Resisting corporate-led evictions in Virginia: Interview with African Communities Together

April 22, 2022 10:49 AM CDT  BY JOEL CORNELL

What’s happening to low-income residents in Alexandria, Va., is happening all across the country. Here, a private real estate company called CIM Group is buying up a collection of large apartment blocks called Southern Towers, then aggressively raising rents and evicting residents despite the ongoing pandemic. People’s World sat down with Sosseh Prom, the State Policy Manager at African Communities Together (ACT), to discuss the ongoing fight against these publicly-subsidized eviction practices.

People’s World: What are the biggest pieces of misinformation you have to regularly fight against?

Sosseh Prom, African Communities Together: I would say the general misunderstandings about poverty and how individuals and families get to these vulnerable positions is something I regularly have to correct. One of the fallacies of being in a capitalist society is that people believe if you are struggling financially, then you probably did something to deserve it. Either you mismanaged your money or didn’t take advantage of opportunities presented. And I think that’s a woefully short-sighted and unkind way to look at people who need help. At African Communities Together (ACT), we work with and for the African immigrant community, and the reality is, these are some of the most hardworking and dedicated people you will ever meet. Their financial struggles are not the result of laziness. Their struggles are the result of a system that was designed to benefit powerful groups that they are excluded from.

We also are constantly fighting against stereotypes about immigrants that were unfortunately given new life during Trump’s time in office. Immigrants are not here to steal jobs. They are not here to drain resources. They are here in search of a better life for their families. They are here to be productive citizens and members of society. They are human beings and deserve to be treated with dignity and respect like anyone else.

How has the involvement of private equity impacted tenants? And outside of new legislation, what can tenants or neighbors do to fight these corporations? 

We’re seeing private equity firms buying up apartment buildings all around the nation, and the result has been rent increases that are squeezing out tenants of a certain income level. Since 2000, the City of Alexandria has lost 88% of affordable apartment units to demolition and redevelopment. Most of these redevelopment projects by private equity firms target aging apartment buildings that are geographically close to job centers and walkable neighborhoods that are mainly occupied by immigrant workers.

In addition to rent hikes, apartment building owners/investors are making the conscious decision to neglect building maintenance and safety in an attempt to force tenants to move out in frustration. So for some of our community members, they’re seeing rent hikes and declining housing conditions.

Most of the new developers present themselves as companies that are community-centric and want to improve the communities they invest in. But then we see them conduct business in a way that is the complete opposite of what they promised. They receive investments and loans from government-sponsored financial institutions, like Freddie Mac, that are formed to promote affordable housing. But we’re not seeing anything close to affordable housing being built. Such institutions should be held accountable when they provide low interest loans to housing investors that will only use that money to displace vulnerable tenants to make way for affluent renters. Renters should organize and hold corporations and their investors accountable and remind them of the values they promised to uphold.

The biggest way everyone can help is to keep talking. Keep talking about these injustices. Talk to your local representatives about bills that you want passed or unethical bills that you want to see fail. Talk to impacted people and see what help they need. Use the power of social media. Go out and vote. Start local fundraising efforts to assist those who are in desperate need of financial assistance but aren’t eligible for some of the government programs out there. For neighbors and community members, in particular, I think the first thing we should do to get their help is to remind them that this is not an “us versus them” scenario. These people are human beings who need support.

I like to go by the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have done to you.” So I would ask neighbors and community members if you were in this position, what would you like done? How would you like to be supported? How would you like to be treated?

What models are you using to engage and organize tenants? Are there major differences between Southern Towers and other smaller apartment complexes in the area? Nationally?

Our main strategy in engaging and organizing tenants revolves around canvassing and door-knocking. I think people tend to stick their noses up at grassroots efforts like those, but they’re actually quite effective in our community. People are more likely to listen to individuals they feel understand them and their struggles, so that’s what we bring to the table as an organization of African immigrants, serving African immigrants.

We approach people and say, “Hey, you’re not alone. We’re also experiencing this problem, and we want to rally together to make our voices heard.” Our priority is to empower tenants by recruiting community/tenant leaders, and provide them with constant training and support so that they can organize their neighbors and move to action.

We also use a trauma-informed approach when engaging and organizing and try to make sure we’re not re-traumatizing community members or making them feel unseen and unheard. For example, while we encourage community members to speak up for themselves, understandably, some tenants don’t want to rock the boat and would prefer to remain under the radar for a variety of reasons. We make sure to respect those wishes and reassure them that there are other ways we can help.

An aerial view of the Southern Towers community. | CBRE

When worse comes to worst and tenants are evicted, what support and resources are available to them? How can we get our neighbors to act as additional support?

 

Unfortunately, I do not think there are many resources out there for those who have been evicted. There are resources out there to prevent eviction, such as rental assistance and legal aid organizations who try to help people with their eviction cases, but I’m not sure how much assistance is provided after the fact.

From ACT’s perspective, we try to direct evicted tenants to other resources that might help lessen their financial burden, such as food stamps, affordable healthcare, or COVID relief funds. I believe there are also churches out there and other religious organizations that are available to provide assistance.

As for getting neighbors to act as additional support, I would just reiterate my previous answer to your earlier question. We need them to put themselves in tenants’ shoes and exercise a little empathy.

To what extent is Amazon alone turbocharging the housing crisis? If Amazon suddenly stopped its plans for Alexandria, how much would that change the landscape for tenants?

Amazon’s headquarters development here is superheating an already overheated housing market, where laws and tenant protections are weak. That’s putting vulnerable communities at greater risk. But we also need to acknowledge that Amazon is not the sole driver behind these evictions. We need to tackle the bigger systemic issues that plague vulnerable communities, such as racism and general misunderstandings of what impoverished groups really need. If Amazon suddenly stopped its plans, these issues would still exist because we are still failing to address the root cause.

That being said, it’s hard to say how much things would change if Amazon stopped its plans. Perhaps corporate landlords would have less incentive to quickly evict lower-income tenants, but I doubt it. Gentrification is happening regardless of whether Amazon moves into the neighborhood or not, and low-income families of color are going to continue being pushed out unless real safeguards are put in place to help them. We need to push for more affordable housing, more income subsidies for those in need, more housing subsidies, etc.

Where have you found the most success in spreading your message to a wider audience?

We’ve found that the best tool of communication is having organized tenant leaders talking to their neighbors face-to-face. We also utilize the power of social media like Instagram and Twitter and mass texting through messaging apps that are most used within the immigrant community, such as WhatsApp. For our housing work, these methods have allowed us to find a lot of success in spreading our message to community members in Alexandria and parts of Fairfax County, and we’re hoping to use them to expand into D.C. and Maryland.

African Communities Together

How can we build a region-wide coalition around the housing issue that will give support groups like ACT?

More than ever, it is important to form a coalition of community groups and concerned citizens to work together to grow this movement. Developers and investors have a bigger presence in the corridors of power, whether in federal, state, or local governments, and these corporations will only change when resistance starts to affect their pockets. Additionally, elected representatives will only enact strong policies to support tenants when movements become stronger and more powerful. That means housing justice work will need more resources and people.

I think to build a region-wide coalition and increase participation, we need to start by educating the public about these injustices and how they can affect them, inform them of how dire the situation is, and put real faces and stories out there so that people know this is not some hypothetical situation. There are real people out there who are on the brink of homelessness.

We also need to provide people with the tools they need to help the cause, and let them know that their support can come in many forms—whether it be through calling their representatives, testifying at legislative hearings, donating to housing organizations, etc.

 

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