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.”
(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.
The City of Alexandria is hosting Fall Festival this weekend with a moon bounce, hot food, and everyone’s favorite fair activity: free health screenings.
The Department of Community and Human Services (DCHS) is leading the event in the parking lot of Southern Towers (5067 Seminary Road) from 10 a.m.-4 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 9.
“This free event promises a fun-filled day for all ages, in addition to onsite health screenings,” DCHS said in a release. “The event lineup includes live performances, open mic opportunities, hot food and dessert options, many local vendors, and free health screenings by Kaiser Permanente. There will be a moon bounce for the children in addition to arts and crafts.”
The event listing said a mobile unit from Kaiser Permanente will be on hand to provide health screenings for adults in the nearby community.
“Going into a new season, its important to be in the know about your health,” the event listing said.
After years of battling between residents at Southern Towers and building management, a program next week aims to help renters get a better understanding of their rights.
The Tenant’s Rights workshop, presented by Mary Horner of Legal Services of Northern Virginia, is scheduled for Thursday, Aug. 17, at 1 p.m. at the Workforce Development Center (4850 Mark Center Drive).
The program is specifically aimed at helping Southern Towers residents and residents at Morgan Property locations in the West End, like Stoneridge at Mark Center Apartment Homes.
The free workshop is in English, but translation into Spanish and Dari will be available.
Join us on Thursday, August 17 starting at 1 p.m. in person at the Workforce Development Center with Mary Horner from Legal Services of Northern Virginia for Tenant's Rights: "Know Your Lease." To learn more and register, go to https://t.co/KtZxGp8x4p pic.twitter.com/klrGVlnDAf
— WDC Alexandria VA (@WDCAlexVA) August 7, 2023
Alexandria’s long-term plans for the West End go back to 1992 and the city is in the process of bringing some of those up to date to address the current needs; namely housing.
The city’s “updated community vision” aims to address housing vulnerability and affordability in an area that’s traditionally been home to some of the city’s last bastions of market-rate affordable housing.
The city’s update is hitting both the 1992 Alexandria West Small Area Plan and the 2012 Beauregard Small Area Plan. The planning process kicked off late last year, staring an 18-month process of looking at issues of housing affordability, equity, land use, mobility, pedestrian and cyclist safety and more.
In a release last week, the city outlined some next steps for that planning process:
- Coordination with Building Residents and Property Owners: In response to community comments regarding property issues in the plan area we will be working with the building residents and property owners to discuss current property issues.
- AlexWest Plan Meetings and Workshops: In the Fall, the City will host a meeting, tentatively scheduled for Wednesday, September 27, on potential proposed strategies for affordable housing and land use based on the comments from the community process. Subsequent community meetings will include topics such as open space, mobility, sustainability, infrastructure, and other planning topics. Details on meeting location and time, as well as information regarding all future engagement opportunities, will be posted on the project website, communicated through eNews and WhatsApp, and shared with community groups.
- Pop-ups and Events: The City will continue to host pop-ups and events throughout Alexandria West with community organizations and other stakeholders to ensure people are informed about the process and have the opportunity to ask questions and provide feedback. If you would like to invite staff to your event, please reach out to Christian Brandt, [email protected], at least a week in advance.
The area has been a hotbed of conflict between residents in market-rate affordable housing and landlords, particularly at Southern Towers — right in the heart of the planning area.
While Southern Towers has been the center of a multi-year battle over housing costs and evictions from market-rate units, the City of Alexandria’s Office of Housing said there are still over 50 committed affordable units at the project in need of residents.
Southern Towers is one of the last bastions of market-affordable housing in Alexandria — which means housing that is considered affordable to Alexandria residents making less than 60% of the area’s median income.
For a single person, for example, 60% of area median income is $63,300 — less than a teacher with a Master’s Degree starting in Alexandria or an editor at a local news website.
In an email to ALXnow, Housing Program Manager Virginia Patton said there are around 105 units set aside, from 56 studio apartments to one three-bedroom apartment. The three-bedroom and four two-bedroom units have been rented, but there are still roughly 17 one-bedroom units available and 35 studio apartments available.
The Sword of Damocles hanging over those units, however, is that many of those were established in 2015 with ten-year terms. Some of those were renegotiated in 2018, but those are set to start expiring over the next few years.
A release from the City of Alexandria said rents, with utilities, are:
- Efficiency Unit: $1,451
- 1 Bedroom Unit: $1,696
For years, residents at Southern Towers have protested and rang alarm bells about rent increases and evictions at Southern Towers, drawing support from Senators Mark Warner and Tim Kaine and a visit from Sandra Thompson, the director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency.
