By Derrick Perkins
Hunting Point residents say that all signs point to their new landlord pricing them out of one of Alexandria’s last holdouts of affordable housing. And they’re calling on City Hall for help.
Laramar, a national real estate giant, bought the riverside property in south Old Town for about $81 million from the Virginia Department of Transportation in March. The state agency took control of the apartment complex — better known as Hunting Towers — years earlier as part of the lengthy Woodrow Wilson Bridge project.
In the months since the property exchanged hands, tenants have seen fees imposed for utilities and trash collection as well as demands they obtain renters insurance. Residents also report receiving lease renewal notices proposing increased rents, according to a letter sent to the national company by Washington-based attorney Harry Kelly, who represents several complex occupants.
At the same time, many of the problems that tenants saw pile up during Richmond’s ownership remain unfixed. The list, compiled by Kelly, includes faulty elevators, unreliable access to hot water, broken locks and substandard air-conditioning units.
Kelly’s letter calls on Laramar to address tenants’ short- and long-term grievances as well as to outline its future plans for the complex. That includes rolling back and limiting rent increases.
“Hunting Point … has provided quality housing for generations of families since its construction. It can continue to do so for many years to come,” Kelly wrote Laramar on June 7. “To do so, it is vital that Laramar, as the steward of this unique resource, make clear its plans and provide information that the property’s residents legitimately need to plan their own lives.”
Tenants like Chuck Benagh worry that the tight-knit community — many of his neighbors have called it home for decades, he said — will unravel in the face of soaring costs and the inconvenience of expected renovation work. It’s a fear he and other neighbors voiced leading up to the property’s sale.
“It’s getting close to not being affordable anymore,” he said. “The rent increases will probably begin to accelerate, especially for the folks who have lived here [since VDOT bought it].”
A group of tenants planned to meet with Vice Mayor Allison Silberberg on Wednesday evening — after the Times’ deadline — in hopes that the city’s top elected officials will take action. They want city councilors to endorse a resolution that asks Laramar to comply with tenants’ requests and meet with residents.
While Silberberg is quick to note she has yet to hear Laramar’s side of the story, she called the residents’ concerns very troubling.
“They need answers,” Silberberg said. “I’m still waiting to read more from [Laramar], from their perspective and I’m happy to do that, but these notes are very compelling testimonials.”
Laramar has responded to Kelly’s letter, but neither it nor Kelly provided the document to the Times. Messages left with the San Francisco and Chicago offices of Laramar went unanswered, as did a phone call to the company representative who responded to Kelly’s letter.
City officials have sided with residents in their dealings with VDOT in the past and publicly worried about the potential loss of several hundred market-rate affordable housing units along the Potomac. VDOT announced it would try and sell the property more than a year ago, but residents didn’t find out how close the state agency was to a deal until the fall, when they received fliers warning of impending inspections from an interested buyer.
That decision drew the ire of Mayor Bill Euille, who criticized the state agency for keeping the city — and tenants — in the dark. The complex is of notable concern to city officials because of the dramatic decline in affordable housing in recent years.
While zoning restrictions make redevelopment unlikely, officials note that they can say little if Laramar hikes rents and upgrades apartments. In October, Deputy City Manager Mark Jinks predicted that the chances of keeping the apartment complex completely affordable were slim.