Alexandria, VA

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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“My money for food!” shouted a vocal group of tenants facing eviction at the Southern Towers apartment complex in the West End on Thursday.

Resident Sami Bourma was one of them. He’s back to working part-time as a cook, but is $11,000 in the hole with his rent. His wife is expecting to give birth to their third child any day now, and he hasn’t fully paid for his $1,515-a-month one bedroom apartment since March. He got a couple months of it covered through city resources, but now has to go back to court in January to seek a third extension from eviction.

“I’m getting paid $600 every two weeks,” Bourma said. “That’s gone before you know it.”

The protest was organized by African Communities Together, a group that helps communities with African immigrants.

“This apartment compound, it’s a huge complex, and it’s full of immigrants mostly from Africa,” said protest organizer Bert Bayou. “They’re highly impacted by COVID. From the beginning, because most of them work several service jobs, they were the  first to be to be laid off.”

A representative from Southern Towers’ new owner CIM Group spoke to residents briefly and gave them rental assistance forms with the city and the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development.

Throughout the spring and summer, residents facing eviction protested around the city. But in September, the Supreme Court of Virginia did not extend the moratorium on eviction proceedings.

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