When Maria Alvarez, 25, brought her baby home from the hospital in October she discovered she had been given 30 days to move from her Alexandria apartment. Nervous and distraught over the idea of having to move with her 5-day-old infant, the mother of two said she was unable to breast feed her newborn.
Alvarez has lived for three years in the Abingdon Apartments, a sprawling eight-building complex that faces the George Washington Parkway on Alexandria's northern edge. But, as Alvarez and other residents say they know all too well, the Abingdon is being sold and tenants -- many of them on month-to-month leases -- are being asked to leave.
"Never, not once," Alvarez said, has she been late with her $340 monthly rent. Even after her husband left, Alvarez said, she earned the rent by working full time as a hotel maid and part time cleaning private homes.
"Because I complained about the bathroom floor?" the native Salvadoran asked in Spanish. "Is that why I have no place to go?"
Thomas Borger, one of the Abingdon property managers, and Sharon Carr, the resident manager, said tenants are being asked to leave for various reasons, but deny anyone is being unfairly or improperly ousted. "When their lease is up, all I need to do is give them 30 days' notice," Carr said.
What is happening at the Abingdon and what the building has come to symbolize to the city's tenants is an issue that will come before the Alexandria City Council Saturday.
Several council members have said that, while they would like to see the building renovated, they are reluctant to endorse the National Corporation for Housing Partnerships' proposed $11 million remodeling because it would force more than 150 people, most of the Abingdon's residents, out of their homes.
The council's approval is needed because the renovation would be financed by a low-interest, tax-free loan sanctioned by the city government.
In return the National Corporation has agreed to set aside 20 percent of the building's 242 units for low-income residents, who will pay $536 a month for a one-bedroom unit. The remaining one-bedroom units will rent for $625.
"Practically speaking, the proposal kicks out about 98 percent of the tenants," said council member Robert L. Calhoun, who also is troubled by the new rents. "How can we call $500- to $600-a-month rents low-income housing and finance it through tax-free bonds?"
"This is the dilemma that faces every municipality," said state Sen. Wiley F. Mitchell (R-Alexandria). "You have rundown housing and a developer says: 'I'll fix it.' Do you let them continue to deteriorate or do you make a reasonable effort to correct the conditions?"
The troubles at the Abingdon, the officials say, also illustrate two major problems tenants in Virginia can face: Those on month-to-month leases have few protections in state law; low-income families are finding it increasingly difficult to find affordable housing in the suburbs.
Last month Katherine Evans, a former assistant resident manager at the complex, told the council that she believes the apartment's management firm, George I. Borger Inc., was "unfairly evicting Alvarez and about a dozen others.
"It's a scam," she told the council. Evans, who says she quit her job in protest, said in an interview that because the building is being sold, the management firm does not want to pay for any more improvements and has decided to get rid of "troublesome" tenants.
According to Evans and the group of residents who have recently formed a tenant association, the Abingdon wants to get rid of as many tenants as possible to save the new owner expensive relocation costs.
Under Alexandria law, a building owner must pay between $350 and $700 to each tenant who is forced to move because of remodeling.
Virginia housing law contains a "retaliatory clause," intended to protect tenants from landlords issuing 30-day notices because the tenant complained about poor services or unjust treatment. The "retaliatory" exception, however, is worded so ambiguously that Mitchell calls it "useless."
Together with state Del. Marian Van Landingham (D-Alexandria), Mitchell proposes to amend the law, possibly to place the burden on the owner to prove that any eviction is not retaliatory.
The Virginia legislature has been extremely reluctant to approve changes in the tenant law requested by the Northern Virginia city, and legislators say any change may face an uphill battle.
Meanwhile, Alvarez faces the more immediate problem of where to move if the apartments are sold. Her monthly rent will increase by $200 if the council approves the National Corporation's request for $11 million in tax-free bonds.
Thomas Borger, who oversees the apartments that are owned by a Caribbean-based partnership called Raymond Inc., said he will help Alvarez find a place to stay, but said he cannot afford to keep tenants who he believes have difficulty paying the building's rents. In Alexandria, where there is a 0.87 percent apartment vacancy rate and the waiting lists for subsidized housing are pages long, it has been difficult for Alvarez to find another place.
Alvarez said she hopes to find a new home soon, because Thursday she has to appear in Alexandria Circuit Court. On Christmas Eve, along with a few holiday cards, she received a court summons of eviction proceedings because she had not yet moved.