D.C. landlords are not required to provide furnished apartment units, but if they do, they are required to maintain them to the extent that they are clean, safe, and sanitary. Tenants are responsible for damages outside of normal wear and tear.
What needs to be fixed?
Some apartments may come with couches, chairs, beds, tables, carpet or rugs, curtains, shower curtains, etc. While landlords are not required to provide such furnishings, if they do, they are responsible for maintaining them and keeping them in a “clean, safe, and sanitary condition, in repair, and free from rodents or vermin.” Therefore, this does not include aesthetic issues, like minor frays or stains. However, landlords will have to replace moldy items or things that look structurally unsound. D.C. Municipal Regulations 14-400.3.
When is the tenant responsible?
Tenants are responsible for making sure they don’t willfully or wantonly destroy or allow their guests to destroy furnishings. Therefore, if a tenant’s friend’s drunkenly tears a hole in the couch from jumping on it, the tenant is responsible, not the landlord. Often, whether damage was caused by “normal wear and tear” can be difficult to determine. A common rule of thumb is to consider the age and quality of the furnishing and whether it would typically require replacement for how old it is. A 40-year-old low-quality chair that breaks is more likely to be considered destroyed from wear and tear than a 2-year-old high-end chair. D.C. Municipal Regulations 14-800.
Examples of timelines of when furnishings need to be replaced:
If a landlord provides a mattress, it must “not be made of moss, sea grass, excelsior, husks, or shoddy.” We’re sure there’s a story behind this. D.C. Municipal Regulations 14-607.1.
The above D.C. Housing Code requirement overrides anything written in the lease. Therefore, a lease provision stating the landlord does not have fix furnishings is void. 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 firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.
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 kick a tenant out, 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 usually 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) precisely 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 minor problems, and both parties should keep 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).