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Tenants In Northern Virginia Apartment Complex Worry About Eviction

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Tenants at a huge apartment complex in Northern Virginia are worried about eviction. Many are immigrants who work in service industries as cooks, drivers, nursing aids and others, hit hard by the pandemic. As NPR's Pam Fessler reports, the nation's affordable housing crisis is worse for low-wage workers.

PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: Southern Towers in Alexandria, Va., right outside Washington, D.C., is like a city, with five massive high-rise apartment buildings, its own bank, dry cleaners, even a 7-Eleven. About 4,000 people live here.

(SOUNDBITE OF BUS BREAKING)

FESSLER: There's also a steady stream of buses rolling through the parking lot.

(SOUNDBITE OF BUS DRIVING)

FESSLER: That's how many here get to work at local restaurants, hotels, a nearby airport, government office buildings. A majority of the tenants are Black. Sixty percent are immigrants, mostly from Africa. They've lived and paid rent here for years. But over the past year, many of them have been threatened with eviction.

MAHLET KASSA: I live month to month. So I don't have money to pay rent, they take me in court.

FESSLER: Mahlet Kassa, originally from Ethiopia, was working at a nursing home until the pandemic hit.

KASSA: I have two kids, and I live alone. When the COVID is coming, I don't have babysitters, and I stay home with my children.

FESSLER: She received unemployment insurance and some rental assistance, but it didn't cover her $1,400-a-month rent. So Kassa had to go to court to keep from losing her home.

BERT BAYOU: People were obviously terrified.

FESSLER: Bert Bayou is a tenant organizer. He's also from Ethiopia. Bayou says, since last summer, residents in this close-knit community have faced a flood of eviction proceedings, more than 500 by the tenants' count. While a moratorium and government aid have kept most of them housed for now, residents are worried about the future, especially what happens in a few years when a new Amazon headquarters opens nearby.

BAYOU: It's very clear that the idea is to renovate, to rebuild this apartment building and get rid of the African immigrant tenants from here and bring in Amazon corporate workers, where they know that those Amazon workers can pay more in rent.

FESSLER: The owner of Southern Towers, Los Angeles-based CIM Group, would not agree to be interviewed for this story. But in a written statement to NPR, CIM said it is, quote, "unequivocally not looking to force any residents from the property." The company bought the place last August for $506 million. It says many of the eviction filings were from the previous owner and that it currently has complaints against only 35 tenants. The company says it's working with these and other residents to get rental aid so they can stay in their homes. Alexandria's housing director, Helen McIlvaine, says the city is helping, too, but it also shares the tenants' concerns.

HELEN MCILVAINE: We're concerned for folks who are very low-income, have few housing options, who've been long-term tenants.

FESSLER: Because, like other places, Alexandria is rapidly losing affordable housing - a whopping 88% decline since 2000. The arrival of Amazon, an NPR sponsor, will likely add to the pressure. McIlvaine says companies like CIM don't buy property for hundreds of millions of dollars without hoping someday to renovate and upgrade.

MCILVAINE: Some of that purchase price is premised on being able to raise the rents. But as recently as late fall, when we had a check-in call, that was not their thinking.

FESSLER: At least for the immediate future. McIlvaine says the city is talking to CIM about how to keep some units affordable for the long term. Tina Plerhoples Stacy of the Urban Institute says the nation's affordable housing crisis has grown during the pandemic, as more city dwellers moved to suburbs like Alexandria looking for space. That squeezes out lower-wage tenants and hurts the businesses that employ them.

TINA PLERHOPLES STACY: They can't find enough, you know, minimum wage workers who want to work the job because people don't want to have an hour commute to get to a minimum wage position. And so employers have a really hard time finding employees and keeping them. They see higher turnover rates when we have these housing challenges, and it harms the economy as a whole.

FESSLER: She says the good news is there are tools communities can use to increase the affordable housing supply, some of which Alexandria is already doing, like rezoning for more density or giving property owners loans in exchange for guarantees to keep rents low. The Biden administration has also proposed spending hundreds of billions of dollars to help meet the need.

STACY: There's a lot that can be done, and I think there's a lot of hope.

FESSLER: Back at Southern Towers, tenants aren't so sure. Bayou says some of the immigrants are so confused and frustrated they leave or self-evict as soon as they receive a warning notice from the landlord. Mahlet Kassa, the nurse's aide, will be joining them soon.

KASSA: I decide to move next month. This is my choice.

FESSLER: She's found another apartment in Alexandria, which she hopes is a better deal. But she'll miss the support of her immigrant community, the reason she came to Southern Towers in the first place. Pam Fessler, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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