According to the release, applications can be filed online or via mail:
If you prefer to request a paper application to be mailed to you, please contact Virginia Patton, Housing Program Manager at virginia.patton@
alexandriava.gov or 703.746.3083.
Two months verification of your income must be provided with the application. Please note: monthly gross income must be, at a minimum, twice the rent of the unit. Once an application is approved by the Office of Housing, it will be provided to the Southern Towers Apartments Leasing Office for rental background checks and final approval. For more information, please contact Virginia Patton at virginia.patton@
alexandriava.gov or 703.746.3083.
(Updated at 11 a.m. on June 29) U.S. Senators Mark Warner and Tim Kaine sent a letter to CIM Group highlighting the concerns of residents regarding evictions, increased rents and living conditions at their Southern Towers Apartments complex.
In a letter Monday, the Virginia Democrats urged the building owner to resolve long standing disputes with residents. Since buying the property at the height of the pandemic in 2020, residents have protested against evictions, claiming that CIM Group has raised rents and evicted hundreds of residents from deteriorating properties.
“Tenants have shared with our offices that, under CIM ownership, they have been subjected to eviction filings during the eviction moratorium, changes in how utilities are billed combined with rent increases that have led to substantial price hikes, and unaddressed maintenance issues that pose health and safety risks,” the senators wrote. “Further, tenants have voiced that CIM issued unclear eviction notices indicating that tenants who were late on their rent payments had only five days to ‘pay rent or, alternatively, to terminate lease and vacate premises’ – only mentioning later in the notice that tenants located on a ‘covered property’ as defined by the CARES Act were entitled to a 30-day notice before vacating.”
Protests against CIM Group have been led by the People’s Actions Homes Guarantee campaign and African Communities Together (ACT), which say that Southern Towers residents are at the mercy of a major private equity landlord that only cares about profit.
Consequently, last month Southern Towers also got a visit from the Director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency.
CIM Group says that they only 31 residents have been evicted due to non-payment, and that living conditions have improved under their ownership.
CIM Group sent ALXnow the following statement:
CIM Group has long been a proud member of the Alexandria, VA community as the owner and operator of several properties, including Southern Towers where the firm took over operations in 2020. It was immediately clear to Southern Towers Management that they needed to address years of deferred maintenance and make important quality-of-life improvements to the development including long-overdue roof replacements; renovation of apartments, corridors, and common areas; resurfacing parking areas and tennis courts; new playgrounds and much more.
While Southern Towers is not an affordable housing community, CIM Group has worked diligently to keep rent 20% below comparable properties in Alexandria, while at the same time, making significant improvements to the habitability of Southern Towers. Residents have always paid a portion of their utilities and continue to be responsible for the costs they incur.
Southern Towers Management has never violated the CARES Act or any local, state or Federal laws. In fact, CIM Group is legally required to utilize a form provided by the State of Virginia–referred to as a 5-Day Notice–to notify residents when they are in arrears. CIM Group has no control over the language used in the form and any call for modifications should be directed to the State of Virginia.
Despite much disinformation, Southern Towers 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 also helped improve the living conditions at Southern Towers from what existed prior to CIM Group’s ownership.
CIM Group has made significant improvements for the overall wellbeing of the residents at Southern Towers, including:
- Providing assistance during the pandemic to residents who suffered financial setbacks that resulted in more than $5 million in rental assistance secured for hundreds of families.
- Increasing the level of regular maintenance well beyond what was the norm under the prior owner by 96%, which is more than $8.2M to address significant deferred maintenance issues.
- Instituting an online resident portal that provides transparent and open communication, as well as a seamless way for residents to submit work orders, which expedites necessary repair and maintenance.
- Prioritizing community involvement by organizing farmers markets, job fairs, food drives, and vaccination clinics.
- Engaging residents in a transparent and ongoing way by holding monthly meetings and appreciation events, as well as communicating important dates and information in the resident portal, as well as the weekly and monthly newsletters.
Fostering a secure and healthy environment by:
- Installing security cameras in each elevator landing in each tower and upgrading cameras on the lobby level in each tower. The entire project is anticipated to be completed by the end of July 2024.
- Upgrading all smoke detectors and replacing every unit on the campus with smoke detector/CO2 combo units.
- Repairing the retaining wall near the Ashlawn.
- Installing Flock Security – license plate reading cameras installed at each entrance to the property.
- Upgrading the fire alarm panel at Sherwood.
- Purchasing a new Jeep for patrolling the campus.
- Performing a thorough Pest Control inspection and preventative treatments of all common areas and every apartment home as well as sealing of any holes found during the inspection.
Making material upgrades to improve the quality of living at Southern Towers:
- Making significant laundry room upgrades, including purchasing new washer and dryer equipment for each floor at every building. The new equipment also included upgraded payment panel allowing residents the option to use cash, credit/debit cards or an app to pay for service.
