Renovation sketch of the Beauregard area in Alexandria, VA
Catherine Puskar

Residents of the vast garden apartment community known as the Beauregard are witnessing the end of an era.

And many of them are finding it intensely unsettling.

For decades, the acres of modest brick apartments have provided a haven of low-cost housing in upscale Alexandria, VA.

Then, last year, the city council approved a plan allowing the developers who own 5,000 of the apartments to tear down half of them and replace them with 6,600 luxury condominiums. The project will also include retail shops, hotels, restaurants and a baseball field.

The project, which is expected to displace 10,000 current residents, holds the promise of 800 units of replacement affordable housing, part of a deal with developers crafted by the city.

The work is scheduled to begin in 2015, with most of the affected moderate-income garden apartments slated for demolition in 2020.

But some longtime residents have already begun moving out. And others have begun hopping from one apartment to another in an attempt to cope with rent increases that they say are being imposed in their community’s waning days.

Kelly Merrill and her family have moved three times to dodge rent hikes.

Merrill, 41, said she cannot afford to pay any more because a chronic disease prevents her from working.

And she is angry at the landlord JBG Properties, which purchased the group of apartment complexes in 2005. . She believes the rent hikes are meant to force people out.

“JBG’s already taken these insidious measures to make sure these people have made their mass exodus,” Merrill said in an interview.

She said many of her neighbors left the apartments in December 2010 and January 2011 after the the rent, which includes utilities, rose to $325 per month.

In the wake of the increases, tenants formed the Beauregard Tenants’ Association and protested at the JBG offices. The BTA represents 10,000 residents in Beauregard, Latinos, African-Americans, Asians and whites. Many share the sense that JBG is favoring richer people at their expense; filtering out the lower-end residents.

The landlord defended its action saying the hikes were necessary.

The association did win one concession. JBG agreed to cap utilities.

But for Merrill, the unsettled feeling remains.

“After a family moves three times you’re no longer vested in the community,” Merrill noted. “A sense of community is why people want to stay.”

Then there is also the fear of the unknown.

Merrill said nobody in the area to be redeveloped, known locally as the “red zone,” knows what they will do after being kicked out.

“They’re going to decide the future of my family,” said Hector Pineda, president of the BTA and a resident of a “red zone” apartment with his wife and four children. They have lived in Beauregard 10 years, moving twice as rents have been raised, trying to make ends meet on the $25,000 to $30,000 that Pineda and his wife earn each year in their self-run home-cleaning business.

“This area was my home; a great place for my family,” said Pineda. “Now they’re shaking all that up.”

The Beauregard Plan took another step forward on April 2 when the Alexandria Planning Commission voted unanimously at a well-attended hearing to recommend increasing the zoning density needed to move forward with the project.

The increased density would allow for five and six-story buildings to be built where two and three-story buildings currently sit.

Officials noted that rent control laws do not protect tenants in Beauregard or anywhere else in Alexandria but they acknowledged the importance of preserving affordable housing. As one member of the planning commission said at the hearing, salaries in the area have not kept pace with the cost of living, and the gap is widening. The number of affordable housing units in the city slid from 18,000 in 2000 to 5,600 in 2012, according to city statistics.

The commission voted to encourage the city to make the 800 proposed “committed” affordable rental units available sooner than the planned 2020 date.

If the increased zoning density is approved by the Alexandria City Council April 13, the Beauregard developers will be legally bound to the city to build the amenities they offered to add for free, city officials said.

But affected Beauregard residents who spoke at the commission’s hearing pleaded with city officials to remember the impact the project would have on poor and working poor residents.

“I’m scared of where we’re going to go,” said Pineda. “Not just my family, but everybody else in the community.”

His children are also having a hard time thinking about the future.

“This community is my life, my everything,” said his son, Edward, 13, a middle school student. “If it gets destroyed it destroys my life.”

In the face of such fears, city officials and the project’s main developer, JBG, have attempted to offer reassurances.

Alexandria Deputy Director of Housing Helen McIvaine said that without the city’s planning work, affordable housing would be disappearing at an even faster rate.

“We agree the 800 (units) may not be able to accommodate everybody; this is what we were able to get,” McIlvaine said. “We’re trying to provide for the people who are the most impacted. “ In lean economic times, she portrayed the city’s efforts as important.

This is “more than we could do if we didn’t have a plan,” she said.

The 800 affordable units the city officials say will be available in 2020 are being purchased with public money and set aside for people such as the Pinedas.

Half of the will be reserved for low-income tenants earning $40,000 or less. The rest will be available to renters with higher incomes but do not earn enough to afford housing at the full market rate.

JBG spokesman Charles Maier said in an interview that Alexandria officials drove a hard bargain in crafting the city agreement with the developer.

“The city worked a tough bargain. They extracted (millions of dollars to pay for affordable housing) from the developers; that was pretty good bargaining on the city’s part.”

Maier said there is misinformation in the public sphere about JBG’s intentions.

“When people hear they are going to be forced out and their places demolished, that certainly does scare people.” he acknowledged adding “JBG doesn’t want to lose any of the residents,” he emphasized. “We want to keep the neighbors there who are there.”

Maier offered a message to Pineda and other members of the BTA.

“Please don’t tell your neighbors and friends they’re going to lose their homes any time soon. It will happen slowly, over many years, and you will be offered an alternative within the community that (you) can afford. He went on to say, “we don’t want to lose anybody in the neighborhood; we count on them as being part of this community.”