(Updated 9:55 p.m.) Bailing Metro out of its $750 million budget shortfall is going to sting the budgets of localities next year, and the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (COG) expects to release a plan addressing it next month.
COG Director Clark Mercer said that the organization’s Chief Administrative Officers (CAO) Committee work group on Metro’s cost structure will release a report next month outlining three options for Metro to consider. One of those options includes a one-time option to use Metro’s preventative maintenance fund against the balance for the next year or two, potentially cutting the shortfall by hundreds of millions of dollars.
“Most transit systems in the country do this on a regular basis,” Mercer told ALXnow. “But what Metro has heard kind of loud and clear is that the region cannot absorb a $750 million bill on top of what they already paid this year. What are some other options? It’s a big, huge mountain to climb.”
Mercer said that Metro CEO Randy Clarke has identified $50 million in ongoing savings from eliminating consultants, as well as nearly $100 million from this year’s budget that will roll over into next year’s budget.
“Just so you know, that fiscal cliff of $750 million, once moving those preventative maintenance dollars up, the next year that cliff is still there,” Mercer said. “It goes down to $300 or $400 million, then up to $750 million again. Those numbers are real.”
COG acts as a regional powerhouse, corralling 24 member jurisdictions (with about six million residents) to get on the same page on regional initiatives like transportation planning, affordable housing, law enforcement and environmental sustainability. Last month, COG released a statement in response to the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s financial update.
“Our region’s economy and quality of life depend on a reliable, sustainable Metro system,” stated COG Board of Directors Chair Kate Stewart, who is a Montgomery County Councilmember. “State, local, and federal leaders need to prioritize ensuring we avert the fiscal cliff facing the system and work together to find a long-term, sustainable funding solution.”
The CAO work group, which compiled the report and recommendations, is chaired by Alexandria City Manager Jim Parajon.
COG is made up of about 130 employees, and nearly half of them work in transit with the Transportation Planning Board for the region. Additionally, Metro’s budget has to be approved in the organization’s long-term plan to get federal funding.
Mercer said that not funding Metro by next summer would result in a “transit death spiral.”
“You’re not gonna be able to recruit a company to this region without a well-run Metro system,” he said. “One reason Amazon came where they came was because of Metro, and there are a lot of companies like that.”
Mercer continued, “We can say, ‘We don’t want to fund it, and we want a poorly run Metro,’ and that’s a disaster for the region,” Mercer said. “Option one is a transit death spiral.”
In 2018, jurisdictions in the region agreed to cap their funding to Metro to $500 million, and to increase their allocation no more than 3% every year. Now with Metro’s $750 million shortfall, that 3% needs to be re-baselined with Virginia and Maryland state legislators, Mercer said.
“The second option is to look at the way that Metro is funded — from Richmond, Annapolis, the District of Columbia, and the federal government,” Mercer said. “Ask any business person if they want their budget approved every year by four different boards of directors. Funding options needs to be discussed over the next year.”
Without a funding increase from Alexandria and its neighbors, WMATA reported “unprecedented operating deficits” will force it to make drastic cuts to rail, bus, and paratransit services across the region.
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.”
The deteriorating parking garage at the Albert V. Bryan United States Courthouse is about to get an $11.5 million upgrade.
The U.S. General Services Administration announced Monday that the courthouse parking garage, located at 401 Courthouse Square in the city’s Carlyle neighborhood, is one of 150 project around the country that will be repaired using “low-embodied carbon materials” via the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022. The courthouse repair will be made with carbon concrete.
“The judiciary depends on safe and easy access to the Albert V. Bryan Courthouse,” acting Mid-Atlantic Region Regional Administrator Joanna Rosato said. “These repairs will provide a safe and sustainable investment in the future of the Courthouse.”
According to GSA:
The Inflation Reduction Act includes $3.4 billion for GSA to influence market research and development of low-embodied carbon materials, and to build more sustainable and cost-efficient high-performance facilities. GSA’s Inflation Reduction Act projects will implement new technologies and accelerate GSA’s efforts in achieving a net-zero emissions federal building portfolio by 2045.