- Enhancing and upgrading the dog park.
- Tennis Court resurfacing, striping and new nets. Upgrade also included replacing the solo player wall.
- Resurfacing the overflow parking area.
- Asphalt resurfacing at Beauregard entrance near The Graham and Monticello.
- Replacing all of the playground equipment.
- Beautifying the property including removing 26 dead or rotting trees from the campus and pruned trees in the community park to raise tree canopy by 3 feet, allowing better sight lines.
- Replacing 4 outdoor gas grills at Graham.
- Installing new grilling areas throughout the community park.
- Expanding concrete pads at grilling areas which include new accessible seating.
- Installing a new pergola over the grilling area closest to the Monticello pool.
- Complete resurfacing of the Monticello main and small pools.
- HVAC convector project completed at the Sherwood.
- HVAC system inspections completed across the campus.
- Window and Balcony door mock-ups completed at Ashlawn and Monticello. Each building scheduled for full window replacement byQ4 2023.
The full letter from Warner and Kaine is below. Read More
Good Monday morning, Alexandria!
⛈️ Today’s weather: A chance of showers and thunderstorms, then showers and possibly a thunderstorm after 8am. High near 79. South wind 11 to 13 mph, with gusts as high as 21 mph. Chance of precipitation is 100%. New rainfall amounts between a quarter and half of an inch possible. At night: A chance of showers and thunderstorms before 11pm, then a slight chance of showers between 11pm and 2am. Mostly cloudy, then gradually becoming mostly clear, with a low around 60. Northwest wind 6 to 9 mph. Chance of precipitation is 30%.
🚨 You need to know
Summer vacation is within sight, as this is the last week of the 2022-2023 school year for Alexandria City Public Schools. The last official day of school is Thursday, June 15.
All ACPS students and children are still eligible to get free meals when they go to a Summer Breakfast and Lunch program site every Monday to Thursday from June 26 to July 10. Meal distribution will not occur on Tuesday, July 4.
The schedule for breakfast and lunch is below.
📈 Friday’s most read
The following are the most-read ALXnow articles for Jun 9, 2023.
- Southern Towers gets a visit from the director of the Federal Housing Finance Administration (2754 views)
- UPDATED: Police activity shut down Mount Vernon Avenue Bridge earlier today (1989 views)
- ALXnow’s top stories this week in Alexandria (570 views)
- ACPS: George Mason Elementary students and teachers could change schools mid-year (538 views)
🐦 Tweets of note
— Sarah for Alexandria (@SarahforALX) June 9, 2023
📅 Upcoming events
Here is what’s going on today in Alexandria, from our event calendar.
- No events today. Have one to promote? Submit it to the calendar.
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.
As the City of Alexandria gets ready to kick off its advocacy for the upcoming general assembly session, one of the main talking points is how the city could use more help from the state in handling affordable housing.
Meronne Teklu, speaking on behalf of the Economic Opportunities Commission, the Landlord-Tenant Relations Board and the Alexandria Housing Affordability Advisory Committee, told the City Council this weekend that each of the groups expressed concerns about the rising rate of evictions.
Teklu said that this year, there were 873 eviction notices filed, a roughly 172% increase from 2021 — when many landlords were legally prohibited from filing evictions. Of those being evicted, Teklu said only 13% of tenants receive legal representation.
Additionally, a count of Alexandrians experiencing homeleness recorded 120 people, an increase of 13% over the previous year.
“We’re glad to see legislative packet prioritizes legislation to provide diverse housing opportunities and budget items preventing evictions, protecting families and individuals facing various housing challenges,” Teklu said.
Among those positive priorities in the legislative package, Teklu said, is a reinstatement of a 14-day requirement to pay-0or-quit notices.
Teklu’s commentary was underscored by testimony by testimony from residents of Southern Towers — a largely workforce-affordable housing complex in the West End where rent increases are outpacing wages.
Residents of Southern Towers spoke at the City Council and described the dire situation of residents working multiple jobs and still being unable to keep up with rent payments in one of the city’s last bastions of market affordable housing.
Sami Bourma said residents are putting together a new organization called Southern Towers United.
“it’s not easy to do so, with most of us working two jobs with up to five family members,” Bourma said. “For most of us, our rent is not what the city would call naturally affordable. In the West End, affordable [qualifies as] an income up to 60% of the area median income. I have five family members, and I do not come close to that level of income even if I had two members… and I have two jobs.”
Other residents said called the situation in Southern Towers “inhumane” and begged the City Council to intervene. Bourma said the hopes to get the developer to not increase rents above 2% annually. Residents and community organizers protested against building owners The CIM Group last month.