Alexandria, VA

Real estate investment company CIM Group recently purchased large apartment community Southern Towers, Costar first reported, but what’s unclear now is what that means for affordable housing in the city’s West End.

Southern Towers is a 2,261-unit apartment complex that is one of the city’s last large bastions of market-rate affordable and committed affordable units — units that are required to remain at a certain affordability. Helen McIlvaine, director of the city’s Office of Housing, said Southern Towers has 105 committed affordable units that were mostly established in the mid-2010s.

“They are ten-year units,” McIlvaine said. “Even at that time, property ownership had shifted to the next generation, and they didn’t feel in a position to make a longer term commitment… They’re pretty far into that life span. They have a number of start and end dates, but the last of them expires early 2028.”

Some of those were rented out in 2015 and 2016 and their committed affordable status could disappear in the next couple years.

McIlvaine said the city is maintaining discussions with the CIM Group, but that nothing has been set into stone yet for the property’s committed affordable units.

The city has had a working relationship with the company, which also owns the Mason at Van Dorn units near Landmark Mall.  McIlvaine said the CIM Group has been a cooperative partner in earlier discussions about establishing rent relief for local residents during the pandemic.

“We said our desire was to work with CIM group and continue to support Southern Towers residents that are experiencing income loss,” McIlvaine said.

Southern Towers was the site of protests during the pandemic with local residents pushing to cancel rent for residents who were among the thousands of locals laid off during the government shutdown.

McIlvaine said the discussion about rent relief is still ongoing. The City of Alexandria is offering rental assistance up to $1,800 for those who lost their income due to COVID-19. Those interested in rent relief can contact the city during business hours at 703-746-3100. Qualifying residents must live in Alexandria, have a documented loss of income, have been current on their rent through March, and fall within income eligibility guidelines. Read More

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A 36-year-old man is in jail on multiple charges after allegedly abducting and attacking another man with a knife and hatchet and threatening to jump out an 11-story window.

Tysheem Robinson, of Washington, D.C., was arrested on July 31 and charged with abduction by force/intimidation, probation violation, threatening to bomb and burn, destruction of more than $1,000 in property, obstruction of justice/resisting arrest, and assault and battery. He is being held without bond.

Police were called at around 8 p.m. the previous night to The Ashlawn apartment building in the Southern Tower complex in the West End after a woman reported that two men were fighting and that one of them was going to kill the other, according to a search warrant affidavit.

Officers tried speaking with Robinson through the door, and he allegedly told them, “I killed him, he’s dead,” and then, “I’m going to smoke this blunt then go out the window.”

The victim, who police described as a known PCP user, was not dead, and suffered cuts to his ear and hands. He told police that Robinson attacked him with a knife and a hatchet.

Police then broke into the apartment and found broken furniture and glass, and reported hearing glass breaking and then witnessed Robinson throwing objects from the window. An officer on the ground reported that he threw out a broom, an alarm clock and pieces of PVC pipe.

“There were multiple people both in the parking lot and approaching the front of the building who would have been injured if struck by these objects,” notes the affidavit.

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Sami Bourma doesn’t know what he’s going to do. At 2 p.m. today, the unemployed father of two children and resident at Southern Towers had an eviction hearing at the Alexandria Courthouse.

Two hours prior to that, Bourma and a number of his friends and neighbors stood outside the courthouse in Old Town and, for the second time this month, protested in asking Governor Ralph Northam to cancel evictions.

“I had three jobs before the pandemic, organizing for my local Union 23, as a cook and as an Uber driver,” Bourma told ALXnow. “How can I pay the rent if I don’t have an income? I don’t know what I’m going to do. That’s why I’m protesting today.”

Last week, the city also approved additional funds to help poor residents pay their rent while unemployment in the city remains high.

On Tuesday (July 14), Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring stated that lower courts can grant continuances on evictions, and that there are a number of state and federal protections in place so that people can stay in their home during the pandemic.

“The pandemic has taken a very real toll on Virginia’s economy and tens of thousands of Virginians, many of whom are hourly workers, have found themselves without a source of income during these difficult times,” Herring said. “We are still in the middle of a state of emergency and a public health crisis and it’s so important for Virginians to be able to stay in their homes to keep themselves, their families, and their communities safe.”

Northam’s request to extend the moratorium to later this month was denied by the Supreme Court of Virginia.

Jonathan Krall with Grassroots Alexandria was at the protest, and said that the continuances should be granted.

“You shouldn’t be putting people out on the street,” Krall said. “That doesn’t help the economy and doesn’t help the tenants or the landlords. People are starting to get evicted, and this is a major problem.”

Evelin Urrutia, the executive director of Tenants & Workers United, said that the Latino population in the city is hurting.

“We’ve been suffering with a housing problem, and the pandemic just made it worse and we are seeing it happen,” Urrutia said. “We have many families who are behind two or three months on the rent, and they won’t be able to catch up.”

