The Alexandria City Council has passed a residential rental permit ordinance that the director of the city's landlord-tenant office hails as a "tool for the long-term preservation" of housing.

The ordinance, which was adopted unanimously last week, requires an owner of more than four apartment units in Alexandria to obtain annually a permit from the city health director. The health director would issue the permit only after he had randomly inspected units in the building and is satisfied they meet health, sanitation and housing hygiene standards.

Jane Byerley, head of the landlord-tenant relations office, said the ordinance "won't solve the problem overnight, but it is one of many tools that will help, and it's a progressive, positive tool." Byerley said the Alexandria ordinance is a combination of similar measures existing in Richmond, Norfolk and Prince George's County.

The permits will cost each owner $1.50 per dwelling unit. The new measure will become effective April 30. A landlord will have to apply for separate permits for each apartment complex owned.

The ordinance also states that it will be illegal for any landlord to rent a vacant unit without a residential rental permit. All landlords are required to apply for a rental permit within 60 days after April 30.

At a council meeting earlier this month, several members of the Alexandria landlord-tenant relations commission spoke in favor of the ordinance.

"Unless we have some type of inspection, the whole city will deteriorate," said Thomasins Jordan. "This is as good as ordinance as we could possibly get together."

And Sharon Annear noted that she has seen "first-hand" how the lack of such an ordinance can affect renters and single-family homeowners.

"We must preserve the housing stock in Alexandria. We can't afford to urban renewal everything." Annear said. "This ordinance has the identification and sanctions necessary to get complinace."

John O'Neill, vice president of the Apartment and Office Building Owners Association, said his group supports the concept of the ordinance, but raised questions about the legality of several aspects of the ordinance.

O'Neill also said that "it is unfair to force the good properties to subsidize the costs of inspecting poor properties."

O'Neill met with the city staff before the final amended ordinance was proposed and passed last Saturday.

The ordinance passed 6-0. Council-man Nicholas Colasanto, who broke his hip in December, was absent. Mayor Frank E. Mann, who owns an interest in several apartment buildings in the city, voted on the measure, but said that since he supports the ordinance. "I do not consider it a conflict of interest."

Alexandria's housing situation is dealt with extensively in the analysis of city conditions and government trends published last September as the city's first comprehensive "annual report."

According to the report, there has been an overall reduction in substandard and overcrowded units, but there also been deterioration of a number of garden apartments.

The report notes that rehabilitation of the deteriorating garden apartments, "or their conversion to condominiums," increases tax resources, improves housing values and requires fewer city services.

The report suggested that one way to address the problems is to require an apartment to be inspected after each turnover. But Byerley said such an ordinance would be unwiedly because there are between 10,000 and 20,000 apartments in Alexandria which experience turnovers each year.