DC tenants can withhold rent when their landlord violates DC housing regulations, up until the repair is made. Tenants must follow strict procedures and should keep the money safe until the fixes are made. Failure to do so puts the tenant is jeopardy of eviction.
To 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 withholding rent, tenants should :
- make sure that the landlord is violating DC housing regulations
- 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 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 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 rent because of the risk of eviction, strict procedures, and a higher likelihood of having to appear in court.
If a tenant follows the above procedures properly, then D.C. Housing Code creates a presumption that the landlord is retaliating against the tenant if they attempt to evict, raise the rent significantly, refuse to renew the lease without cause, or otherwise take a retaliatory action the tenant. To overcome this presumption, the landlord will have to show “clear and convincing evidence” that the action was for non-retaliatory reasons. For example, if the landlord refuses to renew the lease after a tenant withholds rent, then the tenant can stay. To remove the tenant, the landlord will have to appear in housing court with evidence showing that they are not renewing the lease for other reasons. A landlord may be able to not renew the lease if they can show that they’re remodeling the whole building and kicking all the tenants out. However, if they cannot prove that they have a non-retaliatory reason, the landlord cannot force the leave. This presumption lasts for 6 months. D.C. Municipal Regulations 14-4303.4.
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. Tenants who do not have the money readily available to pay the landlord may be punished by the court (e.g., with fines).
Inspection and Business License
If the landlord wishes to challenge the tenant and take them to court, they are likely to be subject to an inspection to independently verify the condition of the apartment. If there are other housing violations, the landlord will face severe risks in challenging the tenant. Additionally, landlords are required to be licensed in D.C. If the landlord is renting without a business license, 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).
Tenants should avoid spending money but they also must keep the money safe and secure while it’s being withheld. If a tenant gives the rent to a neutral third party to hold and that third party steals the money or loses it, the tenant will be fully responsible and may be subject to eviction. For this reason, it’s recommended that tenants use formal escrows. These can be set up by your bank. You can make the account holder only release to the landlord once the housing condition is fixed and to return it if it isn’t.
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.