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Southern Towers residents and activists protest rent increases and lingering health issues

Organizers outside Southern Towers lead residents in a protest against CIM Group (staff photo by Vernon Miles)

At a rally outside Southern Towers (4901 Seminary Road), residents and community activists shared stories of rent increases and poor living conditions, shouting slogans against property owner CIM Group.

CIM Group purchased the buildings in 2020. Relations between tenants and owners were already fraught after the pandemic left many residents in Southern Towers — one of the last bastions of market-rate affordable housing in Alexandria — without work. Since then, community activists have raced to try and support residents facing eviction after pandemic-related protections expired.

A dozen residents of Southern Towers were in attendance, along with several community organizers from the organization African Communities Together (ACT). Bert Bayou, chapter director for ACT’s DC office, said ACT has been working to support local residents who feel they’re being pushed out by continual rent increases at the property.

“We are here supporting the tenants,” said Bayou. “For a few months we’ve been trying to engage with CIM about conditions in the building and rent increases.”

Rent

Bayou said CIM Group has told residents that rent went up 3-4%. Bayou said ACT surveyed residents and found some 9% increases, though CIM group cited figures on real estate website CoStar that show lower average rent renewals.

“CIM says they want to keep the building as workforce housing, but everything they do is making it unaffordable,” Bayou said. “All we see is CIM trying to get rid of African immigrants.”

Added into the mix is that utilities are no longer included with rent, meaning residents face additional costs on top of increasing rent.

Sosseh Prom, state policy manager for African Communities Together, rent shouldn’t increase any more than 2% annually.

“If you, a multi-billion dollar company, are having these issues: how do you think blue-collar workers feel?” Prom said.

Sami Bourma, a resident at Southern Towers, said beyond just issues with having utilities separated from rent, there are no clear answers on where the figures on the bills are coming from given that there aren’t individual meters in the units.

“We see a $200 electric bill for a one-bedroom unit or $600 for a three-bedroom, but it doesn’t make any sense,” Bourma said. “CIM says ‘oh, that’s what the market is.'”

CIM Group was not available for interviews, but said in a document sent to ALXnow that because Southern Towers aren’t affiliated with any social service support network, the property owners are keeping rent increases in line with the financial obligations of building ownership:

The vast majority, 91.5 percent, of Southern Towers residents are current in meeting their rent obligations. Our empathy for residents must be balanced by our fiduciary responsibility. We empathize with those residents that face personal struggles. However, Southern Towers is a standard workforce housing community and is not affiliated with any social service support networks. As property owners we must meet our financial obligations and fiduciary responsibilities in order to keep the lights on and the doors open, providing homes for thousands of residents at Southern Towers.

The real estate company said rents are 20% below average rental rates in Alexandria and rent increases have been below the average rate as well, noting that the average rates cited on real estate website CoStar showed a 2.7% increase for residents renewing their leases and a 5.1% increase for new leases.

Currently, rents at Southern Towers are approximately 20 percent below the average rental rates for all apartment properties in the Alexandria area according to CoStar. This equates to, on average, approximately $600 a month.

Overall, rents in the Alexandria market increased 12.8 percent in the past year. Rental rates for new leases at Southern Towers increased 5.1 percent over the same period, while existing residents executing renewals saw increases of 2.7 percent during this time, according to CoStar.

Effective October 1, 2022, Southern Towers will hold rent increases to $200 per month for residents in good standing who execute a lease renewal through the end of 2022. There were instances where residents agreed to renewal terms before the commitment to a $200 cap was implemented. There is no obligation to renew, residents may select from the many residential options in the area.

Eviction Notices

Another sore spot for residents protesting against CIM group were eviction notices that Prom said were misleading for residents. Prom said CIM is required to give 30-day eviction by federal law, but only gives a five-day “pay or quit” notice required by Virginia.

“We saw notices for October 9 and court cases filed 13 days later,” Prom said. “In more recent notices, the five-day ‘pay or quit’ notices say in small print that tenants could be eligible under the Cares Act for a 30-day notice, but there’s nothing that tells the tenant if they have that right [in their unit].”

CIM group said it is in compliance with federal law, which requires the landlord to wait 30 days to remove resident after the notice to vacate is received.

“Southern Towers is fully compliant with the CARES Act which states that a landlord must wait 30 days to remove a resident after the notice to vacate is received,” the document said.

According to CIM:

The attorney representing Southern Towers uses the state of Virginia approved NOTICE OF MATERIAL NONCOMPLIANCE FOR NONPAYMENT OF RENT also known as the five notice… Southern Towers provides this notice to a resident at the appropriate time and then 30 days following the issuance of the notice to the tenant we send the information to the Southern Towers attorney to proceed with an unlawful detainer filing with the court. What follows is entirely up to the court and no longer involves the property owner. The court process is outlined in the attached Virginia Eviction Flow Chart. The process may take months so should a resident be removed it is well beyond 30 days.

Health Issues

Residents at the rally said they’ve seen rodent and insect infestations continue or worsen in recent years, along with ongoing mold issues.

“My child got sick and I took him to the doctor,” Bourma said. “The doctor said it could be mold. So we looked at the air conditioning unit: it was full of mold. We started visiting other units and found that 60% of them had mold inside their AC units.”

CIM Group said repairs to the building are ongoing, but take time.

“CIM Group acquired Southern Towers in August 2020 after a close review of the condition of these 1960s-era buildings which unearthed years of deferred maintenance and a long-list of needed improvements,” the property owner said. “Prior to its purchase, CIM Group created an extensive plan to tackle these issues over time. Today, CIM Group’s multi-million-dollar improvement program is underway which, for a property of this size, will require several years to complete the substantial work required.”

CIM Group said since taking over, they have doubled the investment in repair and maintenance and doubled the contract for pest removal. The document said a community-wide comprehensive pest identification and removal program will be carried out before the end of the year.

The document said issues in the air conditioning units are “most likely mildew and not mold” but a program ongoing to replace leaky windows and roofing should help mitigate that issue:

A significant accomplishment at Southern Towers is the successful tracking of the root cause of building leaks that have been occurring for more than 20 years. Southern Towers management has fast tracked the installation of replacement windows and roof repairs and replacement. We are confident these leaks are responsible for the limited number of mold issues that have been brought to management’s attention and have been remediated. Southern Towers management is in the process of contracting for an environmental assessment of the campus to identify any additional areas for remediation.

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