The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors has endorsed a legislative proposal that would give landlord-tenant commissions the tools to enforce commission recommendations.
At present, a local landlord-tenant commission may mediate disputes between tenants and landlords, but compliance with commission findings is voluntary. If mediation by the commission fails, the complaining party must seek redress by filing a civil suit.
Under the proposed bill, a landlord-tenant commission could require the defendant in a dispute to sign an agreement to correct the violation. The agreement would not admit fault but it would be binding, according to Ron Mallard, director of the Fairfax County Department of Consumer Affairs which oversees the county Landlord-Tenant Commission.
If the landlord or tenant refuses to sign the agreement, or violates it after signing, the case could be pursued by either the county attorney or the commonwealth's attorney. Violations could be prosecuted and penalties are provided.
In addition, the bill would allow a civil suit to be filed only after the landlord or tenant has refused to sign an agreement and would prevent public disclosure of information gathered by investigating attorneys.
The board endorsed the proposals as part of its 1979 state legislative package. The bill would revise the Virginia Residential Landlord-Tenant Act, a comprehensive body of laws concerning the obligations and rights of landlords and tenants that was passed by the General Assembly in 1974.
Mallard said that 95 percent of the disputes handled by the commission are initiated by tenants against landlords. The commission sees the new proposal as an alternative to expensive and time-consuming private civil lawsuits, he said.
Mallard said the County Board endorsement means the board "recognizes the desirability and need for the legislation," but will not actively lobby for the bill because other legislation has been given higher priorty.
He added that the Fairfax commission staff will monitor interest in the proposed legislation and will testify in Richmond "if chances of passage are good."
The commission recently held a public hearing on the proposal at Bryant Intermediate School, but few people came.
A hearing in May concerning other landlord-tenant problems drew nearly 100 persons, about half tenants and half landlords. Mallard said he believes the November hearing did not draw as many persons because the proposal was complicated and not viewed as a "grassroots" issue by tenants.
Of the seven persons who commented on the proposal Nov. 16, five were landlords who opposed it. One was an attorney who said the legislation would benefit tenants who could not afford to hire an attorney. The other was a representative from the Prince William County Consumer Affairs Office, who supported the proposal.
The Fairfax commission, founded in 1970 primarily to mediate disputes, is composed of three landlords members, three tenants and three citizen members. According to its chairman, John Lindow a citizen member, the Virginia Housing Study Commission asked landlord-tenant commissions to "find out what is foremost in the minds of tenants and landlords throughout the state.