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Southern Towers residents decry response after building floods over weekend

(Updated at 4 p.m. on Oct. 18) For at least five weeks, Loren DePina and her family will be forced live in a one-bedroom apartment until flooding damage in her three-bedroom Southern Towers apartment is fixed.

DePina’s and 13 other apartments at Southern Towers’ Sherwood building (5001 Seminary Road) were significantly damaged early Sunday morning by a water leak that worked its way from the eighth floor of the 15-story building all the way to the first floor. Video of the damage showed residents wading through inches of water in apartments and hallways and flooded elevators.

“I’m not paying rent for November,” DePina said. “That’s not happening. Five weeks is putting us right before Thanksgiving.”

On Monday, DePina got keys to a one-bedroom apartment where her family of four will have to live for an estimated five weeks. She said that building management were not responsive for a full day after flooding started.

CIM Group emailed residents Monday morning at 8 a.m. that the flooding was caused by air conditioning pipes that date back to when the building was constructed in the 1960s, and that residents will be relocated.

“To address this issue, we allocate substantial financial resources, amounting to tens of thousands of dollars on a weekly basis, toward the ongoing repair and maintenance of these risers,” CIM Group recently wrote in a letter to City Council. “This often involves the necessity to access and open walls within resident units for repair purposes and can take as long as four weeks.”

CIM Group bought Southern Towers in 2020, and residents have protested living conditions and evictions for years, especially throughout the pandemic. This year alone, Southern Towers was also visited by the director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency and CIM Group was asked to resolve its eviction fight by Virginia Senators Tim Kaine and Mark Warner.

African Communities Together sent an email to CIM Group asking for the following:

  • Immediately relocate tenants to habitable units on the property. At a minimum, tenants must be moved into units that are comparable. If tenants are moved into bigger or renovated units (when they previously were in smaller or unrenovated units), tenants should not be charged higher rent or higher utility bills.
  • Residents who had to move into a hotel, Air BnB, or other lodging to escape the flooding should be fully reimbursed by CIM.
  • Rent for the month of November should be waived for all affected tenants to accommodate the financial impact of the flooding.
  • Water and electricity bills should be totally comped in next month’s utility bill for all tenants to accommodate the instability in charges brought on by the flooding.
  • Management must be transparent with the tenants at all stages of this process. Tenants must be given consistent and clear notice about: what caused the problem; what CIM is doing to fix it; how long repairs will take; and any other relevant updates. “Consistent and clear” notice shall also include translated messages for tenants in need.

Last month, Vice Mayor Amy Jackson and Council Members Alyia Gaskins, Canek Aguirre, Sarah Bagley, Kirk McPike and John Taylor Chapman toured the property. Gaskins wrote CIM Group that she toured the buildings with her two young children, and that one of them had a coughing fit due to mold.

“What we observed is unacceptable,” Gaskins wrote. “We also observed holes in walls and a major flood in the elevator. As a councilmember and mother, I do not want anyone living in conditions that compromise their health, safety and stability.”

Bethany Chang is a principal at CIM Group, and said in a statement that the incident was “incredibly inconvenient.”

“As any homeowner or renter knows, sometimes maintenance issues happen like pipes bursting, and it is always incredibly inconvenient and unpleasant when it happens,” Chang said. “Our team at Southern Towers is working diligently to ensure that all impacted residents are provided with timely repairs and, if needed, temporary housing. When this leak occurred, our team was in touch with the residents that day and began mitigation and repairs immediately. They have not ceased working since, and they will continue to work until the job is complete.”

Gaskins said residents have contacted her about subpar resolution to maintenance requests, inconsistent heating and cooling systems and high utility rates.

CIM Group wrote a lengthy response to Gaskins and said that they bought a derelict property and are the victim of disinformation from advocacy groups.

The full response from CIM Group to Gaskins is below.

Dear Councilwoman Gaskins,

Thank you for taking the time to voice your concerns regarding Southern Towers and its residents at our meeting on September 25, 2023, and in your subsequent letter. We share your commitment to providing safe and quality housing for everyone, and we appreciate the opportunity to address your concerns. We are hopeful that our productive meeting will foster a climate of transparency, accuracy, and mutual understanding, and that this letter will provide further clarification of the issues we discussed.

By way of background, we have long been a proud member of the Alexandria, VA community as the owner and operator of several properties, including Southern Towers where we took over operations in 2020. When we took control of Southern Towers it was immediately clear that the previous owner had deferred years of essential maintenance and failed to address significant challenges. Since then, we have worked diligently to improve the property to provide the residents with the community they deserve.

