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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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A statewide rent relief program is closing to new applicants soon with eviction protections expiring soon after. The City of Alexandria is urging those in need to apply within the next week or lose access to rent relief.

The application portal for the Virginia Rent Relief Program (RRP) is set to close on Sunday, May 15.

“RRP was created to keep families stably housed and landlords paid during the COVID-19 pandemic,” the city said in a release. “RRP emergency rental assistance is prioritized for households earning less than 50% of area median income or households with one or more members who have not been employed for the 90 days preceding the date of application.”

The program has distributed $713 million in rent relief statewide since it started in March 2022.

The city release also noted that starting July 1, several tenant eviction protections that were put into place during the pandemic will be expiring, including:

  • A return to five-day notices to pay or face eviction (For the past year, landlords had to provide at least a 14-day notice to tenants.)
  • Removal of the requirement to inform tenants of the availability of rental assistance (For the past year, landlords had to inform and help tenants apply for RRP before initiating eviction.)
  • No requirement for landlords to provide notice of or offer payment plans

The city specified that, because landlords cannot proceed with eviction within 45 days of an RRP application being submitted, there is likely to be an influx of eviction proceedings starting around July 1.

Last September, the city dedicated some American Rescue Plan Act funding toward a smaller scale local alternative to the statewide rent relief program.

“The City of Alexandria’s Eviction Prevention Task Force will continue to work with partners and stakeholders across the state to create comprehensive strategies to increase the supply of affordable housing, address and prevent evictions and reduce barriers in housing,” the release said.

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It was a busy fall week in Alexandria. Here’s the rundown.

Our top story this week was on a plan to completely close off the 100 block of King Street as a pedestrian-only zone. The plan has been in the works since 2019, and was put into action last year. ALXnow’s poll on the subject had very one-sided results, showing 91% (791 votes) in favor of a permanent change.

There was a momentous groundbreaking this week, as city leaders converged for the $454.4 million RiverRenew Tunnel Project. The project is a major overhaul to replace Old Town’s combined sewer system and prevent 120 million gallons of combined sewage from flowing into the Potomac River.

School violence has become a major issue in Alexandria, as videos of fights at schools are surfacing on the internet, there have been arrests at Alexandria City Public Schools, and protests in front of City Hall on Monday and Tuesday this week.

As for the Alexandria juvenile who was shot in the upper body at the McDonald’s in the Bradlee Shopping Center last week, police say that there have been no arrests yet.

Important stories

Top stories

  1. City looks to permanently ‘pedestrianize’ a block of King Street
  2. UPDATE: Alexandria man charged with homicide after stabbing at BJ’s Wholesale Club in Landmark area
  3. Total Wine is taking shape in Potomac Yard
  4. ALXnow’s top stories this week in Alexandria
  5. Man buys luxury car with fake driver’s license at Lindsay Lexus of Alexandria
  6. Protestors rally to return police to Alexandria schools, but officials say behind-the-scenes talks have stalled
  7. Man arrested for posting lewd photos of Alexandria stepsister on Twitter
  8. Firecracker shuts down Alexandria City High School football game
  9. Adoptable Chihuahua Dory only weighs 3.5 pounds
  10. Mayor Wilson: Potomac Yard construction delay ‘could have nothing to do with Metro station’
  11. Police: Juvenile shot at shopping center near Alexandria City High School

Have a safe weekend!

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Morning Notes

On Wednesday (September 29), 757 Alexandria City High School seniors in government classes participated in a mock election, and voted for governor, lieutenant governor, the House of Delegates seat in the 46th District, Commonwealth’s attorney and Sheriff. The results were not made public, as the unofficial voting was just an exercise. (Via Claire Going/ACPS)

Aslin Beer Co. opens new scratch kitchen in Alexandria — “For the past two years, Chef Taylor Gates has been learning about pizza and dough — and now the taproom at Aslin Beer Co. in Alexandria’s West End is ready to serve it up. Aslin is opening a new scratch kitchen concept this week called Knead.” [Alexandria Living]

