The bright pink notices were slipped under hundreds of doors in the aging brick garden apartments off Beauregard Street in Alexandria. It was a call to arms.
The Mark Winkler Co. announced in September that the 60-year-old real estate firm, with its estimated $1 billion in property holdings, was up for sale. The sale includes office buildings and retail space, an upscale townhouse development and the four garden apartment complexes off Beauregard Street.
Housing activists quickly went into action.
They circulated flyers reading: "The new owners will be either raising the rents or creating condominiums out of your apartment. We -- working people, immigrants, and people of color -- all have: The right to the city! The right to the community! and -- The right to housing!"
The activists, organized by John Liss and the Tenants' and Workers' Support Committee (renamed last week as Tenants and Workers United), held their first protest Oct. 8, declaring the Winkler properties an "Eviction Free Zone." Last Saturday,they held their third organizing meeting with residents to help them prepare to fight.
"People don't want to be pushed all the way down to Woodbridge and beyond," Liss said. "We're going to do whatever we can in our power to stymie a sale, condo conversion or markedly higher rental rates. In terms of scale, this sale is unprecedented in my 25 years in Alexandria. We're talking about one-third of the affordable housing stock being wiped out in one fell swoop."
Liss said that residents in the garden apartments are a diverse mixture of Latinos, blacks, whites, Africans, Arabs and many elderly people who have lived in their apartments for decades.
"In terms of Alexandria, I've never seen that many people of different backgrounds living in one place," Liss said. "I thought one of the city's goals was to maintain diversity."
Winkler officials dispute Liss's characterization of the sale as "scare tactics." In a Nov. 10 letter to residents, company officials wrote that although they are exploring refinancing, recapitalization, joint ventures, outside investors, or selling or swapping properties, no one would be forced from their home.
"Any rumors you may have heard about imminent condominium conversions, evictions or extraordinary rent increases are precisely that -- rumors that have no factual basis," Winkler officials wrote. "There is a real possibility that there will be no impact on you or your residency."
Bids have been coming in for the Winkler properties over the past few weeks. Company officials said they expect the sale to be final by the end of the year.
Still, City Council members are concerned that any change may mean the loss of affordable housing. They have written to Winkler officials and recently met in executive session to discuss what the city should do.
"This would be a tremendous blow for workforce housing in Alexandria," said Vice Mayor Redella S. "Del" Pepper. "We're trying to work with those who are bidding on the property. Our interest is in maintaining as much affordable housing as possible."
City planners estimate that about 2,425 rental units in the city have been converted to condominiums in the past year.
The City Council is so concerned about workers being priced out of the city that it recently agreed to a $71 million bond, with $22 million earmarked for affordable housing projects. In May, the City Council voted to set aside one cent of each dollar received from property taxes for buying or preserving affordable housing.
"At some point, we would be concerned that new owners would raze the affordable apartments and put in their place some upscale condos or rentals," Pepper said. "A certain amount of that we wouldn't mind. But we've got to preserve as many of those affordable units as possible."
Winkler chief executive Randy Kell said the rental properties for sale are not what he would consider affordable housing. And Millbrook, a newer upscale townhouse complex with 700 units, has some of the highest rents in the area, he said.
Still, the rents charged at the Lynbrook, Meadow Creek, Willow Run and Brookdale apartment complexes, which run from about $900 for an efficiency to about $1,600 for a two- or three-bedroom apartment, are well within Alexandria's definition of affordable "workforce" housing, city officials said.
Kell said the reason for the sale is that the family-owned company is no longer family run. Mark Winkler, the founder, died in the 1970s, leaving the company to his wife, Catherine, now 92, and his three daughters. One daughter, Tori Winkler Thomas, is chairman of the board. But other family members are scattered throughout Hawaii, California, Idaho, Oregon and Colorado.
"We're into the third generation," Kell said. "Like a lot of family-owned companies, the question is, do you go on forever, even when the company's really operated by people who aren't in the family anymore? It's a simple business decision that they've made: It's time to get out of the real estate market. We're selling everything."
Kell said the company has received a number of bids. He said he does not foresee a new owner coming in and charging higher rents.
"We're not in a situation where someone is going to buy them and fix them up and raise the rents, because they are already fixed up," Kell said. "They are the top garden apartments in the suburban market. All of them have new windows, all of them have new bathrooms, new lighting, new HVAC. Most of them have individual washer/dryers."
As for condo conversions, Kell said he doubts that would happen in the near future. The kinds of investors who come in, rehabilitate a property and turn around and quickly sell it at a higher price -- investors Kell referred to as "bottom feeders" -- have all dropped out of the Winkler, he said.
"The most interest we've had, and really the best prices we have so far, are from apartment owner companies," Kell said. "These are companies that would buy the apartments and operate them for the long term."
But Kell acknowledged that there are no guarantees. "Like anyone who owns apartments, we're not putting any limitation on anyone who buys them," he said. "They're free to do what local law and zoning allows them to do."
The entire parcel, including residential and commercial buildings, is zoned as a "coordinated development district," according to city planners. That means that if the new owners wanted to make a change to any part of the property -- raze a building or build another -- they would have to get special permission from the planning commission and the City Council. Under Virginia law, however, local officials have no power to stop an owner who wants to convert rental units to condos.
Liss said he and his organization plan to pressure city officials if residents' affordable-housing needs are not met.
In the end, what Liss would like to see is equity ownership.
"Can we move to some kind of resident ownership or cooperative so that residents can leverage what they've been paying for rent for years?" he said. "Our goal is 100 percent, but we're realistic enough to know that that will be very difficult."
"Tenant ownership?" Kell said. "I generally only see that in situations where there's some local government involvement and they've supported some place that is really down and out, that has reached the bottom of the barrel.
"I've never seen it with market-rate apartments like ours. Tenant ownership in market-rate apartments like ours is called condo conversion."