Despite these efforts, we believe the Alexandria City Council has been provided with misinformation from a small group of activists who do not represent the vast majority of Southern Towers residents. As a result, we are extremely grateful that you are providing us with this opportunity to correct the record.

Before moving on we would like to note that soon after we purchased the development, we were almost immediately faced with resistance and a disinformation campaign by the activist organization and a small number of residents. As demonstrated by the organization’s own YouTube video they initially started on a campaign against Southern Towers Management to address rent forgiveness and rising rents. When they did not get the traction they wanted from this disinformation campaign, they moved onto the issue of evictions and presented purposely harmful and false information to the media, our investors, partners, and legislative officials.

Once it became apparent to this group that Southern Towers Management is compliant with all state and federal regulations, they have now moved on to making inaccurate accusations about our maintenance program, cooling systems, and utility charges.

Given your dedication to your constituents, if we sat in your shoes, and received the disinformation that you did, we would share your concerns. As a result, we would like to address each specifically.

Maintenance

Since 2020 our team is focusing on addressing significant repairs and upgrades including long-overdue roof replacements, renovation of apartments, corridors, elevators, and much more. Southern Towers Management has spent over $8.9 million on routine maintenance to improve the living conditions for community members, as well as over $21.5 million in capital improvements, with a commitment of tens of millions more on upcoming significant upgrades.

We are proud to report that 90% of needed repairs are completed within 24 hours of repair submission. Within 48 hours, 95% of repairs are completed. The remaining 5% of repairs involve more complex tasks. In these scenarios we are in active communication with residents on the timeline for repairs.

Our response time demonstrates that when we are aware of issues, we make every effort to address the issue within a reasonable timeframe. However, if the outside activist group directs residents to report repairs to City Council or code enforcement, rather than directly to Southern Towers management, it only extends the timeframe to address the concern. Many of the needed repairs you were presented with on your tour were never reported to management.

As a leader on housing, we believe you have the voice, credibility, and reach to help us address this challenge and improve the lives of your constituents. Specifically, we ask that you instruct the residents you engage with that they must report the need for repairs. We also ask that you communicate the dangers of deferred maintenance to the activist group, as we hope they share our commitment to resident safety.

New Maintenance Accessibility Program

Some residents claim that reporting the need for repairs at Southern Towers is too difficult or inaccessible. Nothing could be further from the truth. Residents may submit a maintenance ticket anytime, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, using our multilingual online resident portal – the same system most residents use with ease to pay their monthly rent since we took ownership. Residents may also report maintenance issues via phone call, email, or in person at the management office, where the management staff possesses a translation device to ensure effective communication. Additionally, our newsletters and resident communications frequently emphasize the importance of reporting maintenance needs, showcasing our proactive approach to keep residents well-informed and engaged.

In response to residents’ concerns about accessibility, we have recently introduced our new “30 Day Maintenance Engagement Program” initiative. This program will station dedicated staff in our lobbies to actively encourage residents to report any maintenance issues. Our team will not only be available to submit maintenance requests on behalf of the residents but also to provide guidance on how they can easily do it themselves. We believe that this initiative represents our commitment to going the extra mile for our residents.

Mold

In both your correspondence and our recent meeting, you expressed valid concerns regarding mold within our residential units. We want to emphasize that we wholeheartedly share these concerns, as prompt and effective mold remediation is of paramount
importance to ensuring a safe and healthy living environment for all our residents. To the best of our knowledge, we have diligently addressed all reported mold-related issues with a commitment to correctness and expediency.

I would like to take the opportunity to share with you the details of our mold mitigation process. Upon receiving reports or suspicions of mold, our maintenance team promptly conducts a comprehensive visual assessment, accompanied by photographic documentation. Simultaneously, they investigate any potential underlying causes, such as leaks or conditions conducive to humidity and moisture. Subsequent actions are determined based on their assessment. Instances involving mold buildup on convectors are typically managed in-house. This process entails shutting off affected units, disassembling the convectors, and conducting a thorough cleaning. Mold stemming from moisture accumulation can often be effectively eliminated through cleaning measures and temperature regulation within the room.

In cases where visible mold is detected on walls and the affected area exhibits softness, a more extensive procedure ensues. The compromised section of drywall is carefully excised to facilitate drying, followed by the replacement of the drywall and repainting to restore the unit to its proper condition.

In more complex and severe instances, we engage the services of accredited environmental firms for rigorous testing and collaborate with the restoration company Apartment Restorers for comprehensive remediation efforts. It’s essential to note that in the majority of
cases, these processes do not necessitate the relocation of families. However, we want to underscore that the option for relocation is available upon resident request or in instances where the severity of the issue warrants such a measure.

We remain committed to maintaining a proactive and robust approach to mold management, safeguarding the well-being of our residents and the quality of their living spaces.

