If the landlord provides an AC unit (whether a personal one or through centralized heating), then they must maintain it and ensure it works sufficiently well.

Requirement To Maintain Air Conditioning Units

A landlord is not required to provide air conditioning or cooling units. But, if they do provide air conditioning or cooling, either through a central air conditioning system or a window or individual cooling unit, they must maintain that unit in a “safe and good working condition so that it provides inside temperature at least fifteen degrees Fahrenheit (15° F.) less than the outside temperature.” Bills have been proposed to require heating in D.C., so this law may be changed soon to require air conditioning for all units (check the latest version of D.C. Municipal Regulations 14-510). Landlords that do provide cooling units must technically have them inspected annually for compliance with the fire code each winter and correct defects before summer starts, but this is rarely enforced. D.C. Municipal Regulations 14-510.

Safety

In addition to the requirement to maintain cooling units, “No person shall rent or offer to rent any habitation… unless the habitation… [is] in a… safe… condition.” If there is a heat wave, the landlord is required to provide cooling to the extent that the apartment is maintained at a safe temperature. Tenants should consult the heat index to see if the temperature in their apartment unit is at unsafe levels. Depending on the humidity, apartments can reach dangerous levels with indoor temperatures starting at 85 degrees (at 100% humidity, 85 degrees can feel like 107 degrees). D.C. Municipal Regulations 14-400.3.

Lease

The above D.C. Housing Code requirements override anything written in the lease. Therefore, a lease provision stating the landlord does not have to provide air conditioning if it breaks 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 fight with the landlord, the best option for them is to report it to local authorities. Tenants can call (202) 442-9557 or email dcra.housingcomplaints@dc.gov. Tenants should call 311 for urgent problems. Tenants should document all issues and keep a copy of all communication where they first notified the landlord. The RenterPeace app makes this easy.

Tenant Protections

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. Because the air conditioning laws depend on whether a landlord already provides and AC or cooling unit, it’s best to document the existence of the unit and proof that it’s broken. 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 a 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.

Procedure

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

Disclaimer

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 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 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 of the 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.

Withholding Rent

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 was aware of 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 or the violations were corrected within an appropriate time. D.C. Municipal Regulations 14-302.

In the case of providing cooling services, this option is NOT available if the landlord doesn’t provide a cooling unit because there is no violation of housing regulation. However, if the landlord is violating housing law, the mere fact that the difference in temperature exceeds the 15 degrees required by the regulation is not alone enough to show that it’s become “unsafe.” Tenants need to have some evidence that the lack of cooling is making it unsafe. Having measurements of high temperatures in the apartment, pictures of sweating without physical activity, or any documentation or photographs of other health effects will be helpful.

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.