For Bourma, the issue has become one of survival. After speaking with ALXnow, he walked back over to the two dozen protestors and took the megaphone to lead a chant.

“No money, no rent!” he shouted into the megaphone.

Staff photos by James Cullum

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Alexandria is providing the community with more funds to apply for emergency rent assistance.

On July 10, the city announced that it is prioritizing $450,000 from the Virginia Rent and Mortgage Relief Program for residents primarily living at or below 50% of the area median income up until July 20. After that time, households making 80% of AMI will be included.

“In addition, households with an unlawful detainer action dated before June 8 will be given top consideration,” notes a city release. “Tenants and homeowners are encouraged to know their rights and responsibilities and pay their rent and mortgages on time if they are able.”

According to the city, the new funds are “in addition to the $4 million in federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act funds being distributed through the Emergency Rent Relief Assistance Program and $671,500 in federal Community Development Block Grant funds for tenants of affordable housing, both administered by the City’s Office of Housing.”

The governor’s moratorium on rent evictions expired last month, and there have been protests to cancel rents and extend the moratorium throughout the city since the pandemic hit Alexandria. There is another protest scheduled today (Wednesday) at noon at the Alexandria courthouse organized by residents of Southern Towers and the Metro D.C. Democratic Socialists of America.

The city has acknowledged that the pandemic has disproportionately impacted communities of color, which will be prioritized with the rent relief.

Residents should take a self-assessment survey to see if they qualify, and then call 703-746-5700 to apply.

Posted by Metro D.C. Democratic Socialists of America on Saturday, July 11, 2020

Staff photo by James Cullum

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Alexandria’s poorest neighborhoods have been hardest hit by COVID-19, and renters from Arlandria and the West End rallied in front of the city’s courthouse today (July 1) to ask Governor Ralph Northam to extend the moratorium on evictions, which expired on June 28.

Sami Bourma lives in the Southern Towers apartment complex in the West End, and has not paid rent since March. He has two children, his wife is four months pregnant, and he has been unable to work as an Uber driver. He’s also an organizer with UNITE HERE Local 23, which represents some residents in the buildings.

“There are hundreds of people who live at Southern Towers and a lot of them are like me,” Bourma told ALXnow. “I am getting $750 a month for unemployment. That pays for almost nothing and we need to survive.”

The areas of the city with the leading number of cases are the 22304 and 22305 ZIP codes, which include the West End and Arlandria, Potomac Yard and Potomac West neighborhoods, according to the Virginia Department of Health.

Northam has requested that the moratorium be extended to July 20 — a move that Mayor Justin Wilson supports.

‪The extraordinary financial pressure facing residents of Alexandria who are experiencing unemployment or loss of income…

Posted by Justin Wilson on Friday, June 26, 2020

New Virginia Majority organizer Thomas Assefa said that his organization is also calling on Northam to approve $1 billion to fully fund an eviction protection program.

“Housing is a human right,” Assefa said. “We know that sheltering in place and staying in our home is one of the only ways we can combat this disease, and we are anticipating hundreds of thousands of tenants in the streets in the middle of a pandemic. There’s about 3 million renters in Virginia, and we anticipate 11% of that population could face massive evictions.That’s what’s at stake.”

Jonathan Krall, the co-founder of Grassroots Alexandria, said that it’s an issue of fairness and race.

“Racism results in economic inequality,” Krall said. “If you want to be anti-racist, then you need to cancel the rent.”

Frank Fannon, a former Republican city councilman, is a landlord and said that the governor should not extend the deadline and that there have been no waivers for commercial or residential property owners in their property tax bills, which the city mailed out last week.

“If you feel it is appropriate for tenants not to pay rent to your constituents, then be equitable and at least waive the late fees if property owners cannot pay their tax bill on time,” Fannon wrote to the City Council on July 1.

Wilson thanked Fannon for the email and responded that the property taxes are too important a revenue stream and that extending the deadline could endanger the city’s credit rating.

“It’s not something that we can play with unfortunately,” Wilson said. “That being said, our Finance folks are exercising maximum flexibility with tax payers right now. A taxpayer that contacts Finance will be extended payment terms, etc, upon request.”

Our community is the hardest hit by COVID-19 and the economic crisis, but Governor Northam doesn't seem to care about…

Posted by Tenants and Workers United – Inquilinos y Trabajadores Unidos on Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Staff photos by James Cullum

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Alexandria Police Chief Michael Brown joined demonstrators on Tuesday night as they chanted “Black lives matter” outside the city’s police headquarters on Tuesday night.

“We’re here today because we are in grief,” a protestor said. “We are grieving for the many, many black people who are killed because of racist police violence.”

Brown has been participating in a number of forums and recently wrote an open letter to the community on the death of George Floyd. The scene lasted for more than an hour.

