Arlington, VA

What’s Next with Nicole is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in the column are those of the individual and do not necessarily reflect the views of their organizations or ARLnow.

Laws protecting Virginia renters finally went into effect this month. Thanks to an update of the Virginia Residential Landlord and Tenant Act, the 60% of Arlingtonians who are renters will be realizing sweeping protections and seemingly basic rights in our day to day lives.

Arlington should see this as an opportunity to take a leadership role in implementing this law by creating a civil landlord-tenant specific court docket. In D.C., this type of court parallels their small claims court and does not require the burden of attorney fees that are often too great of a hurdle for renters.

If we are able to have renters bring situations like this easily to court, we will put more money in renters pockets that might have been wrongfully taken from their security deposit, provide basic utilities in the home, and provide a fair legal fee balance in disputes with landlords.

Below are two situations I heard on my campaign trail that put renters in inexcusable positions that used to be legal in Virginia and are now protected by the new Virginia Residential Landlord and Tenant Act, and two situations that should still be addressed.

Situation – Security Deposits & Attorney Fees:

After moving out of an apartment, the landlord withheld the entirety of a $3,000 security deposit. When asking why it was being withheld, the response was scuff on the walls. The tenant did not feel that paint and labor amounted to $3,000 for a small apartment wall being repainted.

Old Law: There was nothing protecting the tenant from this. They could take it to court, but even if they won, they were required to pay the landlord’s attorney’s fees amounting to more than the amount disputed. 

New Law: Requires landlords to itemize anything that is taken out of a security deposit. Landlords also cannot make renters pay for their attorney fees if they lose.

Situation – Basic Utilities

An old single family home did not have adequate running water with water coming out of half of the spickets at a dribble. When inspectors came, the county said the water pressure was fine for a single family house, but because the house was split into two units it was insufficient for both families. The owner refused to update the piping and would not let them out of the rental agreement early.

Old Law: If an owner rented out less than three units, they did not have to meet any basic housing requirements such as heat, water, cooling etc. Again, if they brought it to court they would still have to pay the landlord’s attorney fees.

New Law: All landlords have to provide basic housing necessities no matter how many units they lease.

Situation Still Not Covered – Disportionate Fees:

A political sign was hung from a window against the lease terms. The landlord withheld the entirety of the security deposit of $6,000 as a fee for breaking the terms of the lease.

Suggestion: Require fees of breach of a lease to be clearly defined or for any undefined fee be reasonable and commensurate to the breach of contract.

Situation Still Not Covered – Condo Owners/Renters: A renter broke two minor Homeowners Association (HOA) rules. This resulted in the HOA board requiring the unit’s owner to evict the tenant, even though the owner did not want to take this action. This put both the owner and tenant in a bad position because the tenant would have to sue the owner for damages, not the HOA, for an action the owner did not want to take.

Suggestion: Allow grievances from a tenant to be taken straight to an HOA, not the owner, if action is required by the HOA and not the owner.

Arlington has an opportunity to be a leader in Virginia to make renters rights a priority. Renters are vastly underrepresented and should continue to hit the hammer home for just laws and systems. If you have suggestions please reach out to me on social media with your stories, suggestions, and even alternate points of view.

Nicole Merlene is an Arlington native and former candidate for Virginia State Senate. She has served as a leader in the community on the boards of the Arlington County Civic Federation and North Rosslyn Civic Association, as an Arlington Economic Development commissioner, in neighborhood transportation planning groups, and as a civic liaison to the Rosslyn Business Improvement District.

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