Landlords in DC are required to provide running water to tenants in bathrooms and kitchens to the extent that the problem is under their control. If the water goes out (e.g., a pipe freezes or breaks) in these areas, they are required to fix it quickly.
Bathrooms and Kitchen
Landlords are required to provide clean, running water for bathroom and kitchen purposes under D.C. housing code and are required to fix the problem in a reasonable time. The law gives no fixed time period, but commonly, more than a couple of days becomes a problem.
Specifically, landlords are responsible for providing a kitchen sink and a bathroom (with a sink, toilet, and shower) that is properly connected to a public water system and an approved sewer system as appropriate. Additionally, if the landlord provides facilities, utilities, or fixtures for cooking (e.g., faucets, dishwashers, etc.), they must also be maintained in “good working condition.” All plumbing must be kept clean and sanitary. If the water is directly or indirectly under the control of the landlord, then it must be running in “the quantities needed for normal occupancy.” D.C. Municipal Regulations 14-600, 14-601, and 800.4.
Other Uses of Water
The law is silent about whether water needs to provided for non-essential purposes like washers and dryers. Therefore, landlords are not typically required to provide running water or fix problems with plumbing for other purposes like washing machines, outside hoses, and pools. However, if the lack of water somehow makes the place unsafe or unsanitary or if it’s a violation of the lease, then the landlord is responsible. If either situation applies, then the lease agreement (whether written or oral) is no longer valid and the tenant’s sole remedies are to go to small claims court or to move out. Tenants cannot report problems to authorities that are merely a lease violation and not a violation of D.C. Housing Code.
The above D.C. Housing Code requirements override anything written in the lease. Therefore, a lease provision stating the landlord does not have to fix leaks 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 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. In the case of no running water, complaining after only a few minutes of not having water or complaining about issues caused by the tenant may appear to be in “bad faith.” A landlord cannot increase the rent, decrease the services to the tenant (e.g., cut off water or other 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 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 of Repair 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.
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 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.
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. 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 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. An apartment is likely unsafe or unsanitary if it’s impossible to use the bathroom or take a shower for more than a few days. The law is unclear about whether tenants can break a lease if there is no water because of situations entirely outside the landlord’s control – for example, if DC Water is experiencing problems because of a storm and is not providing water to the tenant’s neighborhood.
Breaking the lease may be the best option if a tenant wishes to avoid housing court or otherwise wishes to avoid conflict. Tenants should fully 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.