The Falls Church City Council has agreed to seek the services of a Fairfax County housing agency to help tenants of Covent Gardens keep the homes most have lived in for more than five years.

GLM of Virginia Inc. has proposed that the 50-unit apartment complex, at 1130 S. Washington St. in Falls Church, be converted to condominiums.

If the proposal is approved, Covent Gardens would be the second condo conversion in Falls Church.

The plan has stirred much controversy in the tiny city of Falls Church, where city officials are trying to provide more affordable home-ownership opportunities for moderate- and low-income citizens while maintaining a base of rental housing for those who cannot afford houses.

At its meeting Monday night, the City Council agreed to amend the cooperation agreement between the city and the Fairfax Redevelopment and Housing Authority to allow the agency to act on behalf of the tenants of Covent Gardens in negotiations with GLM. Fairfax officials said they expect to agree to the amendment.

"It is imperative that the redevelopment and housing authority be brought in," said Gail Jones, president of the Covent Gardens Tenant Association. "We need their expertise and assistance."

Under the amended agreement, the authority could provide for financing for acquisition of the entire complex or individual units under any subsidy programs available. It also could initiate any additional studies or actions, except seizing the property by eminent domain, in order to provide housing for low- and moderate-income tenants at the complex.

More specifically, the authority could use its vast resources to negotiate for the tenants on three options the Falls Church planning staff outlined as the most feasible:

Conversion of complex to condos by GLM, with the possible purchase of some units by the housing authority for rental to low-income tenants. There is also a possibility of a state-assisted program that would enable low-income persons to purchase units.

Acquisition of the complex by the tenants as a limited-equity cooperative owned by a Covent Gardens tenant cooperation.

Acquisition of the complex by the housing authority for a cooperative or condominium. Under this plan, the authority would, in effect, be the developer for the complex.

Of the three options, the limited-equity cooperative was the one favored by most City Council members and tenants, who fear displacement if a condo conversion is approved.

One plan to help the tenants finance such a project would be for the National Consumer Cooperative Bank to purchase tax-exempt bonds from the authority and offer the tenants a low-interest loan.

Michael Gordon, president of GLM, said the firm wants to help the tenants. "We're not sure the tenants will be able to find the financial support they're looking for, but if they can we'll be willing to look at some mutually beneficial outcome," Gordon said. "Time is our enemy. The real issue is whether this is feasible and we're going to have to see some evidence of feasibility soon. We can't participate in a wild goose chase over the next couple of months."

In November, the Falls Church Board of Zoning Appeals blocked the GLM plan to convert the complex by denying zoning variances needed that variances were not legally required and that the BZA decision should be overturned. The case has not been resolved, and GLM officials say they have no plans to drop the suit.

GLM's current contract with the property owners, Merrick and Helen Marshall, calls for the firm to pay $1.6 million for the complex.