The appointment of a tenant activist to head the Arlington County Tenant-Landlord Commission and another to membership on the commission is being applauded by tenant groups as a signal that their concerns will get a more sympathetic hearing in the future.
Former Tenants of Arlington Co. president John Jackley, a renter-turned-homeowner, is the new chairman of the nine-member commission. He succeeds Paul Neff, an owner and manager of rental property. Jim Blincoe, president of the Barcroft Apartments Tenants Association, is a tenant member named to replace retiring landlord member David Caldwell.
With the two new appointments, the commission is made up of four "public interest" representatives--three of whom are former tenants who have recently purchased homes--in addition to three landlord members and two tenant members.
Both appointments are seen as the fulfillment of Democratic pledges to place more emphasis on the problems of Arlington renters. The control of the five-member county board passed to the Democrats last November with Mary Margaret Whipple's election victory over Republican board chairman Stephen A. Detwiler.
Jackley, who often has been on the opposite side of issues from outgoing chairman Neff, calls the changes "a restoration of balance."
"I've been on the commission for three years, and every year there has been a landlord chairman," he said. He predicts the new county board majority will "place more priority on tenants and housing issues than the previous board did."
Whipple confirmed that view, saying the board majority wants "to be very sure" that tenants' viewpoints are represented on the commission. "I have felt that the commission had perhaps too strong an input from landlords" in the past, she continued. "We have to recognize that the laws in Virginia are not usually to the benefit of tenants. Therefore it is especially important that a local commission gives a strong airing of tenant viewpoints."
The Tenant-Landlord Commission this year can expect to face "a lot more individual problems brought on by the recession. And we will have to deal with the continuing problems with condominium conversions," said Jackley.
Arlington lost 10,283 of its approximately 40,000 rental units to condo and cooperative conversions from 1972 through July 1 last year, according to a housing status report issued by the county manager's office last August.
The rate of conversions has slowed now, however, according to Nancy Johnson, staff coordinator for the tenant-landlord commission. Only one application for permission to convert to condo has been filed with the state Real Estate Commission since July, she said. The state recently granted the latest request, which came from new owners of the Walter Reed Gardens apartment complex.
The majority of conversions--68 percent of the total units--were performed on low- or moderate-cost rental apartments, creating a shortage in rental units lower-income Arlington residents can afford, the county housing report said. Many were older garden apartments, like those in the Walter Reed complex.
Jim Blincoe, the new tenant member of the Tenant-Landlord Commission, is the first representative of garden-apartment residents to serve on the commission. He is president of the Barcroft Apartments Tenants Association and a delegate to the Arlington County Civic Federation from the Barcroft apartments.
County ordinances passed last year require developers to allow elderly and handicapped tenants to remain in their apartments for up to three years after conversion, and to pay moving expenses up to $500 for tenants who are displaced. Blincoe said these new requirements are a start, and he hopes to increase tenant protections.
Jackley, the new chairman, also hopes to broaden the scope of the commission's activities. "In the last three years we have had landlord chairmen and they have taken a very narrow view of what the commission can do," he said. In expanding the commission's activities, Jackley said, he hopes to work closely with other county agencies, such as the planning commission, and to deal with "the human problems of displacement."
"There's been a continuing crunch in rental housing. There is a vacancy rate of about one percent . . . in low- and moderate-income housing. There's no shortage of luxury housing," he said.
Outgoing chairman Paul Neff said during his tenure he "tried to consider everybody . . . My viewpoint is the commission ought to be considering interests of everybody, wherever a problem area might arise. I don't really think we have a whole lot of problems." Of Jackley, he said, "I would anticipate that he would make every effort to represent the tenants and forget the landlords."