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Organizers outside Southern Towers lead residents in a protest against CIM Group (staff photo by Vernon Miles)

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.

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Organizers outside Southern Towers lead residents in a protest against CIM Group (staff photo by Vernon Miles)

At a rally outside Southern Towers (4901 Seminary Road), residents and community activists shared stories of rent increases and poor living conditions, shouting slogans against property owner CIM Group.

CIM Group purchased the buildings in 2020. Relations between tenants and owners were already fraught after the pandemic left many residents in Southern Towers — one of the last bastions of market-rate affordable housing in Alexandria — without work. Since then, community activists have raced to try and support residents facing eviction after pandemic-related protections expired.

A dozen residents of Southern Towers were in attendance, along with several community organizers from the organization African Communities Together (ACT). Bert Bayou, chapter director for ACT’s DC office, said ACT has been working to support local residents who feel they’re being pushed out by continual rent increases at the property.

“We are here supporting the tenants,” said Bayou. “For a few months we’ve been trying to engage with CIM about conditions in the building and rent increases.”

Rent

Bayou said CIM Group has told residents that rent went up 3-4%. Bayou said ACT surveyed residents and found some 9% increases, though CIM group cited figures on real estate website CoStar that show lower average rent renewals.

“CIM says they want to keep the building as workforce housing, but everything they do is making it unaffordable,” Bayou said. “All we see is CIM trying to get rid of African immigrants.”

Added into the mix is that utilities are no longer included with rent, meaning residents face additional costs on top of increasing rent.

Sosseh Prom, state policy manager for African Communities Together, rent shouldn’t increase any more than 2% annually.

“If you, a multi-billion dollar company, are having these issues: how do you think blue-collar workers feel?” Prom said.

Sami Bourma, a resident at Southern Towers, said beyond just issues with having utilities separated from rent, there are no clear answers on where the figures on the bills are coming from given that there aren’t individual meters in the units.

“We see a $200 electric bill for a one-bedroom unit or $600 for a three-bedroom, but it doesn’t make any sense,” Bourma said. “CIM says ‘oh, that’s what the market is.'”

CIM Group was not available for interviews, but said in a document sent to ALXnow that because Southern Towers aren’t affiliated with any social service support network, the property owners are keeping rent increases in line with the financial obligations of building ownership:

The vast majority, 91.5 percent, of Southern Towers residents are current in meeting their rent obligations. Our empathy for residents must be balanced by our fiduciary responsibility. We empathize with those residents that face personal struggles. However, Southern Towers is a standard workforce housing community and is not affiliated with any social service support networks. As property owners we must meet our financial obligations and fiduciary responsibilities in order to keep the lights on and the doors open, providing homes for thousands of residents at Southern Towers.

The real estate company said rents are 20% below average rental rates in Alexandria and rent increases have been below the average rate as well, noting that the average rates cited on real estate website CoStar showed a 2.7% increase for residents renewing their leases and a 5.1% increase for new leases.

Currently, rents at Southern Towers are approximately 20 percent below the average rental rates for all apartment properties in the Alexandria area according to CoStar. This equates to, on average, approximately $600 a month.

Overall, rents in the Alexandria market increased 12.8 percent in the past year. Rental rates for new leases at Southern Towers increased 5.1 percent over the same period, while existing residents executing renewals saw increases of 2.7 percent during this time, according to CoStar.

Effective October 1, 2022, Southern Towers will hold rent increases to $200 per month for residents in good standing who execute a lease renewal through the end of 2022. There were instances where residents agreed to renewal terms before the commitment to a $200 cap was implemented. There is no obligation to renew, residents may select from the many residential options in the area.

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As part of a yearly look at the city’s long-term plans, city staff says plans for the West End are in dire need of an update.

A memo prepared by Director of Planning Karl Moritz said the city’s West End plans are out of date by a couple decades. The memo is part of a plan update scheduled for review at the Tuesday, June 7 Planning Commission meeting (Item 7).