City Council approves additional eviction prevention resources — “City Council’s decision funds $457,000 for two service navigator and two housing relocator positions; storage assistance for household belongings; and additional legal services provided by the Legal Aid Justice Center to assist people at risk for eviction due to the COVID-19 pandemic.” [City of Alexandria]

Inova Alexandria Hospital brings peer recovery to the emergency room — “Patients visiting the E.R. for a substance-related crisis can speak with a specialist once they are medically stable. The idea is to help them take that first step toward recovery.” [Zebra]

Today’s weather — “Plentiful sunshine. High 74F. Winds NNW at 5 to 10 mph… A mostly clear sky (in the evening). Low 51F. Winds light and variable.” [Weather.com]

New job: Employee Rotation Program with the Office of Historic Alexandria — “Work involves writing, editing and planning layout of brochures and flyers, newspaper articles, press releases, and/or planning and implementing publicity and fundraising campaigns. Work requires the exercise of creativity, independent judgment, and a familiarity with Alexandria’s African American history. The work is performed under general supervision of the Director of the Alexandria Black History Museum in consultation with the Director of OHA.” [Governmentjobs.com]

Via Claire Going/ACPS

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After the end of the eviction moratorium, Alexandria’s City Council is looking to step up protection for locals facing eviction.

According to a docket item for tomorrow’s (Tuesday) City Council meeting, city staff are recommending that the city fund new services and positions aimed to support Alexandria households going through the eviction process.

The proposed supports are:

  • Two service navigators and two housing relocator positions ($307,000)
  • Storage assistance for household belongings ($50,000)
  • Additional legal services to assist those at risk for eviction ($50,000)

The service navigators provide support through outreach, including door-to-door knocking, community events, and outreach at properties with higher rates of eviction, a memo by City Manager Mark Jinks said. The service navigators also help applicants through completion and submission of rental relief applications. Housing relocators, meanwhile, help displaced residents secure stable housing — a service Jinks said is not currently available except at emergency shelters.

The suggestions came out of the city’s Eviction Prevention Task Force, which started last year and is comprised members of various city departments and outside organizations, like Tenants and Workers United and Christ Church.

“The housing crisis brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic has sharply increased the risk of long-term harm to renter families and individuals, disruptions of the market affordable housing market and the potential for foreclosure and bankruptcy, especially among small property owners,” Jinks wrote in the memo. “Following eviction, a person’s likelihood of experiencing homelessness increases, mental and physical health are diminished and the probability of obtaining employment declines. Eviction is also linked with respiratory disease, which could increase the risk of complications if COVID-19 is contracted. Instability, like eviction, is particularly damaging to children, who suffer in ways that impact their educational development and well-being.”

Even before the moratorium expired, some local landlords were starting the eviction process and laying the groundwork to evict tenants. Unemployment skyrocketed to record highs last year, though unemployment figures have gradually improved over the last year. In late August, the Supreme Court invalidated a federal eviction moratorium that would have halted evictions in some places through Oct. 3. The memo noted that Legal Services of Northern Virginia have provided legal assistance to 1,031 individuals through courthouse outreach and the Office of Community Services and the Office of Housing have assisted 3,717 households to successfully apply for rental assistance.

“The immediacy of this halt in the eviction moratorium has created devastating impacts to some households in our community, with an increase of eviction filings,” Jinks wrote.

The memo noted that since the pandemic started, 2,135 residential “Unlawful Detainer Summons” — which initiates the eviction process — have been filed. Of those, 599 (28%) were found in favor of the landlord and 1,307 (61%) were dismissed or classified as non-suited. In total, 283 writs of eviction have been issued.

“These cases could have been stopped by the CDC moratorium anywhere along the process,” Jinks wrote. “With the moratorium lifted, approximately 134 households are believed to be at immediate risk of eviction.”

Jinks wrote that for local residents that have been struggling to pay rent through the pandemic, the worst could still be ahead.

