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Resident advocacy group racing against time to prevent wave of Southern Towers evictions

With a potential wave of evictions incoming next month, a group representing tenants of Southern Towers is trying to indirectly pressure the building’s owner into giving residents a reprieve.

The 2,261-unit Southern Towers complex at 4901 Seminary Road is one of the last bastions of market-rate affordable housing — housing that’s affordable without being set at a certain level by agreement with the local government. The West End building was purchased in 2020 by California-based real estate company CIM Group.

While there were some eviction protections put in place during the pandemic, CIM Group still pursued eviction proceedings against some residents, and tenant advocacy group African Communities Together has expressed concerns those evictions could escalate now that Virginia Rent Relief Program (RRP) has closed its application process.

The RRP was created during the pandemic to keep families in place as job loss impacted local residents’ ability to pay rent. But with the application window closing, the City of Alexandria said in a release that eviction protections put in place with that program will expire starting on June 1.

Bert Bayou, director of African Communities Together, said affordable housing advocates are scrambling to put together protections for residents.

“This came as a surprise,” said Bayou. “We were expecting this program to continue. This came so quickly and was a shock to the community that it was ending on May 15. We were still trying to get data on how many people used this program for rent relief but still not provided by the state.”

Bayou said that many of Southern Towers’ residents are service-industry employees or Uber drivers who work in jobs that haven’t fully returned to pre-pandemic levels.

“We know this community, we’ve been in this community for many years,” Bayou said. “These are service workers, hospitality workers, Uber drivers. Most of the jobs are dependent on federal workers coming back and they either haven’t or is still part-time. When this is over, when the eviction moratorium ends, we’re going to see a floodgate opening on evictions. It’s going to be massive.”

Bayou said in April 2021, African Communities Together did a study that found CIM Group had started 541 eviction proceedings since buying the property in 2020, and Bayou said they’ve seen another 50 or so since then.

ALXnow reached out to CIM Group to comment or confirm these numbers but received no response.

“They own around 9% of the apartment units in the city,” Bayou said, “but their eviction filings were about 25% of the total. That’s higher than any other landlord in the city.”

Bayou said they’ve tried to reach out to CIM Group to work out a way to offer rent relief for residents of Southern Towers who are still out of work, but that the real estate company will only negotiate with individual residents rather than with tenant groups.

“What we could do is for tenants to sit down collectively with CIM to address this and other issues, but CIM as a multi-billion dollar landlord could sit down and work with tenants not to be evicted and be homeless,” Bayou said. “CIM could do this. They’ve raised hundreds of millions of dollars when they purchased the building. When they come to the city, there has to be some compassion from the landlord to talk to tenants.”

Instead, Bayou said they’re trying to target CIM Group’s investors to try to get them to apply pressure on the real estate company to come to the table. It is, admittedly, a long shot. It’s been one week since African Communities Together started to reach out to investors, and so far the few responses the group has received are from investors that say they’re no longer involved with CIM Group and haven’t been for years.

“They are real estate investors, but there are a good number of public pension funds that have invested in CIM,” Bayou said. “Those are the ones we are really focusing on. Most of the union members for which this pension is being invested would not support this kind of investment.”

African Communities Together is part of the city’s Eviction Prevention Task Force that’s been working on alternative rent relief programs, but it can’t fully replace the statewide program. The city is offering assistance like temporary housing and storage units, but can’t intervene to prevent evictions.

“There is some assistance available through the city for temporary housing and storage units and other assistance,” Bayou said. “I think that’s where we’ll be looking if this happens, but we’re trying not to think about that. We’re trying to keep tenants in their homes. If they lose this apartment building, there’s basically no affordable housing for them.”

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