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Tenant Landlord Commission Seeks Members

Two tenant representative spots are difficult to fill.

For the last year or so, Evelyn McRae has been outnumbered.

McRae sits on the Fairfax County Tenant Landlord Commission. She is herself a tenant, one of three who should sit on the commission with three landlords and four members who must be neither tenants or landlords.

But she has been the only tenant representative for about a year now. Two tenant vacancies and one vacancy for an at-large seat mean that the 10-member commission has only seven members, and the county is desperate to fill those slots.

"I can't be in a lot of places at one time," said McRae, adding that she hopes the Board of Supervisors will appoint someone soon.

The Tenant Landlord Commission tells the board about developing trends in the county's rental housing industry and acts as a mediating body in disputes between tenants and landlords. Members also visit rental complexes and educate tenants about their rights, said Cal Wagner, the Commission's staff liaison in the Department of Cable Communications and Consumer Protection. Tenants, for the most part "are not well-versed about their rights," he said.

The commission also clarifies obscure portions of the state and county codes to people in the rental housing industry. For instance, Wagner said, most Virginia landlords who own and let fewer than 10 properties are exempt from the provisions of the state code. In Northern Virginia, landlords have to own and let four properties or fewer to be exempt. This means that small private landlords are not required to give interest on a security deposit.

That, said Wagner, is because "there is a significant difference between private rental owners. Owners are amateurs."

Usually it is the tenant members of the commission who reach out to tenants in the county. But with only one tenant member on the commission, it is difficult to reach as many tenants as could be reached by three tenant representatives.

"Hopefully the Board of Supervisors will appoint someone so we can start going out to some of these communities, especially the Latino [community]," said McRae. There are no Latinos on the Commission right now, although there have been in the past, she said.

McRae envisions starting a tenants' equivalent of a homeowners association to help them organize.

"It would be wonderful if we could start something like that, but we don't have the man- or woman-power," she said.

When the commission arbitrates a dispute between a landlord and a tenant, one tenant representative and one landlord representative sit on a special panel chaired by one at-large representative. Although arbitration cases do not come up very often, there is no one besides McRae to fill the tenant spot on the panel.

Still, McRae does not feel like the commission is unbalanced because the three landlord representatives are very fair, she said.

THERE ARE 74 active citizen boards, authorities and commissions in Fairfax County that are constantly losing and picking up new members, said Patricia Wood, in the office of the Clerk to the Board. But several positions besides the two tenant position on the Tenant Landlord Commission have been very difficult to fill. For instance, the Commission on Organ and Tissue Donation and Transplantation needs two new members, she said, and the Fairfax County Construction Trades Advisory Board needs five members.

"These have just been vacant forever," she said.

Wagner said potential candidates for the Tenant Landlord Commission need only to express interest to any member of the Board of Supervisors. The actual appointment is almost a formality, he said.

"I can't think of a single time when one has been denied or turned down," he said.