Through these investments, GSA estimates that it could reduce carbon emissions by 2.3 million metric tons in greenhouse gas emissions. That is the equivalent of taking about 500,000 gasoline-powered passenger vehicles off the road for one year.
GSA offered no timeline for the projects.
(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.
Alexandria is bracing for a federal government shutdown at midnight on Sunday (Oct. 1).
The city is preparing a package of services for impacted city residents, should Congress not come to an agreement to continue funding the government by then, Assistant City Manager Sarah Taylor told City Council on Tuesday.
“There is less and less optimism that the current political environment on Capitol Hill will make it possible to avoid avoid a government shutdown,” Taylor said. “Should there be a shutdown, city staff is prepared to deploy resources and communications to assist those in our community who are impacted by such a shutdown.”
In the event of a shutdown, federal employees will get their October 4 paychecks, but not their October 18 paychecks.
Mayor Justin Wilson said that federal contractors will bear the brunt of the shutdown.
“Nine times out of 10 in these shutdowns, the federal employees end up getting paid, the contractors do not,” Wilson said. “We hope that Congress does their job, hopefully before Oct. 1 at midnight.”
Taylor said that city staff would also have to step in to pick up trash at Jones Point Park (70 Jones Point Drive), which is a National Park Service property.
“The city may need to step in and provide trash pickup or provide patrols additional patrols there if there are no rangers patrolling the property,” she said. “There are a wide range of services that could be disrupted for every for any Alexandrian, from travel delays to delayed passport applications to the closure of or limited amenities at federal facilities, including museums and parks.”
“If the shutdown lasts until November, SNAP benefits could be reduced, incomplete, or disrupted,” she said. “USDA should have enough WIC funds to last through October, but the program’s funding in November is also unclear.”
Restaurants helping out
As with the last shutdown, a number of Alexandria businesses are offering specials to potentially impacted federal employees.
Pork Barrel BBQ (2312 Mount Vernon Avenue) is offering a free pulled pork sandwich to federal employees who bring their IDs to the restaurant. The deal is limited to one sandwich per day per federal employee.
“We’ve done this since the government shutdown of 2013,” Pork Barrel BBQ owner Blackburn said. “Come Monday, 25% of Alexandria might not be going to work, and they need a break.”
Additionally, all Taco Bamba locations (with the exception of Falls Church, which doesn’t have a bar) will offer all-day happy hour ($5 drinks and $5 Jeffreys, their signature crispy meat spring roll) Mondays through Fridays with a government ID during the shutdown.
In the event of a shutdown, Visit Alexandria told ALXnow they will release a list of other businesses offering specials to impacted federal employees on Sunday.
Alexandria Police Department Captain Courtney Ballantine just spent 10 weeks at the FBI National Academy, and spoke with ALXnow about his experience.
Over the summer, Ballantine lived in a dorm with a roommate at Marine Corps Base Quantico, worked out four times a week and studied the psychology of leadership, managing change, leading at-risk employees and strategies for community partnerships. There were about 200 other law enforcement officers who participated in the academy’s 287th session.
Ballantine, now the commander of APD’s Community Engagement Division and Special Operations Division, joined the department in 2000, straight after earning a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from Radford University. He was promoted to sergeant in 2007, lieutenant in 2014, was made acting-captain in 2021 and officially became a captain in 2022.
Ballantine’s responsibilities include managing the department’s parking enforcement, traffic safety, special events, K9 units, crossing guards, school resource officers, and APD’s crisis intervention team program. He’s also the commander of the department’s peer support and resiliency group, which is designed to help officers cope with the wear and tear of the job.
He also now joins a list of APD graduates from the FBI National Academy, which includes Chief Don Hayes, Captain Monica Lisle, Captain Jerry Newcomb, Lieutenant Steve Carr, Lieutenant Mike May and Lieutenant Tara May.
ALXnow: Welcome back. How’d you get involved in this?
Ballantine: Thanks. I put in for this program a couple of years ago, and I’ve been on a waiting list. Eventually my name got pulled. You know, it’s always easy to put your name on a piece of paper saying you’re interested, but when your name is called you actually have to go and do it. It’s a reality check.
ALXnow: What was your life like at the academy?
