Southern Towers tenants protest evictions

Southern Towers tenants protest evictions
Southern Towers tenants and members of local grassroots groups gathered outside the Alexandria courthouse during the summer of 2020 to protest evictions during the pandemic. (Photo/Cody Mello-Klein)

By Cody Mello-Klein |

Protesters gathered outside of the Alexandria City Courthouse on Wednesday to protest a wave of eviction notices being filed by the landlord of the Southern Towers apartment complex.

Tenants at Southern Towers, 4901 Seminary Road, have been engaged in a rent strike since April. The tenants, many of whom were laid off from their service industry jobs because of the pandemic, have continued to call for a rent freeze and for landlord Bell Partners to negotiate a rent plan with tenants for during and after the pandemic.

“We’re fighting back not to be homeless, not to be in the street with our kids, for the city to do something about it,” Sami Bourma, a Southern Towers tenant and organizer of the strike, said. “I’ve been talking to a lot of people in my complex, over 400 people, and they still don’t have no job. … They’re still struggling, and their landlords are saying, ‘You have to pay more.’”

On March 27, the Supreme Court of Virginia suspended all new eviction cases in the state for tenants unable to pay rent because of the pandemic. As soon as the eviction moratorium was lifted on June 28, Bell Partners began filing eviction cases, Bourma said.

Bell Partners filed 37 eviction cases in June and more than 140 in July, according to Andrew Cuan, an organizer with Democratic Socialists of America’s Northern Virginia Chapter.

“Some of them had been filed well before that,” Cuan said. “I can’t speak to the exact number, but when we were checking, there were a good number of cases that had been filed as early as May. Essentially, as soon as they could file it, they started to file it.”

In an email statement, Bell Partners said it is engaged in active communication with the tenants at Southern Towers before an eviction notice is served.

“Bell Partners knows this a difficult and concerning time. We have taken measures to help ease anxiety and potential financial burdens for our residents. Our team has regularly attempted to reach every resident who is experiencing rent challenges (by phone, email, and notices delivered to their apartments) to understand their situation and walk through their options. We have offered those residents the ability to enroll in a payment plan at no additional cost, extended due dates for rent and waived late payment and credit card fees. We are also working closely with the City of Alexandria and its Office of Housing to help residents evaluate additional options for assistance,” according to the statement.

For many tenants, even the payment plans that Bell Partners has proposed, which involve a down payment with promise of payment in the future, involve a significant amount of financial risk, Bourma said.

“[They say,] ‘You pay your rent. If you cannot do it now, come and pay 25 percent and then the rest, we have [a] third party agency, you can sign this agreement with them and they will pay for you and later on you will pay them,'” Bourma said. “You put in me debt.”

On June 25, Gov. Ralph Northam (D-VA) called upon the state’s general district court judges to delay hearing cases until at least July 20, but compliance has varied greatly from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.

Bell Partners is a member of the National Apartment Association and National Multifamily Council, both of which have been lobbying at the federal level for rental assistance during the pandemic.

Standing in front of the courthouse, chanting, “No money, no rent,” tenants and members of DSA, Tenants and Workers United, Grassroots Alexandria and local unions joined in support of further action at the state and local level.

On June 29, Northam announced the launch of the Virginia Rent and Mortgage Relief Program, which would use $50 million in federal CARES Act funding to provide rental relief. But in the wake of mass evictions, some protesters don’t believe the $50 million will be enough.

“Right now, $50 million is nothing compared to the demands that are in Virginia,” Evelin Urrutia, executive director for Tenants and Workers United, said.

Tenants and organizers still support a total rent freeze and another eviction moratorium to give tenants and landlords time to come together to negotiate rental payments.  

John Perilli, a public relations representative for Bell Partners, said that Bell Partners is still open to negotiation with tenants who are unable to pay rent at this time.

“For anybody in that group, we’re still willing to sit down, discuss options, work with the city,” Perilli said. “There are some options at the city level, there are some aid programs. … We want to make sure people understand that if they call the community manager’s office today, we’re still here and ready to talk.”

Bourma, however, has been discouraged by his interactions with Bell Partners thus far.

“They’re completely ignoring us,” Bourma said. “They don’t want to talk to us. Only time they’re talking is they’re talking about money.”

Many Southern Towers residents remain concerned about the future. No employment likely means no money for rent, which could lead to life on the street.

“The concern has always been there, but now it’s worse than ever because now landlords have rights to evict people, which means we’re going to have a lot of people on the street,” Urrutia said. “And with this pandemic and getting sick on the street, it’s really scary.”