“Even as good as we think we are, we know we can always improve and there are some things we learn from this through listening,” Brown told ALXnow.

SURJ NoVA Vigil to #EndWhiteSilence

Thanks to those who showed up physically and virtually yesterday. The virtual town hall reached the 1,000 person capacity; if you couldn't make it, you can watch the recording at the ACT for Alexandria facebook page.

Posted by Vice Mayor Elizabeth Bennett-Parker on Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Former Mayor Bill Euille said that the city has come a long way, but that there is still more work to do.

“We’ve progressed, but there’s always opportunities to continue the fight the battle,” Euille said. “It takes a whole community to be engaged and involved, and we just have to keep the dialogue going. A movement like this is a good strong signal that we’re moving in the right direction. Large numbers of concerned citizens make a difference. And that’s why it’s so important for folks to be engaged in the voting process and electing the right leaders. “

There was also a demonstration at the Southern Towers apartment complex on Wednesday morning. The  demonstration was initially about rent, but due to circumstances around the country was switched to focus on police inequality.

“The lives that have been lost are important. Our lives and George Floyd’s life matter, and that’s why we’re here today,” Josh Armistead, vice president of the Unite Here local 23 union. “Black lives matter, and workers’ and labor rights matter.”

We stand with you and are very proud of our community and officers for the conversations held last night. #BlackLivesMatter

Posted by Alexandria Police Foundation on Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Staff photos by James Cullum

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A pair of strikes filled the streets outside Southern Towers late last month and on May 1, but despite some extended support for renters out of the job due to COVID-19, those who helped stage the earlier protests said the fight to stop rent from being charged to those without a job will continue to go on.

“Bell Partners has extended its previously-announced measures to help residents financially impacted by COVID-19 into May,” a spokesman for Bell Partners, which operates Southern Towers, said. “The due date for May rent has been pushed back to May 20 and late fees have been waived.”

Organizers of the earlier protests said the second rally was larger than the first and carried over into a protest concerning another building with the same property owner.

“The last action that residents took was on Friday, May 1,” said Sarah Jacobson, lead organizer with UNITE HERE Local 23, a regional union that represents some residents in the building. “[It was] a car rally that included probably twice as many residents as at their first car rally held on April 20.  That action also involved tenants at another building, Dominion in Alexandria, that is also operated by Bell Partners and owned by Snell Properties (the same owner and operator structure as at Southern Towers).”

Jacobson recognized that Bell Partners has extended the late fees each month, but said deferred payment is still expected over a six-month period. The Alexandria City Council warned in an earlier meeting that many residents that are currently out of jobs could face difficulties over the next months finding new jobs as the economy slowly reopens. These residents would be saddled with not only paying ongoing rent but paying rent for months when they were unable to work.

“A recent Vox news article estimated that 70% of jobless Americans did not receive unemployment benefits in March,” Jacobson said. “I estimate that this number is both higher among Southern Towers residents and also remains true in April, as so many workers are gig workers for whom the [Virginia Employment Commission] has not begun to approve benefits.  This makes the prospect of paying 25% of rent in April, and then 25% (for May rent) + 15% (for April rent) in May under Bell’s proposal completely untenable for families without any income at all since the second week of March.”

The City Council approved some rent assistance for those living in committed affordable units, which does little to help most residents at Southern Towers, but the city is also looking at implementing a larger program to help low-income residents with rent city-wide.

Jacobson said Southern Towers residents are continuing to organize for rent relief and are currently reaching out to residents of other Bell Properties to build a larger coalition.

Staff photo by Jay Westcott

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Updated 4:40 p.m. — Adhering to proper social distancing protocol, tenants and other supporters rallied outside of Southern Towers in cars making slow circles through the parking lot with signs and chants of “No pay! No Rent!” and “No job! No Rent!”

“How are people going to be able to make a rent deferral plan work?” asked Sarah Jacobson, organizing director for UNITE HERE Local 23 DC, a food service workers union operating out of D.C. “Even if people went back to 100% employment tomorrow, that would be challenging. Uber drivers won’t be getting the kind of pay they had before.”

The strike, and other types of protest, had been talked about for weeks — from the hallways of Southern Towers to the City Council chambers. At 10 a.m. today (Monday), a handful of protestors took to the sidewalks outside the building while dozens of others drove in circles around the property with blinkers on and signs displayed. The protest lasted until around noon.

Southern Towers is a large residential complex in the West End, where many of the residents are local service industry workers laid off during the shutdown. Several of the cars in the protest were taxi cabs and many of the signs were written in both English and Amharic. Without pay, some of the residents say they are unable to pay their rent. While city staff said Bell Partners, the property manager of Southern Towers, has offered a deferred payment plan to residents currently unable to make rent payments, some on the City Council and others in the community have been critical of this approach and said residents are unlikely to be able to pay back a deferred rent.