Ballantine: It was 10 weeks of living in a dorm. I had a roommate from Bristol, Connecticut, and we shared a bathroom with two other people, and we did graduate-level coursework through the University of Virginia. In one particular training session, for instance, there were 40 other law enforcement executives across the world who brought their perspectives and experience to the conversation. So, if I didn’t learn something new in that course, I confirmed that we were already doing something right.
ALXnow: When I think of the FBI Academy, that opening scene in The Silence Of The Lambs with Jodie Foster running through the obstacle course comes to mind.
Ballantine: We watched that movie one night at the academy, and I actually completed that obstacle course at the end of the 10 weeks. It’s called the Yellow Brick Road, and it’s a 6.3-mile course, and the nine weeks of workouts leading up to that is the only reason I was able to successfully finish it.
ALXnow: What did you learn and how are you going to apply it in Alexandria?
Ballantine: What you have to understand is that the National Academy is like a utopia. You’re in the woods, where deer are frolicking in the pasture with bunny rabbits. You’re in a secured area on a secured military base. You have three meals a day, you exercise, you’re with people that want to learn and do better, and you’re learning about the world and how other people do what we do. And when I walked out, you’re hit with reality, like leaving college and facing the real world…
One of the biggest things I want to try to really expound on is wellness for ourselves. I’m currently the commander of our peer support and resiliency group, which we started in 2017. At the academy, I took the class for leading at-risk employees, which is about dealing with the wear and tear of the job, seeing all that accumulative trauma. The work can overwhelm the best of us and manifest in heart disease, depression, alcoholism, or even suicide. There’s a lot more that we can do and we have to make sure we take care of ourselves.
ALXnow: What was an inspiring moment for you at the academy?
Ballantine: I had to do a presentation in my class for leading at-risk employees. I asked a friend of mine working in the department to come down to present with me, and we talked about our ability to work together, our relationship and how we’ve helped each other through tough times, dark days and bright days. We’ve always been part of each other’s world to support each other, and when we were finished presenting, everyone in the room was clapping because they recognized how awesome that is, that we’ve both kept each other alive.
ALXnow: During your law enforcement career you could have left Alexandria. Why have you stayed?
Ballantine: I love my job. I absolutely love coming to work, being in this community working with the officers. After being here for 23 years, which is longer than anywhere else I’ve ever lived, this is home.
Good Wednesday morning, Alexandria!
☀️ Today’s weather: The weather forecast predicts a mostly sunny day with a high of around 91 degrees. Expect a calm wind in the morning, turning to a south wind at 6 mph in the afternoon. Wednesday night will be mostly clear with a low of about 75 degrees and a south wind ranging from 6 to 9 mph.
🚨 You need to know
The play is based on the 1972 novel by Bridget Carpenter about an overworked mother who magically switches bodies with her teenage daughter.
A number of Alexandria residents are appearing in the show, including James Campione (playing Fletcher), Paul Caffrey (Mike), Naja Bates (Savannah) and Peter Fannon (playing several roles). The show was directed by Joanna Henry and produced by Luana Bossolo and Sherii Ratick Stroud.
It is optional for audience members to wear face masks.
The show runs until Aug. 12. Their upcoming program is the comedy “Two on the Aisle, Three in a Van,” which runs from Sept. 9 to Sept. 30.
📈 Tuesday’s most read
The following are the most-read ALXnow articles for Jul 25, 2023.
- Notes: Many federal employees who report to work in Alexandria are still mostly remote | ALXnow (3805 views)
- ACPS ignores Gov. Youngkin’s recommended policies on treatment of transgender students (2634 views)
- Severe Thunderstorm Watch and Flood Watch in effect until tonight in Alexandria (1029 views)
- Alexandria police seeking SUV allegedly linked to Monday’s fatal shooting (547 views)
📅 Upcoming events
Here is what’s going on today in Alexandria, from our event calendar.
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The Director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency visited Southern Towers in the West End this week, signalling to housing advocates that years of protests against rent hikes and evictions are finally paying off.