“Based on feedback from Planning Commission and City Council on the draft work program in January, and considering community needs and priorities, infrastructure, and anticipated future redevelopment sites, Staff recommends prioritizing an Update to the Alexandria West Plan (to include the Beauregard Plan) in FY 2023,” Moritz said. “Last comprehensively addressed in 1992, the Alexandria West land use recommendations need to be updated, particularly to address large-scale properties that have recently requested redevelopment, namely Southern Towers and Newport Village and market pressure to convert existing office space to residential uses.”

The Newport Village development is a proposed plan to replace two garden-style apartment buildings with a new 383-unit residential development.

Moritz said there are other areas of the more recent 2012 Beauregard Plan, including an “Ellipse design” for the intersection of Seminary Road and Beauregard Street that the city said fell by the wayside due to changes in expected development and traffic patterns.

“There are specific elements of the 2012 Beauregard Plan that need updating, including the Seminary Beauregard intersection, requests for some land use reconfiguration, such as on the Monday Properties site, and the developer contributions policy,” the memo said. “Staff believes that a planning update for this area of the City is the highest small area planning priority and should begin in FY 2023.”

The need for another look at the Ellipse plans is included separately in Moritz’s memo.

“The Seminary Road and N. Beauregard Street Intersection Improvement Study will evaluate the previously proposed Ellipse design for the Seminary Road and N. Beauregard intersection, with updated travel data and land use development expectancy, as well as explore other alternative designs that would address the projected traffic conditions while emphasizing multi-modal accommodations and safety,” Moritz wrote. “This project will also evaluate nearby intersections such as Seminary Road/Mark Center Drive and recommend proposed improvements.”

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With a potential wave of evictions incoming next month, a group representing tenants of Southern Towers is trying to indirectly pressure the building’s owner into giving residents a reprieve.

The 2,261-unit Southern Towers complex at 4901 Seminary Road is one of the last bastions of market-rate affordable housing — housing that’s affordable without being set at a certain level by agreement with the local government. The West End building was purchased in 2020 by California-based real estate company CIM Group.

While there were some eviction protections put in place during the pandemic, CIM Group still pursued eviction proceedings against some residents, and tenant advocacy group African Communities Together has expressed concerns those evictions could escalate now that Virginia Rent Relief Program (RRP) has closed its application process.

The RRP was created during the pandemic to keep families in place as job loss impacted local residents’ ability to pay rent. But with the application window closing, the City of Alexandria said in a release that eviction protections put in place with that program will expire starting on June 1.

Bert Bayou, director of African Communities Together, said affordable housing advocates are scrambling to put together protections for residents.

“This came as a surprise,” said Bayou. “We were expecting this program to continue. This came so quickly and was a shock to the community that it was ending on May 15. We were still trying to get data on how many people used this program for rent relief but still not provided by the state.”

Bayou said that many of Southern Towers’ residents are service-industry employees or Uber drivers who work in jobs that haven’t fully returned to pre-pandemic levels.

“We know this community, we’ve been in this community for many years,” Bayou said. “These are service workers, hospitality workers, Uber drivers. Most of the jobs are dependent on federal workers coming back and they either haven’t or is still part-time. When this is over, when the eviction moratorium ends, we’re going to see a floodgate opening on evictions. It’s going to be massive.”

Bayou said in April 2021, African Communities Together did a study that found CIM Group had started 541 eviction proceedings since buying the property in 2020, and Bayou said they’ve seen another 50 or so since then.

ALXnow reached out to CIM Group to comment or confirm these numbers but received no response.

“They own around 9% of the apartment units in the city,” Bayou said, “but their eviction filings were about 25% of the total. That’s higher than any other landlord in the city.”

Bayou said they’ve tried to reach out to CIM Group to work out a way to offer rent relief for residents of Southern Towers who are still out of work, but that the real estate company will only negotiate with individual residents rather than with tenant groups.

