Landlords are generally required to maintain reasonably decent insulation in an apartment to the extent that protrusions don’t allow wind, rodents, and rain to enter the apartment.
Under D.C. Housing Code, “Exterior walls shall be structurally sound and free of cracks and holes through which rodents or the elements can enter the buildings.” This means that cracks and poor insulation that allows wind or other elements to enter the building is a housing violation. D.C. Municipal Regulations 14-704.2.
It’s unlikely to be taken seriously if the effects of wind and elements aren’t significant. For example, if the wall has a small hole that technically allows outside weather to come in, but it doesn’t significantly affect the temperature inside and is too small for bugs or vermin to get inside, then it’s unlikely to be treated as a violation.
Doors, Windows, and Floors
D.C. Housing Code requires that “All windows, doors, and their frames shall be constructed and maintained in relation to each other and to wall construction to do the following: (a) Exclude rain completely from entering the structure: and (b) Exclude wind substantially from entering the structure.” Therefore, if wind or rain comes in from misaligned frames or similar issues, tenants may follow the procedures below for enforcing their rights under the housing code. D.C. Municipal Regulations 705.6.
Low-Income Assistance for Weatherization
Weatherization means adding insulation to a home to reduce the effects of outside temperature and elements. This helps reduce the cost of utility bills and may be beneficial to both landlords and tenants. D.C. has a weatherization assistance program for low-income residents. In some cases, tenants or landlords may qualify. https://doee.dc.gov/service/weatherization-assistance-program.
The above D.C. Housing Code requirement overrides anything written in the lease. Therefore, a lease provision stating the landlord does not have to weatherize an apartment according to housing law 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 firstname.lastname@example.org. 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 attempts 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).