Alexandria, VA

The Alexandria City Council unanimously approved Councilman Canek Aguirre’s call for a rent freeze at its meeting this week.

The resolution calls on state and federal officials to put a potential moratorium on rents and mortgages and to suspend the reporting of negative credit information by credit bureaus to protect people’s credit scores.

Aguirre’s resolution is partly fueled by a potential rent strike at Southern Towers, a large apartment complex that houses many service industry workers who have been laid off during the pandemic. City staff, however, said that reports of Southern Towers being inflexible on rents may have been exacerbated by miscommunication.

“Now, working off info we’ve been given, apparently there’s an organization in D.C. that is encouraging folks to strike against rent,” Deputy City Manager Debra Collins said. “We’re actively telling people, ‘No, go to your property manager. They’re willing to work with you.'”

Organizations like Unite Here Local 23 and African Communities Together have helped circulate a petition through the building, WAMU reported, and Collins said the city wanted to make sure deliberate misinformation wasn’t being spread.

City staff said that Southern Towers has been trying to work with residents and that, if they can’t pay their rent, they can work out a several month payment plan. Helen McIlvaine, director of the Office of Housing, noted that this was consistent with what Mayor Justin Wilson had asked property owners to do in a letter last month.

McIlvaine said that some of the confusion and concerns had been caused by an automatically generated email reminding residents to pay their rent.

“There was an email letter generated in an automatic reminder system before rents would become delinquent and I know people did receive that,” McIlvaine. “People had interpreted that as they must pay.”

Some on the Council, however, pushed back at the characterization of Unite Here Local 23 and African Communities Together as shadowy outside forces.

“Virginia does not allow unions, so while folks may be part of a union in D.C., they are Virginia residents,” said Aguirre. “If people aren’t working for three, four or five months, how are they ever going to pay that back?”

Councilman Mo Seifeldein said the characterization of the situation at Southern Towers was different from what he was hearing from community residents, and that council’s action was only a recommendation.

“There seems to be a gap and we’re getting different information,” Seifeldein said. “I fully support this resolution. We’ve heard from community members supporting this that people think this is a binding action on the landlord. It is not. It is a great step for what we’re willing to do as a council.”

The Dillon Rule limits the city on what it can enact at a local level, but Councilman John Chapman said calling for the moratorium on rents is still a stepping stone to a broader conversation.

“This is a greater conversation than just Southern Towers and just Alexandria,” Chapman said. “I’ve heard of other buildings where landlords are pushing regular timelines, not understanding whole industries have had to shut down due to government focus and interaction. This is the government saying these nonessential businesses need to close and a loss of income for hundreds, if not thousands, in our city.”

Staff photo by James Cullum

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