ALEXANDRIA, Va. (WDVM) — As Amazon’s HQ2 and Virginia Tech’s Innovation Campus inch closer to reality in Northern Virginia, the City of Alexandria is anticipating the economic boom by diversifying its housing options.
“We’re sort of doing both things: ‘What can we do to keep units affordable, and how can we continue to bring on new units to provide additional resources?’” said Housing Director Helen McIlvaine. “We provided pre-development funding to help one nonprofit, which has acquired a parcel and we would expect almost 500 units to become a part of that development — all of them affordable.”
Meanwhile, Southern Towers’, a five-story apartment building in Alexandria, is home to 105 committed affordable units. Many residents are African immigrants and essential workers who’ve faced unemployment since the pandemic began.
Southern Towers’ residents have reported mice and roach infestations and prolonged maintenance issues. Rabaa, whose apartment is infested with roaches, says the garbage chute is so full that trash has piled up in hallways.
According to African Communities Together, an immigrants’ rights organization, affordable housing in Northern Virginia has decreased by over 80% since 2000. So when tenants face conditions like that of Southern Towers, they don’t have many feasible alternatives.
“What’s companies’ excuse not to take care of these kinds of things?” said Bert Bayou, chapter director of African Communities Together Washington, D.C. “I think they just want people to be tired of this abuse and disrespect and just leave.”
“They could move to a different state, maybe, but now — they want to choose to live here because it feels like home even though they have to work two or three jobs just to be able to afford to live here, they want to live here,” Bayou said.
CDC Director Rochelle Walensky signed an order extending the eviction moratorium until June 30. Despite this, McIlvaine says 32 residents at Southern Towers have been evicted. According to a study conducted by Radish LLC on behalf of African Communities Together, the CIM Group, owner of Southern Towers, initiated 262 cases since it bought the property last August.
Rabaa says she faced eviction before African Communities Together stepped in. She’s “safe” until June. “We are people of color and we have the [sic] low income. We are immigrants, most of the people there,” she said. “They don’t want us. What I feel inside me: they don’t want us in the area.”
In a statement to the Associated Press, CIM said it doesn’t plan to turn the apartment into luxury housing. CIM says it’s helped residents obtain more than $1 million in rental assistance.
“It’s an older building. There are improvements that need to be made but they very much see their niche in the market within those buildings as workforce affordable,” McIlvaine said, “and certainly if people are not able to pay the rent we would be happy to help them explore other resources.”
McIlvaine says the city and CIM are working to host an on-site event to ease residents’ concerns sometime this spring.