Alexandria, VA

Low-income residents at Southern Towers (4901 Seminary Road) in the West End have been among those most affected by historic highs in unemployment and a sluggish economic recovery — but on-top of this, many of the residents face a new problem: a landlord pursuing hundreds of evictions.

At a meeting today between residents and elected officials, several immigrants living one of the city’s few remaining bastions of market rate affordable housing shared a sense of uncertainty and fear as new landlord CIM Group begins taking legal actions against residents.

“I used to work full time job, my husband worked two jobs,” said Betelihem Kebede, a resident at Southern Towers. “We had no problem paying rent, but during the pandemic, I lost my job and my husband lost both his jobs. To pay rent, we used up our savings. My husband took some part time jobs to still pay rent. It was hard but we were still trying to pay rent. We’re trying to think of our kids’ future, but we don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow. We’re still fighting.”

A report prepared by Chris Bohner, a researcher with Radish LLC, showed that Southern Towers owner CIM has taken residents to court on eviction proceedings 541 times since August 2020, when CIM acquired the property. Bohner’s findings indicate that CIM is leading in eviction proceedings among Alexandria landlords over the last few months.

The proceedings have taken place despite a moratorium on evictions, and Bohner said that’s shown no signs of slowing down.

“Yesterday, there were 20 Southern Towers cases scheduled for court,” Bohner said.

Bohner said his findings were based on information from the Alexandria District Court. The number doesn’t represent the total number of residents affected, which is harder to pin down. Several are repeated proceedings against the same households — Bohner estimated there were over 200 distinct cases — but most cases were directed at families living in units rather than individual persons.

Several state and city elected representatives — including House of Delegates Majority Leader Charniele Herring– were on the virtual call. Some highlighted efforts being undertaken to help relieve the impending eviction issues, but others noted that the effort to force residents out of the complex likely isn’t accidental in the context of anticipated higher housing prices with Amazon’s impending arrival.

“You’re talking over 600 people out of about 4,000 residents,” Bohner said. “And of course the evictions have the impact of intimidating the other residents as well. The evictions proceedings are happening despite the eviction moratorium. They know they can’t evict for a little while longer.”

Bohner presented the findings on a call put together by African Communities Together and residents of the complex earlier today. The call also included elected representatives and residents of Southern Towers.

Residents said recent unemployment has made it difficult for families to pay their bills.

“I used to work three jobs, and I lost all of them during the pandemic,” said Sami Bourma, a resident of Southern Towers originally from Sudan. “I’m a father with three kids. I talked to the landlords and was told I had to figure out a way to pay rent. Then they stated to threaten us and send us letters.”

Bourma said he was among those who was hopeful new ownership of the property could help turn around a relationship so combative that residents launched protests against management last year. But if anything, Bourma said the situation has gotten worse, and others said management is harder to get in touch with now.

Ikram Meskaoui, a resident in the building, said despite promises that owners would work with residents on rental payment, management was difficult to contact and wouldn’t respond to resident communications. ALXnow called CIM Group but was directed to a line that had a full voicemail.

City Council member Canek Aguirre said city leadership was concerned by the eviction proceedings and said businesses coming into Alexandria have an obligation to be good neighbors and good community members.

Delegate Mark Levine said residents should talk to community organizers and make sure they don’t do anything like default or ignore eviction notices.

“I’m heartbroken to hear about what’s going on,” said City Councilman Mo Seifeldein, who said that he lived at Southern Towers for ten years. “You’re going to see this turn into luxurious apartments as part of gentrification of the West End. If you look at other apartments in the area you begin to see the full picture. You’re likely not going to see much protection other than minimal effort. This requires more pressure on elected officials.”

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