“The overall trends in the data do not indicate that there is an uptick at this time in eviction filings, but rather that there were many households over the past year and a half that started the eviction process but were legally protected by the CDC moratorium,” Jinks said. “Now that the moratorium has ended, staff anticipates that the pipeline will begin to move again, and the City will experience an increase in residents who need assistance in applying for state rental assistance and to find new housing, and who will require other resources.”

The positions will be funded by the American Rescue Plan Act for the next 12 months — $357,000 for City staffing plus eviction storage costs plus Legal Aid Justice Center $60,000. The memo noted its likely that the program will need an additional $500,000 in the next tranche of ARPA funding in the FY 2023 budget.

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Alexandria’s recent surge in COVID-19 cases has put it on the list of localities where the eviction moratorium has been extended.

In a press release, the city confirmed it was on the list of places where the moratorium took effect and pushed residents struggling to pay their rent to state and local resources.

“On August 3, 2021, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a new order temporarily halting evictions in locations where there have been surges in COVID-19 and increases in cases of the Delta variant,” the city said. “The moratorium is in effect through October 3 and covers all renters living in communities, including the City of Alexandria, that meet these criteria.”

At the state level, the Virginia Rent Relief Program offers relief for renters and landlords. Renters can apply for help covering rent payments past due starting in April 2020. The program also also allows landlords to file for rent relief on behalf of residents.

“The City’s Department of Community and Human Services (DCHS) Office of Community Services (OCS) also provides rental assistance to eligible households facing a housing crisis or homelessness,” the city said. “Residents can call the DCHS Customer Call Center at 703.746.5700 or text 703.346.5599 to learn about rental assistance, as well as other available emergency assistance.”

Rent has been a touchy subject in Alexandria over the last year, with some local residents protesting against paying rent when the pandemic forced many out of their jobs. The city offered some rent relief services but property owners have already started to lay the groundwork for eviction even while the moratorium was in effect.

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The thrice-extended moratorium on evictions, put into place to keep renters in their homes despite worsening economic conditions, is about to run out.

With the moratorium set to expire on June 30, the City of Alexandria is directing local renters and landlords toward local and state rental relief programs to help prevent evictions in Alexandria.

One of the largest is the Virginia Rent Relief Program (RPP).

“The RRP provides eligible renters with assistance to cover rent payments past due beginning April 1, 2020,” the city said in a press release. “Renters can determine eligibility and submit applications online, or call 703.962.1884 for more information.”

The city said landlords can also apply on behalf of tenants to receive financial assistance for past-due or current rental payments.

“Landlords can determine eligibility and submit applications online, email [email protected] or call the City of Alexandria Office of Housing at 703.746.4990,” the city said.

Locally, the city’s Department of Community and Human Services (DCHS) Office of Community Services (OCS) also provides rental assistance to eligible, low-income households facing a housing crisis or homelessness.

“Residents can call the DCHS Customer Call Center at 703.746.5700 or text 703.346.5599 to find out if they are eligible,” the city said.

For those facing imminent eviction, the Office of Housing offers support, including an “eviction prevention and housing stability toolkit”, landlord-tenant mediation, or training in Fair Housing law. The Office of Housing can be contacted at 703-746-4990.

While the moratorium has prevented some Alexandrians from expulsion, the prospect of eviction still hangs over at least 257 cases locals like a Sword of Damocles. Last year, residents in the West End and Arlandria protested against evictions and called for a rent freeze.

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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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James Harris has been coming to Christ House to get an evening meal for about a year ever since he lost work from the pandemic.

“Strange how all that started,” Harris told ALXnow just before 5 p.m. outside the Old Town charity. “It just popped up out of the blue, so I’ve been coming here for about a year since business got quiet.”

Alexandria’s homeless increased to 207 people, a 5% increase over 2019, according to the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments’ annual report on homelessness in the region. The report for 2021 is being gathered now and should be ready by the end of next month, although it’s not clear yet if there’s a change this year, despite high unemployment figures.

