Alexandria, VA

Updated 4:40 p.m. — Adhering to proper social distancing protocol, tenants and other supporters rallied outside of Southern Towers in cars making slow circles through the parking lot with signs and chants of “No pay! No Rent!” and “No job! No Rent!”

“How are people going to be able to make a rent deferral plan work?” asked Sarah Jacobson, organizing director for UNITE HERE Local 23 DC, a food service workers union operating out of D.C. “Even if people went back to 100% employment tomorrow, that would be challenging. Uber drivers won’t be getting the kind of pay they had before.”

The strike, and other types of protest, had been talked about for weeks — from the hallways of Southern Towers to the City Council chambers. At 10 a.m. today (Monday), a handful of protestors took to the sidewalks outside the building while dozens of others drove in circles around the property with blinkers on and signs displayed. The protest lasted until around noon.

Southern Towers is a large residential complex in the West End, where many of the residents are local service industry workers laid off during the shutdown. Several of the cars in the protest were taxi cabs and many of the signs were written in both English and Amharic. Without pay, some of the residents say they are unable to pay their rent. While city staff said Bell Partners, the property manager of Southern Towers, has offered a deferred payment plan to residents currently unable to make rent payments, some on the City Council and others in the community have been critical of this approach and said residents are unlikely to be able to pay back a deferred rent.

Los inquilinos de SOUTHERN TOWERS protestan esta mañana en favor de cancelar las rentas, muchos de ellos están sin trabajo y no tienen dinero para pagar la renta del mes de Mayo.

Posted by Tenants and Workers United – Inquilinos y Trabajadores Unidos on Monday, April 20, 2020

Some in the city had been critical outside elements helping to organize the strike, but during a City Council meeting City Councilman Canek Aguirre said many of the residents of the building were members of that union, which stepped in because Virginia does not allow unions. Jacobson said her organization’s role was providing infrastructure support for tenants, who were leading the protests.

“Tenants chose today because that’s the deadline that Bell Partners had made for people to pay their rent or make a rent deferral plan,” Jacobson said. “It’s not because people are willfully trying to not pay the landlord, people don’t have money and it’s illustrating a problem where wages and rents do not match in this region.”

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. Jacobson argued that Bell Partners is a nationwide investment company

“Bell Partners is a private equity company — this is an example of a company that is able to respond to these tenant demands,” Jacobson said. “It is going to take a complex solution to respond to this crisis in a way where the entire burden doesn’t fall on low wage workers without savings or essential workers most exposed.”

Jacobson said tenants are meeting again tomorrow (Tuesday) and planning a similar action on May 1.

In a letter to residents, Bell Partners said late fees for rent would be waived if paid by today.

“Payment plan options will be available for April and May, with proof of hardship (i.e. documentation of unemployment benefit or written statement from your employer),” Bell Partners said.

For those who can’t pay rent or afford a payment plan, Bell Partners told them to reach out to Alexandria’s Office of Housing’s Landlord and Tenant Division at 703-746-3078.

Staff photos by Jay Westcott

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