From protests over evictions to outrage over living conditions, complaints at the Southern Towers Apartment complex in Alexandria’s West End have become somewhat commonplace over the last few years.
The aging five-building complex is home to an estimated 7,000 people living in about 2,000 workforce apartments. One maintenance worker told ALXnow that he fixes at least two riser leaks per month on the property, the most recent of which affected 14 apartments in The Sherwood building last month.
One of those residents, Alex, was forced out of his three-bedroom apartment due to flooding for two weeks. He said that he potentially lost more than $1,000 in property.
“So much hot, steamy, rusty brown water started flowing down the wall that I could do nothing,” Alex said. “I moved my kids out of their rooms and the water just kept coming. I tried to bail it out but it was too much.”
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 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.
There are five 1960s-era apartment buildings in the Southern Towers property — The Sherwood, The Stratford, Monticello, The Graham and The Ashlawn. The Graham was renovated by the previous owner before CIM Group bought the property, and it stands as a model for redevelopment of the other buildings, which will happen over time, Jerry Thomas, managing director for CIM’s on-site property management, told ALXnow.
Thomas said CIM Group is being responsive to resident concerns, while performing much-needed infrastructure improvements. Residents, however, contend that there are near-constant issues with mold, flooding, rodent infestations and more.
“Over time we have started the unit renovation process within multiple buildings,” Thomas said. “We’re about ready to undergo renovations to lobbies and corridors in The Sherwood and The Stratford. We’ve got some bigger infrastructure projects that are going on — new roofs at The Stratford, The Graham and The Sherwood, as well as new windows at The Ashlawn and Monticello buildings.”
Thomas said that the recent flooding incidents were due to aging building risers and the air conditioning system being switched over to heat for the fall and winter months. He also said that Sherwood and Stratford lobbies will soon be demolished and renovated in the hope of finishing construction by the end of the first quarter of 2024.
“You can’t replace all of the risers in a building,” Thomas said. “We’d replace all the risers if we were to empty the building, tear all the skin off the building, and do the building would have no residents in it, and then you’d replace all the pipe work. And that’s not an option.”
Thomas continued, “What happens is there’s 60 Different risers in a building. So, this last (flooding incident) one was like riser number 30. When riser number 30 broke, they will fix the entire riser for number 30… But then there’s 59 more risers in the building.”
There are no plans to establish resident groups to voice concerns to CIM Group, and residents are instead represented by activists from African Communities Together (ACT).
Solomon Ayalew, DMV director for the nonprofit, said that CIM Group needs to conduct a system-wide investigation to identify the pervasiveness of mold in apartment heating and air units.
“There needs to be more consistent checks around mold,” Ayalew said. “The pipes are ancient, and quicker responses to fixes and maintenance when needed. For example, there’s only one emergency staffer for the entire complex. If anything happens, one person has to take manage this entire complex, which is what happened with the recent flooding. One person tried to take care of 14 units. It’s just ridiculous.”
In September, multiple City Council members toured the property. Council Member Alyia Gaskins wrote CIM Group that she toured the buildings with her 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.”
TENANT LIST OF DEMANDS
Following the meetings and formal communications between the CIM Group and the tenants at Southern Towers, the tenants would like to submit the following list of demands.
Rent and Leases
- CIM should commit to not increasing rent by no more than 2% each year. The tenants ask that this rent increase retroactively apply, going back to January 2022.
- CIM should not increase the rent for tenants who have resided at Southern Towers for at least five years and wish to move to a renovated apartment unit.
- Tenants should be allowed to permanently move into other units if their current unit is damaged or otherwise uninhabitable.
- In the event that a tenant is forced to temporarily move into a renovated unit due to maintenance being done in their apartment (ex: mold remediation), CIM shall not charge the tenant higher rent.
- CIM shall stop forcing tenants into month-to-month leases and renew year-long leases immediately for any tenant who does not wish to be in a month-to-month lease.
- CIM shall provide longer lease term options, with a maximum lease term of three (3) years.
- CIM shall provide residents with sixty (60) days to cure any back rent owed or come up with a payment plan with management.
- CIM shall allow tenants the option to rescind their termination notice, as they have been allowed with previous owners of Southern Towers.
- CIM shall revert to making rent all-inclusive (i.e., no more additional fees for utilities).
Habitability and Maintenance Concerns
- CIM shall immediately conduct a thorough investigation into every apartment to identify mold problems throughout the complex. CIM shall then develop a comprehensive report of the issues identified, along with a plan to remediate the mold. Mold problems should be remedied in all occupied units within two months. In apartment units where CIM is unable to complete mold removal in two months, the tenants should be moved to another unit at no additional cost to them.
- CIM shall fix the roofs of all buildings at Southern Towers and shall address any and all leaks and damage that have resulted from the lack of roof maintenance within four months.
- CIM shall replace all outdated and/or non-functioning air conditioning units within six months.
- CIM shall hire another pest control company and immediately develop an extermination plan for pests and rodents.
- CIM shall seek out a new company to contract with for laundry services, and machines must be serviced on a reasonably consistent basis. CIM shall also replace all non-functioning washers and dryers with working units in three months.
- CIM shall get rid of the Pango app and revert to issuing visitor parking for residents as before. Towing should only be enforced from 11pm to 6am.
- CIM should replace all old, non-functioning gym equipment. Until all gym equipment is in working order, tenants should be allowed to use the gyms in other complex buildings (ex. Sherwood residents should be allowed to use the gym in the Graham building).
Safety and Security Concerns
- CIM shall immediately fix all doors and entrances. Until all doors are fixed, CIM shall hire security guards to watch the entrances to ensure residents and their guests are safe.
- CIM shall increase security staff with more frequent patrol routes around the complex.
- CIM shall install functioning security cameras that have recording capabilities around the complex. Areas of particular concern include: parking lots, the park, the hallways of every floor, and the back of each building.
- CIM shall quickly inform all tenants via email, postal mail, and/or posted notices around the complex of security incidents that occur on the property so that tenants can remain vigilant in protecting themselves and their families.
- CIM shall commit to the creation of a Tenant-Management Committee that meets every two weeks to discuss and address tenant concerns. The goal of the Committee shall be to allow tenant oversight of the management of Southern Towers, address complaints about management, and ensure that tenants’ interests are fully represented.
Members of the Committee:
- Shall commit to working amicably, respectfully, and in good faith
- Shall have access to maintenance reports that show how many requests have been submitted, how many were completed, when they were completed, etc.
- Shall be consulted before any major decisions regarding the complex are made.
- CIM shall develop a probationary plan for management staff who receive 5 (five) complaints.2. CIM shall work with tenants and community-based organizations to develop a comprehensive community-benefits agreement. The agreement shall enforce a commitment by CIM to create and execute a long-term and community-focused development plan that will address the displacement of vulnerable tenants and provide them with the stability they need to thrive.
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