“What we could do is for tenants to sit down collectively with CIM to address this and other issues, but CIM as a multi-billion dollar landlord could sit down and work with tenants not to be evicted and be homeless,” Bayou said. “CIM could do this. They’ve raised hundreds of millions of dollars when they purchased the building. When they come to the city, there has to be some compassion from the landlord to talk to tenants.”

Instead, Bayou said they’re trying to target CIM Group’s investors to try to get them to apply pressure on the real estate company to come to the table. It is, admittedly, a long shot. It’s been one week since African Communities Together started to reach out to investors, and so far the few responses the group has received are from investors that say they’re no longer involved with CIM Group and haven’t been for years.

“They are real estate investors, but there are a good number of public pension funds that have invested in CIM,” Bayou said. “Those are the ones we are really focusing on. Most of the union members for which this pension is being invested would not support this kind of investment.”

African Communities Together is part of the city’s Eviction Prevention Task Force that’s been working on alternative rent relief programs, but it can’t fully replace the statewide program. The city is offering assistance like temporary housing and storage units, but can’t intervene to prevent evictions.

“There is some assistance available through the city for temporary housing and storage units and other assistance,” Bayou said. “I think that’s where we’ll be looking if this happens, but we’re trying not to think about that. We’re trying to keep tenants in their homes. If they lose this apartment building, there’s basically no affordable housing for them.”

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It was another busy week in Alexandria. Here are some of the highlights.

This week, ALXnow profiled Mayor Justin Wilson and his opponent, former Mayor Allison Silberberg. The pair are facing off in the June 8 Democratic primary, and have vastly different ideas on city governance.

Alexandria Police released its 2020 crime data this week, revealing a 19% increase in Part 1 crime and 15% reduction in Nuisance crimes. ALXnow also reported a number of noteworthy crime stories, including the release of a video showing a chase suspect who died after his arrest in D.C. on April 12, and the indictment of a West End murder suspect.

This week also brought the unbelievable story of locals chasing down suspected shoplifters in Del Ray.

On the vaccine front, the Alexandria Health Department paused Johnson & Johnson vaccinations, following new concerns about potential side effects.

In school news, Alexandria City Public Schools will shift to three feet distancing in classrooms on April 26. Additionally, the School Board has started a conversation on reducing the number of members from nine to six.

Important stories

Top stories

  1. BREAKING: ‘Alexandria City High School’ chosen as replacement name for T.C. Williams High School
  2. JUST IN: Dr. Stephen Haering suddenly retires as director of Alexandria Health Department
  3. Southern Towers residents nervous as landlord steps up eviction proceedings
  4. Man stabbed at Old Town intersection
  5. NEW: Locals chase down suspected shoplifters in Del Ray
  6. JUST IN: T.C. Williams JV football team walks off field after alleged racial slur, spitting incident
  7. Man faces 10 years for DWI in horrific West End crash in Safeway parking lot
  8. Planning Commission approves controversial subdivision, plants potential loophole for future denial
  9. JUST IN: Video released of police arresting chase suspect who died in D.C.
  10. JUST IN: Six Alexandria Police officers put on administrative duties after chase suspect dies
  11. JUST IN: West End murder suspect faces life plus 13 years in prison

Have a safe weekend!

Photo via ACPS/Facebook

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Low-income residents at Southern Towers (4901 Seminary Road) in the West End have been among those most affected by historic highs in unemployment and a sluggish economic recovery — but on-top of this, many of the residents face a new problem: a landlord pursuing hundreds of evictions.

At a meeting today between residents and elected officials, several immigrants living one of the city’s few remaining bastions of market rate affordable housing shared a sense of uncertainty and fear as new landlord CIM Group begins taking legal actions against residents.

“I used to work full time job, my husband worked two jobs,” said Betelihem Kebede, a resident at Southern Towers. “We had no problem paying rent, but during the pandemic, I lost my job and my husband lost both his jobs. To pay rent, we used up our savings. My husband took some part time jobs to still pay rent. It was hard but we were still trying to pay rent. We’re trying to think of our kids’ future, but we don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow. We’re still fighting.”

