Renting in the District

Photo courtesy of
‘070309 207’
courtesy of ‘dougtone’

If you don’t love your current place of residence you can at least take some comfort in knowing that others are worse off then you. There’s a question on a high-visibility advice site right now that I don’t want to link because I’d hate to draw the wrong attention to the asker. Suffice to say the situation is one where, as a tenant, this person and his or her roommates are dealing with an odd landlord who only wants to accept their over $2000 a month rent in cash and who seems to be running some sort of welfare/child support scam.

Their situation is a little rarefied, but I see other questions there from renters that make it clear there’s a lot of bad information floating around. Let’s try to drop some knowledge here, shall we?

If you take nothing else away from this article, save this link: D.C.’s Office of the Tenant Advocate and this resource: Tenant Survival Guide[pdf].

The OTA is an organization that’s existed in the DC government for about three years now and has been an independent agency for the last two. Their whole reason to exist is to be a resource for you as a tenant. The tenant survival guide was prepared in conjunction with Georgetown University’s Harrison Institute for Public Law, who have the Tenant Survival Guide on their website, just slightly more nicely formatted[pdf]. Between the OTA site and the guide you’ll find everything you need inside or linked from there.

That accomplished, let’s take a few minutes to talk some common myths so you don’t turn a minor problem into a big one.

If I had to pick one thing that comes up over and over again when I read discussions about landlord-tenant disputes it would be some variation of this statement:

“I’m just going to not pay my rent till my landlord fixes X.”

If I had to answer that statement in one sentence it would be “then you’re not going to be living there very long.”

Rent withholding is a perfectly legitimate technique for dealing with disputes with a landlord, but if you don’t follow the letter of the law precisely you will do yourself more harm than good. Every state – and for this purpose we’ll just think of D.C. as a state – has its own guidelines about under what circumstances you’re allowed to withhold rent and every state has different rules about how you must do it. Screwing it up just provides a difficult landlord with a way to evict you more quickly and easily and can end up costing you more money in fees along the way.

You’d be better off involving a third party via the conciliator service with the Rental Accommodations and Conversions Division.

The other big misconception I see online isn’t limited to just rental issues: it’s a belief that you signed away your right to some protection in some document, whether it be a lease or a waiver. This is an issue too complicated to get into here, but if you take nothing else away from this please keep this in mind: just because you signed a piece of paper that says something doesn’t necessarily mean it’s legally valid. Just because someone puts a paragraph in a contract that says Tom Bridge is now the Queen of Sheba doesn’t make it true or enforceable in court.

When it comes to your rights as a tenant in the District you cannot be denied your right to notification when it comes to eviction. There’s a specific exception regarding paying your rent but if you’re making payment you have to be served with written notice. You’ve got other rights that can’t be signed away either and you shouldn’t hesitate to call the OTA and investigate further if you think they’re being violated.

The last big misconception I see online is what it means when you get to the end of the term of your lease. It doesn’t necessarily mean you have to be out of the property the date it expires; your landlord still has obligations regarding providing you advance notice about leaving. Your landlord still has obligations about advance notice regarding a rent increase.

That cuts both ways, however: the expiration of your lease is not a substitute for providing notice of intent to vacate. You’ve got to provide notice as required by law and in accordance with the provisions of your lease. Don’t set yourself up to pay fines and fees by failing to abide by the agreement as required.

If you’ve got a taste for the law and want to read the underlying rules in the District, you can look at the full text of section 14 of the code here. No matter what, however, take some time to read over the tenant survival guide[pdf]. You’ll make sure you’re protected against opportunists looking to screw you and avoid setting yourself up for failure.

Well I used to say something in my profile about not quite being a “tinker, tailor, soldier, or spy” but Tom stole that for our about us page, so I guess I’ll have to find another way to express that I am a man of many interests.

Hmm, guess I just did.

My tastes run the gamut from sophomoric to Shakespeare and in my “professional” life I’ve sold things, served beer, written software, and carried heavy objects… sometimes at the same place. It’s that range of loves and activities that makes it so easy for me to love DC – we’ve got it all.


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