Tenants in Arlington County, and even some landlords, characterize the time before the Tenant-Landlord Commission as slightly more progressive than the Dark Ages.
"When the commission was established in 1971 it lifted tenant-landlord affairs out of the 1500s and into the 20th century," said Bob Manske, a former commission member and tenant activist.
Despite almost universally high marks by both tenants and landlords for improving a climate that had been rife with mistrust, the commission has been called "toothless" by some tenants who note its lack of power in enforcing basic tenant-landlord law.
On Saturday, the commission submitted a proposal to the Arlington County Board designed to deal with the enforcement problem. The commission has urged that the board include in its 1978 legislative package to the General Assembly a provision that would give local prosecutors power to enforce Virginia's landlord-tenant law.
Currently a tenant or landlord who believes the law has been violated must appeal to the courts on his own.
The enforcement proposal is one of six submitted by the commission for the purpose of strengthening and clarifying existing tenant-landlord law. Another proposal would prohibit landlords from locking out tenants who have not paid their rents. A case challenging the legality of lockouts is now in litigation in Arlington County Circuit Court.
Since its inception in 1971, the Commission has been struggling to improve once acrimonious relationships, characterized by the bitter rent strike in 1970 at the Park-Adams Apartments.
The strike, which lasted six months and involved about 45 tenants who refused to pay their rents resulted from a dispute over rent increases and building maintenance. Manske, who organized the strike, said it ended when the management agreed to reduce the increases from 15 to 10 per cent.
As a result of the strike, 350 lawsuits were filed against tenants by management, Manske said. It was the flood of lawsuits, he contends, which led to the creation of the Tenant-landlord Commission, the first in the metropolitan area nad the state of Virginia.
"Before 1971 tenants, who account for more than half of Arlington's population, had no where to turn except the courts," said Fran Lunney, who since 1973 has been executive director of the commission.
The commission is charged with mediating disputes and recommending legislation to the County Board. In the past six years a number fo commission proposals have become part fo state law and the county code. The most comprehensive is the Virginia Landlord Tenant Residential Act, which was passed by the General Assembly in 1974 and safeguards tenants against retaliatory evictions, guarantees security deposit refunds and prohibits illegal lease clauses, such as signing over the power of attorney to a landlord.
Unlike similar commissions in Maryland and the District, which can order rent rollbacks and have some enforcement powers, tenant-landlord commissions in Northern Virginia must rely largely on persuasion in getting landlords and tenants to deal with each other.
"Rent is an area we can't do much about," Lunney admitted. "People read in the newspapers that commissions have ordered rent rollbacks in D.C. or Montgomery County, and we're not empowered (under Virginia law) to do that. We can only address gross violations."
It is precisely this lack of enforcement power that has produced a situation that some tenant leaders claim merely favors landlords.
Robert Steadman, president of the River House Tenants' Association for the past three years, cites one example of the limits of the commission. In 1975, when the Cafritz Corporation levied rent increases of up to 15 per cent in the 1,670-unit complex, Steadman and the tenants' association protested to the commission.
"They finally, after many months, found that the 15 per cent increase was not justified. Less than 24 hours later Cafritz said that finding would not affect rents in any way."
John Reeder, a tenant activist and new member fo the commission echoed Steadman's complaints.
"I cna't say enough good things about the staff," he said. "The problem is they don't have ot deal with you at all and it just takes heat off the County Board. The whole process works in favor of the landlords because it slows things down, tends to diffuse situations."
lunney views the commission's effectiveness differently. "To a certain extent we've been successful and at times it's been advantageous to be a mediatory body. We've ben able to understand both sides of the issue. We get tenants who call us the landlords' commission and landlords who call us the tenants'commission.
"But sometimes it's frustrating to hear problems day in and day out and realize that there is very little one can do. I'd like to be able to take some direct action," she admitted.
Given its legal limitations, the commission must rely heavily on mediation. Some of its persuasive power comes from peer pressure exerted by the four landlords on the nine-member commission. (Four members represent tenants and one represents the public interest.)
Commission member William A. Wildhack Jr., vice-president of B.F. Saul realty company, described the persuasive process this way: "We'll call up a landlord and say, 'Hey, it's guys like you who are hurting all of us. Clean up your act or you'll cause legislation to be passed.'
According to Manske and others it's not quite that simple. "It takes an extraordinary amount of effort to get anything that's pro-tenant through the General Assembly," he said, "because so many of the legislators are lawyers who represent real estate interests.
"But the other problem is that most tenants don't give a damn. They all bitch and complain, but they don't show up at meeting or lobby, and the landlords are well-organized. Another problem is transience: How do you get a fix on organizing people who are moving in and out?"
Although many of its legislative proposals have been approval by the General Assembly, commission members are generally realistic about their proposals.
"You don't introduce legislation (like rent control) that doesn't have a chance," said Manske who has lobbied in Richmond.
However, Ira Lechner, chairman of the commission until his election to the General Assembly in 1973, warns that tougher legislation is not a panacea. "Legislation is not going to make it all better," he said. "I've had some tenants call me at 2 a.m. on Sunday and say, 'I want you to come down here and start this boiler. We've been cold for three days.' What do you do when the owner says the part needed to fix it is on its way? The best we can do is ameliorate the worst situations and tighten up some laws. But no amount of tenant-landlord law is going to make it imposssible for boilers to break down."
Commission staff members note that many of the approximately 400 complaints they receive each month are from tenants complaining about their neighbors. Because Arlington has a large and growing population of foreign-born residents, some calls reflect cultural differences.
One tenant, for example, called about a roach problem. Inspector substantiated the complaint and the apartment manager agreed to fumigate the units in the small building. All the tenants cooperated except one family which protested vehemently. They were Hindu and believed roaches, like all living things, are sacred.