A report prepared by Chris Bohner, a researcher with Radish LLC, showed that Southern Towers owner CIM has taken residents to court on eviction proceedings 541 times since August 2020, when CIM acquired the property. Bohner’s findings indicate that CIM is leading in eviction proceedings among Alexandria landlords over the last few months.

The proceedings have taken place despite a moratorium on evictions, and Bohner said that’s shown no signs of slowing down.

“Yesterday, there were 20 Southern Towers cases scheduled for court,” Bohner said.

Bohner said his findings were based on information from the Alexandria District Court. The number doesn’t represent the total number of residents affected, which is harder to pin down. Several are repeated proceedings against the same households — Bohner estimated there were over 200 distinct cases — but most cases were directed at families living in units rather than individual persons.

Several state and city elected representatives — including House of Delegates Majority Leader Charniele Herring– were on the virtual call. Some highlighted efforts being undertaken to help relieve the impending eviction issues, but others noted that the effort to force residents out of the complex likely isn’t accidental in the context of anticipated higher housing prices with Amazon’s impending arrival.

“You’re talking over 600 people out of about 4,000 residents,” Bohner said. “And of course the evictions have the impact of intimidating the other residents as well. The evictions proceedings are happening despite the eviction moratorium. They know they can’t evict for a little while longer.”

Bohner presented the findings on a call put together by African Communities Together and residents of the complex earlier today. The call also included elected representatives and residents of Southern Towers.

Residents said recent unemployment has made it difficult for families to pay their bills.

“I used to work three jobs, and I lost all of them during the pandemic,” said Sami Bourma, a resident of Southern Towers originally from Sudan. “I’m a father with three kids. I talked to the landlords and was told I had to figure out a way to pay rent. Then they stated to threaten us and send us letters.”

Bourma said he was among those who was hopeful new ownership of the property could help turn around a relationship so combative that residents launched protests against management last year. But if anything, Bourma said the situation has gotten worse, and others said management is harder to get in touch with now.

Ikram Meskaoui, a resident in the building, said despite promises that owners would work with residents on rental payment, management was difficult to contact and wouldn’t respond to resident communications. ALXnow called CIM Group but was directed to a line that had a full voicemail.

City Council member Canek Aguirre said city leadership was concerned by the eviction proceedings and said businesses coming into Alexandria have an obligation to be good neighbors and good community members.

Delegate Mark Levine said residents should talk to community organizers and make sure they don’t do anything like default or ignore eviction notices.

“I’m heartbroken to hear about what’s going on,” said City Councilman Mo Seifeldein, who said that he lived at Southern Towers for ten years. “You’re going to see this turn into luxurious apartments as part of gentrification of the West End. If you look at other apartments in the area you begin to see the full picture. You’re likely not going to see much protection other than minimal effort. This requires more pressure on elected officials.”

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A 22-year-old Alexandria man was arrested last month for receiving a stolen firearm and resisting arrest in the West End.

The man was arrested on Nov. 24 after police responded to a call that a suspect walked into the 7-Eleven store at 4949 Seminary Road in the Southern Towers apartment complex, brandished a handgun and allegedly stated that “he would kill everyone,” according to a police search warrant affidavit.

The officer found the suspect a block away. The officer ordered the suspect to stop, and he allegedly ran from the scene. He was wearing a single shoe at the time of his arrest, according to police.

After the arrest, the officer retraced the suspect’s steps and found his shoe and a black backpack with a handgun. The gun had 15 rounds in the magazine, and a records check found that it was stolen from Baltimore, Maryland, according to the affidavit.

The suspect was charged with resisting arrest and receiving a stolen firearm. He was booked in the Alexandria jail on Nov. 25 and was released on Dec. 9.

Map via Google Maps

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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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