When a landlord in the District of Columbia or Montgomery County wants to throw out his tenants to build condominiums, his tenants can fight -- with an arsenal of laws on their side.
In Northern Virginia, when a landlord wants to go condo, his tenants, especially the poor ones, can do little more than crumble and get out.
Yet the rapid pace of condo conversions in the Virginia suburbs has created a crisis in low- and moderate income housing that local officials say is being aggravated by the state legislature's refusal to give poor people the right to fight back.
"In the housing area, Virginia is one of the worst states in the union," claims Alexandria Councilman James P. Moran. In Nearby Arlington, County Board Member Ellen Bozman argues that Virginia is about "two decades" behind the rest of the country is protecting the rights of tenants. "The idea has not really caught on in this state yet," Bozman says.
Efforts at the General Assembly in Richmond to give tenants the right to organize and buy their building before it is sold to an outside developer died in committee this year and prospects for similar legislation appear bleak.
Northern Virginia legislators, say that builders have powerful influence over the legislature, that Virginia legislators traditionally have been reluctant to interfere in the management of private property and that many rural legislators do not understand the condo problem.
"Five years ago, when you came to the legislature and brought a condominium bill, they would ask you how to spell it," said Del. David Speck (R-Alexandria). Speck said that by and large most legislators still don't understand the problem.
In urban Arlington and Alexandria, where the vacancy rate for low- and moderate-income rental housing is only one percent, housing officials estimate there are about 25 percent fewer apartments available now than in 1970. Nearly 2,400 units will go condo in Arlington this year, and in Alexandria about 900 low-income people will be displaced within the next few months, officials say.
While the District and Montgomery County have been the focus of intense publicity concerning tenants dislocated by condominiums, it is Northern Virginia that leads the Washington area in the number of condo conversions, according to figures compiled last year by the Washington Council of Governments. As of July last year, Northern Virginia had 13,538 condo conversions compared with 7,903 in the District and 12,611 in suburban Maryland.
"The displacement of low-income families by condominiums is the most acute housing problem we face in the city today," says Vola Lawson, of the Alexandria's Community Development Block Grant office.
To help solve the problem, Arlington has approved and Alexandria is considering a policy that requests developers to voluntarily give tenants 120 days' notice of displacement and help them pay for relocating. In Virginia, localities cannot force comliance with such policy without empowering legislation from the General Assembly.
Alexandria Councilman Moran claims that asking developers to cut into their own profits voluntarily to help relocate tenants "is more than just a token, but it hardly goes very far."
In the District of Columbia and in Montgomery County, tenants have the right to organize and buy the building where they live. They also must be compensated, depending on their income, for at least part of the cost of relocating.
Under the District's current moratorium on condominium conversions and pending legislation, a building cannot be converted without the consent of 51 percent of its tenants.
In Prince George's County, where renters must be given six months' notice before a condo conversion can take place, legislation similar to the District's is being considered.
Maryland, unlike Virginia, gives some localities "general police power" to pass ordinances in the absence of state legislation according to Prince George's Associate County Attorney Steve Gilbert. The Virginia courts consistently have ruled that the assembly must specifically give its localities such authority.
Housing officials in Northern Virginia say the lack of condo legislation there has encouraged developers to build condominiums in Arlington and Alexandria. "Our problem [of rental housing shortages] is exacerbated by the ability of other localities to protect their tenants," according to Fran Lunney, executive director of the Arlington Tenant-Landlord Commission.
Virgina law currently gives each tenant the right to buy his apartment after it has been turned into a condominium, but housing officials say the law is useless to most poor and moderate-income people.
Ira Lechner, a former delegate to the General Assembly from Arlington who now represents dislocated tenants, says most of his clients are simply too poor to buy the apartments they rent.
In the Lehigh Apartment complex near Rte. 50 in Arlington, which is being turned into condos, many residents are how paying $240 a month rent, Lechner said. When the building is remodeled and the apartments are sold for between $80,000 and $90,000, the monthly mortgage payment on each unit will be about $900 a month. That's too much for most of the tenants to afford, Lechner said.
While Virginia law restricts obligations that can be forced on developers, several firms that have recently bought apartment buildings in Northern Virginia for condo conversion have tried to help dislocated tenants. n
Developer Guiseppe Cheechi has offered tenants long-term leases on their apartments in the Parkfairfax complex in Alesandria, and Development Resources Inc., which is erecting town houses in place of the city's Riverview apartments, has offered relocation payments to tenants.
In Arlington Lunney of the Tenant-Landlord Commission says "time will tell" if developers there will cooperate with the county's volunteer relocation plan.