1. First, check if your landlord has a business license
If they don’t, you have a ton of power. Renting without a business license can result in the landlord receiving a $1000 to $3000 fine on average for a first time offender (DC is harsh!). If the landlord is refusing to make a repair that costs $500, it’s a no-brainer to point out these fines. If they try to raise your rent, you can refuse to pay the increase – it’s illegal to raise the rent without a business license. Basically, your rights as a tenant expand ten-fold if they are renting without a license. Check here.
2. Housing inspections are typically the best answer
If you’re already fighting with your landlord or the problems are severe, calling a housing inspection is probably the best answer. It’s free, relatively fast (maybe 1-2 weeks), and effective. Someone comes to your house with a clipboard, checks for violations, and tells the landlord what to do. If they don’t, they get a fine or go to court (unfortunately, you might have to join them there). DC does allow for tenants to withhold rent or deduct the costs of repairs, but if you do it wrong, you could get evicted. Housing inspections don’t carry that risk. In fact, when you call for an inspection, landlords will then be required to prove they aren’t retaliating against you before trying to kick you out, deny a lease renewal, or raise the rent. Just call 202-442-4400 or visit the DCRA website for other contact options.
3. Document everything
We’ve spoken to housing lawyers, professors, non-profits, landlords… pretty much everyone in the industry. The #1 advice is always DOCUMENT IT. Save emails and texts. Take pictures and timestamps. You’re even allowed to secretly record your conversations with your landlord in DC. Why is documentation SOOO important? First, many laws revolve around the timeline – landlords are generally given a reasonable time to make repairs. Second, if you go to housing court (see below), you’ll just show up with a folder of documentation. The more you have, the better – the landlord might deny something happened, dispute the timeline of events, or say that you’re exaggerating. Having proof makes your life much easier. Better yet, you may be able to avoid court if you can just show them you can win. When the landlord tells their lawyer of the pictures and texts you have, their lawyer should tell them it’s not worth it to go to court because they’d lose.
4. DC is extremely tenant friendly
You’ll be surprised how much the law can help you out. DC is one of the most tenant-friendly regions in the US – maybe the world. Apartments are rent controlled so landlords can only raise the rent $50-100 per year per $1000 of rent. Tenants have a grace period for paying rent or fixing damages they made. Landlords cannot discriminate based on your source of income or political affiliation. Landlords cannot sell a house or building without offering the existing tenants a chance to buy it first. Tenants have the right to withhold their rent or deduct the costs of certain repairs from the rent.
5. How to learn your rights
Unfortunately, DC makes it insanely hard to learn your rights. The housing code is inexplicably split into 655-word documents, each containing about 1-6 paragraphs each. That makes it impossible to CTRL-F for a keyword relating to your problem. That’s why we converted the DC housing code into a single, searchable Google Doc with a table of contents.
You can also just use the RenterPeace website or app – just type in your problem and we’ll present you your rights in layman terms. The law library covers over 60 categories of problems with practical solutions. Alternatively, you can use RenterPeace to ask the renter community for advice – those questions will get saved in your apartment’s guestbook, acting as a review.
6. Housing court isn’t as scary as you think
You’ve seen daytime court TV shows, right? DC housing court uses the Judge Judy format, not the Boston Legal format. Two people just tell their side of the story in front of a judge and the judge makes a decision. In DC, the laws are tenant-friendly and judges tend to take into account tenants’ limited sophistication with the law and guide them along. So a lawyer always helps, but tenants often win without one. You and the landlord each bring a folder of any emails, text messages, receipts, or pictures in case the other side disputes anything. Basically, be ready to complain. You’ve probably complained to your friends already, so just do the exact same thing in court, except with less cursing and more documentation. See our guide to learn more about what housing court is like.