A protest at Southern Towers in the West End on Thursday, Dec. 10, 2020 (Staff photo by James Cullum)

The Director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency visited Southern Towers in the West End this week, signalling to housing advocates that years of protests against rent hikes and evictions are finally paying off.

On Wednesday, FHFA Director Sandra Thompson toured the 2,261-unit Southern Towers complex at 4901 Seminary Road. The tour was hosted by the People’s Actions Homes Guarantee campaign and African Communities Together (ACT), and the groups say that affordable housing residents are at the mercy of a major private equity landlord that only cares about profit. The groups say that since buying the property at the height of the pandemic in 2020, California-based owner CIM Group has evicted more than 250 residents, and that many of them endured uninhabitable conditions and rent increases.

“What we’re seeing at Southern Towers is what happens when we allow corporations to commodify the human right to housing and put profit over lives,” said Sosseh Prom, Housing Program Director, African Communities Together. “Immigrant families and blue collar workers deserve to be safely housed, and we cannot afford to sit back and watch their displacement.”

CIM Group, however, says that only 31 residents have been evicted due to non-payment, and that 158 eviction notices were filed with the District Court in Alexandria.

“Southern Towers Management has, and will continue, to support individual residents of the community and work cooperatively with all stakeholders including the Federal Housing Finance Agency,” CIM said in a statement. “Southern Towers Management has never violated the CARES Act and despite continued malicious attempts to paint Southern Towers Management as a faceless Wall Street investor, management will not be deterred from their commitment to the community they serve, their legal obligation and the fiduciary duty the company has to investors who have helped improve the living conditions at Southern Towers from what existed prior to CIM Group’s ownership.”

Thompson’s tour was not open to press, and FHFA had no further comment beyond last month’s request for input (RFI) to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to study easing multifamily tenant protections on properties they finance. One of those properties is Southern Towers, which CIM Group bought with a $346.7 million government-backed loan through Freddie Mac.

“The Enterprises have a responsibility to not only ensure liquidity is available for affordable rental housing, but also to address challenges faced by tenants and property owners in the multifamily housing market,” Thompson said in a statement last month. “FHFA is seeking public input to help identify these challenges nationwide, particularly in underserved communities.”

Thompson’s tour was made six months after ACT filed a complaint with FHFA and Freddie Mac. In that complaint, ACT said CIM Group is “using the federal funds received from Freddie Mac to finance predatory behavior in an affordable community.”

In Alexandria, CIM Group owns Mason at Van Dorn, a 1,180-unit residential community, and Park Place at Van Dorn, a 285-unit residential community. CIM also converted the former Crowne Plaza Hotel Alexandria at 901 N. Fairfax into the upscale Venue apartment complex.

Southern Towers resident Haram Elsheikh said that residents should not be forced to fight a landlord for habitable living conditions.

“Imagine finding out that your kid has developed asthma because of the unresolved mold in your AC unit,” Elsheikh said. “As blue-collar workers, we are already working hard to make ends meet with the rising cost of living.”

A video of the years-long residential protest is below.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_T5EiWN7YPg

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