Los inquilinos de SOUTHERN TOWERS protestan esta mañana en favor de cancelar las rentas, muchos de ellos están sin trabajo y no tienen dinero para pagar la renta del mes de Mayo.

Posted by Tenants and Workers United – Inquilinos y Trabajadores Unidos on Monday, April 20, 2020

Some in the city had been critical outside elements helping to organize the strike, but during a City Council meeting City Councilman Canek Aguirre said many of the residents of the building were members of that union, which stepped in because Virginia does not allow unions. Jacobson said her organization’s role was providing infrastructure support for tenants, who were leading the protests.

“Tenants chose today because that’s the deadline that Bell Partners had made for people to pay their rent or make a rent deferral plan,” Jacobson said. “It’s not because people are willfully trying to not pay the landlord, people don’t have money and it’s illustrating a problem where wages and rents do not match in this region.”

Helen McIlvaine, director of the Office of Housing, noted that this was consistent with what Mayor Justin Wilson had asked property owners to do in a letter last month. Jacobson argued that Bell Partners is a nationwide investment company

“Bell Partners is a private equity company — this is an example of a company that is able to respond to these tenant demands,” Jacobson said. “It is going to take a complex solution to respond to this crisis in a way where the entire burden doesn’t fall on low wage workers without savings or essential workers most exposed.”

Jacobson said tenants are meeting again tomorrow (Tuesday) and planning a similar action on May 1.

In a letter to residents, Bell Partners said late fees for rent would be waived if paid by today.

“Payment plan options will be available for April and May, with proof of hardship (i.e. documentation of unemployment benefit or written statement from your employer),” Bell Partners said.

For those who can’t pay rent or afford a payment plan, Bell Partners told them to reach out to Alexandria’s Office of Housing’s Landlord and Tenant Division at 703-746-3078.

Staff photos by Jay Westcott

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The Alexandria City Council unanimously approved Councilman Canek Aguirre’s call for a rent freeze at its meeting this week.

The resolution calls on state and federal officials to put a potential moratorium on rents and mortgages and to suspend the reporting of negative credit information by credit bureaus to protect people’s credit scores.

Aguirre’s resolution is partly fueled by a potential rent strike at Southern Towers, a large apartment complex that houses many service industry workers who have been laid off during the pandemic. City staff, however, said that reports of Southern Towers being inflexible on rents may have been exacerbated by miscommunication.

“Now, working off info we’ve been given, apparently there’s an organization in D.C. that is encouraging folks to strike against rent,” Deputy City Manager Debra Collins said. “We’re actively telling people, ‘No, go to your property manager. They’re willing to work with you.'”

Organizations like Unite Here Local 23 and African Communities Together have helped circulate a petition through the building, WAMU reported, and Collins said the city wanted to make sure deliberate misinformation wasn’t being spread.

City staff said that Southern Towers has been trying to work with residents and that, if they can’t pay their rent, they can work out a several month payment plan. Helen McIlvaine, director of the Office of Housing, noted that this was consistent with what Mayor Justin Wilson had asked property owners to do in a letter last month.

McIlvaine said that some of the confusion and concerns had been caused by an automatically generated email reminding residents to pay their rent. Read More

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While residents at Southern Towers are preparing to strike, city leadership is caught in the middle of trying to negotiate a ceasefire before things escalate.

Residents at the West End apartment complex, many of whom have service industry jobs and were recently laid off due to the pandemic, have begun organizing for a strike wherein they refuse to pay their rent, WAMU first reported.

In a petition circulating around the buildings, organizers say rent should be cancelled during the duration of the emergency while the residents cannot work, plus one month as many of them get back on their feet and try to find new jobs. The petition demanded that property management meet with a committee of tenants and fix the safety and sanitary issues in the building. Lastly, residents said future rent at the building should be based on the income of the residents.

Councilman Canek Aguirre, who on the City Council has frequently advocated for lower-income families throughout the West End and areas like Arlandria, said he met with residents last week in a Zoom call.

Aguirre said resident concerns go beyond just problems with rent.

“Residents are concerned about the accumulation of trash,” Aguirre said. “Everybody is staying home and producing trash, but cutes either closed or compactors broken. So they’re putting trash in the hallways.”

The difficulties due to the stay at home order go both ways, Aguirre noted, with management trying to pick up trash daily, but they too are “having issues with stay at home orders.” To fix the trash compactors, for instance, Aguirre said the company is waiting on parts that are still being held up.

“You throw on top of that people’s concerns, fears and anxieties [about rent]… and there were mixed messages from email communications from management trying to clarify that,” Aguirre said. “They’re switching to a full online payment system, but we have to be cognizant of the digital divide. There are individuals who aren’t able to pay bills online. It’s one thing after another.” Read More

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