On Wednesday, FHFA Director Sandra Thompson toured the 2,261-unit Southern Towers complex at 4901 Seminary Road. The tour was hosted by the People’s Actions Homes Guarantee campaign and African Communities Together (ACT), and the groups say that affordable housing residents are at the mercy of a major private equity landlord that only cares about profit. The groups say that since buying the property at the height of the pandemic in 2020, California-based owner CIM Group has evicted more than 250 residents, and that many of them endured uninhabitable conditions and rent increases.
“What we’re seeing at Southern Towers is what happens when we allow corporations to commodify the human right to housing and put profit over lives,” said Sosseh Prom, Housing Program Director, African Communities Together. “Immigrant families and blue collar workers deserve to be safely housed, and we cannot afford to sit back and watch their displacement.”
CIM Group, however, says that only 31 residents have been evicted due to non-payment, and that 158 eviction notices were filed with the District Court in Alexandria.
“Southern Towers Management has, and will continue, to support individual residents of the community and work cooperatively with all stakeholders including the Federal Housing Finance Agency,” CIM said in a statement. “Southern Towers Management has never violated the CARES Act and despite continued malicious attempts to paint Southern Towers Management as a faceless Wall Street investor, management will not be deterred from their commitment to the community they serve, their legal obligation and the fiduciary duty the company has to investors who have helped improve the living conditions at Southern Towers from what existed prior to CIM Group’s ownership.”
Thompson’s tour was not open to press, and FHFA had no further comment beyond last month’s request for input (RFI) to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to study easing multifamily tenant protections on properties they finance. One of those properties is Southern Towers, which CIM Group bought with a $346.7 million government-backed loan through Freddie Mac.
“The Enterprises have a responsibility to not only ensure liquidity is available for affordable rental housing, but also to address challenges faced by tenants and property owners in the multifamily housing market,” Thompson said in a statement last month. “FHFA is seeking public input to help identify these challenges nationwide, particularly in underserved communities.”
Thompson’s tour was made six months after ACT filed a complaint with FHFA and Freddie Mac. In that complaint, ACT said CIM Group is “using the federal funds received from Freddie Mac to finance predatory behavior in an affordable community.”
In Alexandria, CIM Group owns Mason at Van Dorn, a 1,180-unit residential community, and Park Place at Van Dorn, a 285-unit residential community. CIM also converted the former Crowne Plaza Hotel Alexandria at 901 N. Fairfax into the upscale Venue apartment complex.
Southern Towers resident Haram Elsheikh said that residents should not be forced to fight a landlord for habitable living conditions.
“Imagine finding out that your kid has developed asthma because of the unresolved mold in your AC unit,” Elsheikh said. “As blue-collar workers, we are already working hard to make ends meet with the rising cost of living.”
A video of the years-long residential protest is below.
(Updated 5:45 p.m.) At an upcoming meeting, the City Council is scheduled to consider a grant application asking for $50 million for waterfront flood mitigation projects.
Last year, city staff put forward a variety of potential projects to add more flood resiliency to the waterfront, which has seen increasingly frequent flooding in recent years, but with cost estimates ranging from $170 to $215 million, some city leaders faced some sticker shock and have asked to scale down the projects.
That $50 million is the maximum amount that can be awarded through FEMA’s Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities (BRIC) Grant Program.
The city’s flooding prevention projects have, in the past, gotten some boosts from state and national resources.
In addition to the national funding, the docket item for the application notes at a later date the Council will consider funding the local share of any related waterfront flood projects.
The application is scheduled for review at the City Council meeting on Wednesday, Nov. 9.
An Alexandria resident, who is a Pentagon Force Protection Agency police officer, was arrested for allegedly selling cocaine in Arlington County on Friday, October 28.
The 33-year-old officer was off duty and was arrested and charged with possession with intent to distribute a controlled substance and possession to distribute a controlled substance while armed. He was arrested in the afternoon in the 1300 block of S. Scott Street “
The suspect was arrested “after detectives observed him purchase narcotics for distribution, according to Arlington County police. He is being held without bond in the Arlington County Detention Facility.
“Organized Crime Section detectives initiated a narcotics investigation after receiving information regarding a suspect possibly distributing cocaine in Arlington County,” ACPD said in a release. “A search warrant was subsequently executed at the suspect’s residence in Alexandria which resulted in the recovery of additional quantiles of narcotics and firearms.”