Landlords in D.C. are required to ensure that every apartment has a working lock and key at all times.
Lock For Each Apartment
The law is pretty clear that locks and keys must be provided and kept in good condition at repair at all times. This applies to any door that capable of being used to enter and exit the apartment, even if it only leads to a backyard.
“The owner or operator of a housing business shall provide to each tenant, when the tenant first enters into possession of a habitation, an adequate lock and key for each door used, or capable of being used, as an entrance to or egress from the habitation, and shall keep each lock in good repair. Each lock shall be capable of being locked from inside and outside the habitation.” D.C. Municipal Regulations 607.2
Locks for Building
For buildings with multiple, separate apartment units, then the landlord is required to provide a lock for building lobby unless there’s a doorman.
“Each exterior door, when closed, shall fit reasonably well within its frame and shall be equipped with a lock which will permit easy egress without a key but will prevent entrance to the multi-unit dwelling without a key unless the door is opened from the inside, electrically or otherwise, by one (1) of the tenants or by an employee of the building owner.” D.C. Municipal Regulations 705.5
Landlords may be liable for crimes and thefts that were a reasonably foreseeable consequence of failing to fix doors and locks in a reasonable time. In other words, if a landlord neglects their duty to fix locks and as a result, someone steals all of tenant’s stuff (or worse), the landlord will owe the tenant the full costs of the stuff, medical bills, and potentially pain and suffering under personal injury law. Landlords should make replacing locks and keys a top priority, and should fix it as soon as humanly possible. D.C. Municipal Regulations 607.2.
The above D.C. Housing Code requirement overrides anything written in the lease. Therefore, a lease provision stating the landlord does not have to fix a certain lock or provide keys will not free them of a housing code violation. D.C. Municipal Regulations 14-301.1.
Report the Problem
If a tenant thinks the landlord is violating D.C. Housing Code (or another D.C. law) and it’s worth causing a fight with the landlord, the best option for them is to report it to local authorities. Tenants can call (202) 442-9557 or email email@example.com. Tenants should call 311 for urgent problems. Tenants should document all problems and keep a copy of all communication where they first notified the landlord. The RenterPeace app makes this easy.
Although this may negatively impact the landlord-tenant relationship, tenants have broad protections under the law as long as they have a “good faith” belief that there is a violation. A landlord cannot increase the rent, decrease the services to the tenant (e.g., cut off utilities), or evict them in retaliation for making a complaint. Tenants often fear that a landlord may try to evict anyways, but to evict a tenant, landlords must first take them to landlord-tenant court, where the landlord will be made to answer 1) for all the problems stated in the complaint and 2) for whether they illegally retaliated against the tenant. D.C. Municipal Regulations 14-307.
What To Expect
When a tenant reports a problem, an inspector visits the apartment (typically within a week or less) to look for housing code violations. The inspector then typically orders the landlord to fix the problem(s) by a certain date and sometimes immediately fines them for the violation. Fines can be as high as $300 per day the apartment is in violation, but typically, the inspector just wants to see the problem fixed. If the landlord ignores the order to fix the problem, they may be subject to more fines and may even be subject to up to 90 days in jail per day that the apartment violates housing rules. D.C. Municipal Regulations 14-102.1 and 14-102.7.
Deducting the Cost or Withholding Rent
To deduct or withhold rent, the tenant must “legally [withhold] all or part of the tenant’s rent after having given reasonable notice to the housing provider, either orally in the presence of a witness or in writing, of a violation of the housing regulations.” D.C. Municipal Regulations 14-4303.4.
Before deducting or withholding rent, tenants should :
- have a witness, ideally a neutral party other than a spouse
- keep clear documentation showing that they notified the landlord of 1) their intention to withhold or deduct from their rent and 2) exactly what requirement they believe the landlord has violated
- give the landlord a “reasonable” time to fix the problem
- make sure the problem is not caused by themselves or their guests
Failure to follow any one of these (or any other procedures of D.C. Housing Law) may result in an eviction, so tenants should ideally see a lawyer before beginning the process. Even if it’s done lawfully, tenants may have to appear in landlord-tenant court to show their evidence if the landlord attempts to evict. While landlord-tenant court is very informal and the judges are tenant-friendly, they do not take kindly to trivial uses of this remedy or tries to use this an excuse not to pay rent. Therefore, tenants should avoid using remedy this for very minor problems, and both parties should keep very clear documentation of everything (RenterPeace can help!). It’s typically easier and safer for tenants to report housing violations than to withhold or deduct rent because they have a risk of eviction, strict procedures, and a higher likelihood of having to appear in court.
Deducting the Cost of Repairs
To deduct the cost of repairs, in addition to the above procedures, tenants should keep clear receipts of the repairs (along with pictures of before and after) and return any money that wasn’t used to fix the problem. In practicality, when a tenant attempts to deduct the cost of a reasonable repair, landlords may consider the trouble to challenge what’s likely a few hundred dollars, especially the landlord is truly at fault. The court process often will involve an inspection of the apartment unit, which could create more problems for the landlord. If the landlord is renting without a business license (a license required for every landlord), the process may also reveal the landlord’s licensing violation which can result in a $2000 – $4000 fine for a first offense and more for additional violations (source). D.C. Municipal Regulations 14-200.
To withhold rent, in addition to the above procedures, tenants should make sure they do not spend the money and ideally, keep it in a separate bank account or with a neutral third party like an escrow. When the landlord fixes the problem, the tenant will have to pay the rent back immediately and the tenant may be evicted if they don’t. If the tenant goes to court and the judge disagrees with the tenant that the problem would allow withholding the rent, the judge may ask the tenant to pay back the rent immediately. The court may punish tenants who do not have the money readily available to pay the landlord (e.g., with fines).
Breaking a Lease
If the apartment becomes “unsafe or unsanitary” due to violations of D.C. housing regulations of which the landlord is aware or reasonably should have been, then the tenant may move out, even if there’s a lease. This is called the “implied warranty of habitability.” Two exceptions apply: where housing code violations result from the intentional or negligent acts of tenants or their guests and where the violations were corrected within an appropriate time. An apartment is likely unsafe if the doors don’t prevent intruders from entering. Moving out may be the best option if a tenant wishes to avoid housing court or otherwise wishes to avoid conflict. Tenants should thoroughly document the situation that makes the place unsafe or unsanitary (the RenterPeace app can help) and to avoid escalating conflict, they should notify the landlord of their intention to move out early. D.C. Municipal Regulations 14-302.
State and Local Laws
Laws differ heavily by state, county, and city. Use RenterPeace to see more specific laws for to a given apartment and to see comments from people in your area.
Documenting the Problem
For most problems, tenants should document their issues, notify their landlord (document this too!), and stay informed about their rights. Renterpeace is a free website that helps with each step of this process. Tenants use RenterPeace to more easily see applicable laws, track their problems, and much more. There's a reason RenterPeace was selected "Best of" legal apps for both Android and iOS. It also includes household management tools, like a chore manager and bill tracker. Try it - you don't even to login first.
Using Property Management
To stay updated and organized about the problems in their apartments, landlords should use a property management system. Many are expensive or have high setup fees, but using RenterPeace for landlords is free. It's complete with legal compliance tips targeted to their problems, maintenance tracking, tenant screening, money-saving grant information, and tenant chat. It makes managing properties easier and staying updated about status of rental properties a breeze. Try it today.