Lesa Gilbert, director of the city’s Department of Community and Human Services Center for Economic Support, said that homeless do not have to sleep outside in Alexandria.

“You have an option to stay in our winter shelter in the Lee Center,” she said. “It’s open all day. We also have warming shelters throughout the city.”

Earlier this month, a homeless woman was found dead in Arlandria. Her death was not suspicious, according to police, and the city reportedly offered her help.

Last year, the city put homeless in hotels during the initial months of the pandemic, although the practice has since been discontinued. Carpenter’s Shelter also moved its David’s Place shelter for the chronically homeless at Landmark Mall to a smaller location at 930 N. Henry Street in Old Town.

Gilbert doesn’t know if the number of homeless will rise in 2021, but said that a federal extension of the eviction moratorium for renters beyond March 31 will help. There have been numerous protests throughout the city from renters asking for an extension.

“We’re doing the best we can in terms of connecting residents to the Virginia Relief Program, as well as the programs that we have here locally or locally funded dollars to prevent folks from losing their housing.”

Carpenter’s Shelter Executive Director Shannon Steene says that volume at the shelter decreased from 60 to 42 people to encourage distancing, and that the eviction moratorium must be extended.

“This past year has been such a mind bending experience,” Steene said. “There are several hundred households in the city of Alexandria influenced by that moratorium. That clearly affects what volume we see here at the shelter.”

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Morning Notes

Beyer Asks for Pause After 500,000 COVID-19 Deaths — “500,000 Americans have now died from COVID-19. Every one of them was a person with a story, friends, a family. It’s a tragedy that’s too large to comprehend, but we should take time today to think about them, and strengthen our resolve to do all we can to end this awful pandemic.” [Twitter]

Eviction Moratorium Extended to March 31 — “The CDC moratorium on residential evictions has been extended thru March 31. If you received an eviction notice, call the Office of Housing at 703.746.4990.” [Twitter]

T.C. Williams High School Kicks Off Football Season — “Watch the Titans kick-off their football season under first year Head Coach Rodney Hughey vs. the Robinson Rams LIVE tonight (Monday night) streaming online. Show your support and post online to Facebook or Twitter. Let us hear from you Titans Fans – Students – Alumni – Parents – Friends!” [Facebook]

Howard Hughes CEO Excited About Landmark Mall Future — “O’Reilly broke his silence about Landmark in an interview with the Washington Business Journal after being named the company’s permanent chief executive in December. He stopped short of calling the project a done deal, but he believes Howard Hughes has assembled a strong team with Inova, developer Foulger-Pratt, architect Cooper Carry, and Seritage Growth Properties (NYSE: SRG), the real estate entity spun out from Sears Holdings Co. that owns the old Sears store at Landmark.” [Washington Business Journal]

Community Group Hosting Taylor Run Stream Presentation — “Learn more about stream restoration from environmental experts and residents who have been studying the Taylor Run project for more than a year and hear what we think should be done to restore Taylor Run, protect Chinquapin Park, and help the Bay.” [Environmental Council of Alexandria]

The Chamber ALX Women’s Forum is March 11 — “After almost a year full of the unexpected and the unprecedented, this forum will bring together women at all stages of their careers for an interactive discussion filled with inspiration and insight, centered around this year’s theme of resiliency, and learning how to find the opportunities amidst the challenges.” [The Chamber ALX]

Today’s Weather — “Partly cloudy skies (during the day). High 53F. Winds WSW at 15 to 25 mph. Winds could occasionally gust over 40 mph… Mainly clear early (in the evening), then a few clouds later on. Low 32F. Winds W at 10 to 15 mph.” [Weather.com]

New Job: Front Office Agent — “And just like our hotels, no two colleagues are the same. So we’re curious about you. How will you inspire the eclectic rhythm in our hotels? How will you bring the local neighborhood story to life? At Hotel Indigo® hotels, we’re excited to meet spirited characters who can delight the most curious guests.” [Indeed]

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