It’s very boring,” Banadri said. “It’s 22 days that I’m in America, but all the days I’m at home. It’s very boring for me and for my family.”

Aguirre said he plans to put forward a moratorium on rents and mortgages for landlords and commercial businesses and small businesses. Virginia is a Dillon Rule state, however, which means Alexandria is limited solely to powers granted it by the state. Compelling local landlords to stop charging rent to their residents is not within the city’s power.

“I’m going to be proposing this resolution to call on the governor, federal legislators and the federal government to do something about this,” Aguirre said. “The last thing we need are people not in their homes.”

Even if the resolution is approved at the City Council, any potential state or federal order to freeze rents could be weeks or months away, and many residents at Southern Towers say they don’t have that long.

Jorge Garcia manages a restaurant in Georgetown and lives in a two-bedroom apartment. Monthly rent is $1,850, which Garcia said he and his roommate paid, but they are now digging into their savings. Unemployment checks haven’t come in, so buying habits have started to change too, with their diet reduced to solely the cheapest possible foods like rice, beans and pasta.

“We’re definitely struggling through this, and we have a choice — we can either eat rice and beans or we can eat beans and rice,” Garcia said. “The management company doesn’t respond to emails and they are hard to reach. If we don’t get a month of rent waived, at least we can get a big percentage reduced.”

Aguirre said the city can’t tell a group not to stroke, but they also can’t tell landlords not to try to get payment.

“We have rental assistance,” Aguirre said. “I’ve been encouraging everyone, not just at Southern Towers, to document everything that’s happening. If you can’t pay, document why. If you’re getting mail from your landlord, document that. If you see trash, take a picture and write it down. The more documentation we have, the easier it is for us to give a story, get a narrative, and try to address it.”

Aguirre said he still hopes the looming showdown at Southern Towers can come to an agreeable solution for both parties.

“We’re all in this together,” Aguirre said. “The only we come out of this is if we do this together. It’s a difficult time, but we’ll get through this together, as a group.”

James Cullum contributed to this story

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