When Nancy Parham returned to her Wexford Manor apartment recently she said she found it flooded in two inches of backed-up coma raw sewage.
She also recalled a problem with termites at the Fairfax County apartment complex that "practically ate the door to my son's bedroom right off the wall." She complained that management "just doesn't care about the People who live in Wexford Manor."
The string of problems registered by Parham, a practical nurse, at an unusual public hearing before the Fairfax County Landlord-Tenant Commission last week, reflected similar problems of apartment tenants in different parts of the county.
Parham, was one of 16 tenants and landlords who lined up on both sides of the fence at the hearing petitioning the commission to help resolve problems in the rental business - very different problems depending on who was complaining.
For the landlords, they were severe vandalism, delinquent rent payments, sloppy house-keeping by tenants and bureau-cratic obstacles to speedy evictions.
For the tenants, they were sewer back-ups, long delays in repair work, difficulites in contacting resident managers for repairs and emergencies and lax enforcement or apartment regulations.
For the commissions, the hearing was an eye-opener to the extent of problems in some lower-cost county apartment developments - particularly developments where apartments are subsidized to one degree or another by funds from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
Living conditions at developments like Wexford Manor in Falls Church, Fox Mill in Reston, Chantilly Pines and Elden Terrace in Herndon all were disparaged at the hearing by tenants and community activists. Jefferson Village in Falls Church was the only non-subsidized development that also elicited at long list of complaints from residents there.
"I'd call some of the complaints we heard pretty alarming," said Ronald B. Mallard, director of the county's department of consumer affairs. "We would want to get quick specific action on many of the problems."
The hearing at Luther Jackson Intermediate School in Falls Church last Thursday was the first held by the commission in three years and was an atempt to identify major landlord and tenant problems.
The commission, which investigates and mediates landlord tenant disputes, plans to hold a series of similar meetings in the county. Mallard said the next hearing, although still unscheduled, probably will be held in Mount Vernon or Mason district.
Eugene J. Olmi Jr. one of three landlord representatives on the nine-member commission called the hearing "a waste of time" before it began.
"We should handle the complaints at regular meetings," he said. "This is just a chance to give each of the supervisors a chance tosay we held a publ ic hearing in their district."
But Rose Marie Annunziata, one of the commission's three citizen members, said afte the hearing that the presence of individuals" with real live problems reminded us how much we still have to reach out to solve them."
Some of the complaints bordered on the comic. Said one Fox Mill resident of restrictions on pets: "I don't understand how the woman next door can bang her kids up against the wall and I can't have a cat. There are horses (dogs) in some of them apartments."
Virginia Jackson, of the county's Community Action Agency who represents tenants in several subsidized projects, said she was "appalled and disgusted by managers in the projects I deal with. What I'm afraid of are the cases that endon't come to my attention."
She listed a series of examples, including the story of one young father living in a subsidized apartment in Hernadon. Jackson said the man was beat over the head with a brick in one of the halls of the apartment complex and required brain surgery. Because of the emergency, his family went to live with relatives in Maryland and asked exemption from the lease. Jackson said the landlord required the family to forfeit their security deposit and demanded an additional month's rent.
She said the enforcement of Virginia's Landlord and Tenant Act "the only solution to higher standards" and requested the commission to lobby for its enforcement.
Mallard later explained that there is no agency enforcement of the law: a tenant must go to court to seek resolution of a problem if the landlord does not volumtarily choose to have the commission act as mediator.
Jackson said few subsidized tenants have the money or know how to use the courts, but Charles M. Cook,a property manager with the Mark Winkler Management Co. said small claims court could resolve the problems without using expensive lawyers.
Property owners and managers at the hearing pointed to vandalism by tenants and others and tenant irresponsibility as a major cause of their frustrations.
Property owner Elsie French said a project she recently acquired near A!exandria had had 107 wihdows broken in one month, each one costing her $8 to replace.
"Three fourths of sewerage problems we see are caused by tenants putting unmentionables down the john, "said Cook. "What we do is periodically send notices arount telling residents don't put little ducky-wocky down the john' and that usually helps solve the problem."
Wexford Manor resident manager Annie Robinson, when asked about Parham's swer backup responded: "She says she's had seven backups in the seven years she's been here. I'd say she should consider herself lucky. We're had backups covering an entire ground floor."
Jefferson Village property manager Joseph Certa, when asked about deteriorating conditions at the the post-war Falls Church development, including a charge that brick and mortar are separating on one townhouse, exposing the interior and cousing the wall to bow toward the street, said he would "rather spent time fixing up the place than all the time I spend trying to collect monthly rent. Collecting rent should be routine, no a war."
A major task before the commission as a result of the hearing is to examine its jurisdiction over landlord-tenant disputes in housing developments subsidized by the federal government. Mallard said the Fairfax County attorney is forming a legal opinion on the matter.
"We can go ahead and investigate complaints on a case-by-case basis, but we've got to have a ebetter feel for our overall jurisdiction," Mallard said. "There are some distinct differences to be determinend between what is private and public housing."