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.
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
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
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