Anton Ramia went to Fairfax General District Court to explain why he had refused to pay $475 in rent.
He left the court homeless.
Officials involved in rental disputes in Northern Virginia agree that tenants often lose justifiable claims by not knowing or ignoring state law. Simply withholding rent or moving out until a court resolves the issue will damage, if not invalidate, a tenant's claim.
This was demonstrated in Ramia's case.
In Virginia, tenant-landlord disputes are mediated until an agreement acceptable to both parties is reached or they are turned over to the court. Unlike many other states, Virginia does not give local tenantlandlord commissions adjudication powers.
Although property maintenance codes are enforceable in Virginia, the state's Residential Landlord and Tenant Act states that the law's purpose is to standardize rental law for the state and to "encourage" both tenant and landlord to maintain and improve their premises.
It adds that localities can create a commission or designate an existing agency to mediate disputes -- "upon mutual agreement of the parties."
Thus, in Alexandria, Arlington County and Fairfac County, help for the harried landlord or tenant comes from agencies set up to inform and mediate. For jurisdictions without such services -- Fairfax City, Falls Church, Loudoun County, Manassas and Manassas Park -- the state Office of Consumer Affairs in Fairfax City handles the same functions.
Fairfax offers an arbitration procedure that, once chosen, ends with a binding contract. "We feel [it] is successful when used," said Gloria Kornasiewicz, chief of the investigations division at the office of consumer affairs. However, arbitration actually is used only six to eight times a year, she added.
"The power of [Virginia] localities is very different from what they are in Maryland," says Fran Lunney, program supervisor for rentals, condominiums and cooperatives in Arlington's Department of Community Affairs. "I guess I do feel that our ability to handle complaints... is significantly hampered by not having the power at the [tenant-landlord] commission level to make a decision. A great deal of the process is educational."
The first step when a tenant calls with a problem is to ascertain if it involves a code violation, such as lack of heat, which the community inspections office would handle, she said.
If it does not, Lunney's office contacts the landlord and attempts to mediate the problem.
In an intractable dispute, procedures are available for the tenant to withhold rent payments from the landlord by paying them into a court escrow account or to terminate the lease.
Ramia did not follow those procedures.
When his case was called in Judge Frank B. Perry's courtroom, Ramia first faced the attorney representing his landlord, Alex Commindis, who was the plantiff. As the plaintiff's first witness, Ramia testified that he had withheld a month's rent because he believed that a hole in his washer violated his lease.
When Ramia became a witness for the defense, he asked for representation, saying, "I'm a foreigner in here."
Noting that the trial was already in progress, Perry denied the request and ultimately awarded the plaintiff $475 in back rent, a $25 late charge and possession of the house.
"What happens if I don't find a place in two, three weeks? Will they put me in the street?" Ramia asked.
The legal answer to the latter question was: yes, possibly.
"I thought that gentleman was probably sophisticated enough" to handle the trial, Perry said, adding that he would have halted the proceedings and advised Ramia to seek counsel if his claim had had merit. But, according to the judge, a broken washing machine does not justify withholding rent.
Obviously, tenants and landlords alike in Virginia can run into trouble when they are not familiar with their rights and responsibilities.
"Consumers seem to be so intimidated. And they seem afraid they'll be kicked out [of rental housing] if they raise an eyebrow," said Mary Ann Shurtz, coordinator of the Virginia Office of Consumer Affairs.
Security deposits are a major source of tenant-landlord contention, she said, adding that renters can do much to avoid this conflict.
Shurtz advises renters to walk through their apartment with the landlord when they move in and make a list of problems that the landlord agrees to remedy. Then, keep a signed copy of the agreement.
Within 72 hours of moving out, another walk-through is in order, according to Shurtz. Tenants should get a written statement from the landlord of how much they will get back. Provided they did not damage their residence, tenants are entitled to their security deposit within 30 days of moving.
Renters in most of Virginia have virtually no recourse to increases in rent, except to move, Shurtz said.
But in Alexandria, rent increases need not be accepted automatically.
Mark Luney, senior investigator in the city's landlord-tenant relations office, which handles 400 cases a month, said the city has come up with voluntary rent guidelines that have proved "very successful."
Alexandria has a Landlord-Tenant Relations Board composed of three landlords, three tenants and three homeowners. Luney said that the landlords on the board, are eager to see compliance because, if they "can't keep rent increases... limited by themselves, they may face regulation."