Air Conditioning

We deeply empathize with your concerns regarding A/C outages and recognize the crucial need for residents to have reliable climate control, especially during our scorching summers.

Most A/C disruptions at Southern Towers can be attributed to the original A/C risers (pipes) dating back to the construction in the 1960s. To address this issue, we allocate substantial financial resources, amounting to tens of thousands of dollars on a weekly basis, toward the ongoing repair and maintenance of these risers. This often involves the necessity to access and open walls within resident units for repair purposes and can take as long as four weeks.

Understanding the challenges these repairs cause, we provide every impacted resident with temporary cooling solutions while the repair is underway. These measures are in place to ensure that no resident is without a means of cooling during the repair period, striving to make the experience as comfortable as possible under the circumstances.

It is important to note that while we are committed to ensuring the comfort and well-being of our residents, the proactive replacement of all aging risers presents both a cost-prohibitive challenge and a significant disruption to the daily lives of our valued community members. Our repair practices align with industry standards and represent our best efforts to provide a reasonable balance between maintaining the infrastructure and minimizing disruptions to our residents.

Ratio Utility Billing System (RUBS)

We acknowledge that there are concerns among some residents regarding Southern Towers Management decision to charge for utilities. However, it’s important to note that most Alexandria residents, including homeowners and other apartment residents, bear the responsibility of paying for their utilities.

The former building owner had engaged in several non-standard industry practices and one of these was providing residents with complimentary utilities. Prior to the implementation of the Ratio Utility Billing System (RUBS), Southern Towers residents were only accountable for a nominal monthly fee of $20 per household member for water and for sewer and a flat fee of $15 for trash services. Electricity, and gas were provided free of charge. This approach was financially unsustainable, especially in light of increased utility usage due to work from home, escalating utility rates, and the need for significant capital investments in community upgrades.

The industry-standard method we employ to determine a resident’s utility contribution is the Ratio Utility Billing System (RUBS). In older construction multifamily apartments like Southern Towers, individualized utility meters for each unit are lacking. Therefore, residents are assigned a proportionate share of the utility expenses, excluding common areas, lobbies, hallways, vacant apartments, etc. This assignment is based on the square footage of their respective units and the number of occupants. For instance, a one-bedroom unit housing two individuals incurs a higher utility charge than a one-bedroom unit with a single occupant. Similarly, a two-bedroom apartment accommodating seven residents bears a greater utility cost than a two-bedroom unit with only two occupants. This approach is deemed the fairest method to distribute utility responsibilities since larger units and more occupants naturally entail higher utility consumption.

To provide greater clarity and transparency, we have included with this letter a comprehensive table of data showcasing average utility expenses for different unit types at Southern Towers. This data is intended to facilitate a more comprehensive understanding of resident utility charges. Published data shows average per square foot utility cost in the City of Alexandria—inclusive of electric, water, sewer, and trash, but excluding gas—runs on average $0.19 per square foot for a single individual. As you can see, the average utility bill for a studio unit for a single individual at Southern Towers—inclusive of electric, water, sewer, trash, and including gas—is $82.50 or $0.21 per square foot, in line with city averages.

As utility charges vary depending on the number of occupants, costs rise with a higher number residing in a unit. We’ve included an attachment with further details on how these are calculated.

Access to Utility Bills

To the best of our knowledge, no resident has been denied access to a comprehensive understanding of how their utility bills are calculated. We have taken proactive measures to ensure that all residents are well-informed about the intricacies of the Ratio Utility Billing System (RUBS), and our dedicated leasing office staff is readily available to address any inquiries or concerns.

In our ongoing commitment to resident education and engagement, we have organized a series of informative events. During these gatherings, we have taken the time to comprehensively explain the RUBS system and provide a platform for residents to ask questions and express any concerns they may have.

We respectfully request your support in encouraging constituents who may be experiencing difficulties in understanding our billing system to schedule a meeting with our dedicated leasing team. We are confident that through these interactions, we can ensure that every resident fully comprehends our utility billing procedures and feels confident in their understanding.

Southern Towers Management is committed to this community, but we understand that mere words can only convey so much. Therefore, we would like to invite you to return to the property to see the improvements we have made since your last visit. In addition, we are including with this letter a collection of photos and key data points that showcase the remarkable changes we have made to our community.

Explore our portfolio of enhancements and facts regarding our operations by clicking on the following link: Southern Towers Community Progress and Updates.

Thank you once again for your outstanding service and for being steadfast advocates for Alexandrians. Please know that your work is deeply appreciated, and we look forward to working with you.

Sincerely,

Jerry D. Thomas
Managing Director, On-Site Property Management
CIM Group