Do Landlords Have to Fix Low Water Pressure in D.C.?

HomeLawsUSADCDo Landlords Have to Fix Low Water Pressure in D.C.?

If the low pressure is severe, the landlord is required to fix it to the extent that the faucet, toilet, or shower is in “good working condition” and in “quantities needed for normal occupancy.” Tenants’ remedies to deal with low pressure are limited and should only be used when the problem is severe.

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 maintained in “good working condition.” 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.” 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.” This is not further defined, so in practicality, so long as these facilities can be used, then the landlord met their obligations under the housing code. Comfort is not a factor, and a good test is whether a person would think a judge would sympathize with the tenant or find it frivolous to go to court over somewhat low water pressure. 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, so generally, landlords are not required to provide running water or fix problems with plumbing for other purposes like washing machines, outside hoses, and pools. Therefore, landlords are not responsible for providing any water pressure to these areas, unless they promised to do in the lease (very rare).

Lease

The above D.C. Housing Code requirements override anything written in the lease. D.C. Municipal Regulations 14-301.1.

Report the Problem

If a tenant is confident that the landlord is violating D.C. Housing Code (or another D.C. law) and they are okay with the risk that if they are wrong, they can be legally evicted, the best option for them is to report it to local authorities. Tenants can also ask questions about whether officials think the water pressure is bad enough to constitute a violation (tenants should document it if the answer is yes). Tenants can call (202) 442-9557 or email dcra.housingcomplaints@dc.gov. 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.

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. In the case of low water pressure, tenants should be careful. They should get confirmation from an official that the water pressure is bad enough or some other external, documented validation that the water is not sufficient for “normal occupancy,” bordering on having no water at all. If the tenant has a “good faith” belief, 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 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 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. 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 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. 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. This 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.

By |August 27th, 2018|DC|

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