Rebecca Armendariz and her roommate had a challenging landlord: slow to respond to maintenance requests and frequently out of town, so she couldn’t drop by to check on problems in person.
Armendariz, a 29-year-old Web editor, had shrugged it off, thinking: “It wasn’t that big of a deal,” she says. “We knew we weren’t going to get an immediate response out of her, so we just dealt with things ourselves.”
But then their Bloomingdale basement apartment flooded — once in 2011 and twice in 2012. Their landlord failed to make fixes that would prevent future flooding. She did rip out the apartment’s moldy, waterlogged floorboards — and never replaced them. Armendariz was living on concrete floors with furniture ruined by floodwater.
Armendariz says she learned a lesson: “Know your rights as a tenant.”
Local laws all give tenants the right to safe, sanitary housing. Generally, that means landlords must provide heat, running water and structural soundness (i.e., walls that don’t fall down.) Here are tips for dealing with your landlord when your rental needs serious repair work.
Speak Up Soon
Dorene Haney, a Washington-area lawyer who has been specializing in tenants’ rights for 15 years, says communication is key: Don’t be afraid to talk to your landlord, especially when you think there’s a recurring problem looming.
Haney says she has seen it all, even collapsed ceilings. “That was a surprise to me when I first started doing this type of law — how many people had ceilings fall on them,” she says. (She estimates she handled about 10 of those cases in her first two years.)
Get Officials Involved
If talking doesn’t yield results, consult the local agency that handles tenant/landlord issues (see sidebar). In D.C., that’s the Office of the Tenant Advocate.
OTA will recommend that you sign up for a housing inspection from the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, says legislative director Joel Cohn. Then OTA can advise you on what to do next.
Most local jurisdictions also offer mediation services. D.C. offers free conciliation services through the Department of Housing and Community Development. A conciliator can try to help you and your landlord come to a mutually agreeable solution. In D.C., that doesn’t cost renters or landlords a dime.
Take It to Court
Still struggling? You can file a suit, but “going to court is going to be a more difficult proposition,” Haney says.
A lawsuit takes time, though the D.C. courts offer a “housing conditions calendar” that allows tenants to sue landlords and receive a first hearing within 30 days.
Filing a suit may also require a lawyer, whose services can cost as much as $2,000, Haney says. But the District and some area counties can connect low-income renters with pro bono legal aid.
Break Your Lease
Some renters, Armendariz included, decide to break their leases. “My roommate and I just wanted out of the whole situation,” she says.
Breaking a lease usually entails paying a penalty. Your landlord may require you to pay rent until another tenant is found — and pay for advertising the space, too.
In Armendariz’s case, her landlord wanted to keep her $1,850 security deposit. So Armendariz consulted OTA.
Armendariz says she decided “to save time and hassle” and forgo a court date. OTA helped her draft a document breaking the lease and agreeing to give up the security deposit.
Now she’s much happier, she says, living on the second floor of a Petworth rowhouse, where no floodwaters can reach her. Liz Essley Whyte (For Express)
Smarter Tenant Know-How
Tenant rights lawyer Dorene Haney’s tips for renters: Read your lease and know your rights in your jurisdiction. Get any kind of agreement with your landlord in writing.
Joel Cohn of D.C.’s Office of the Tenant Advocate also recommends documenting every interaction with your landlord. Put every repair request in writing, even if you asked for it in person. Avoid text messages and voicemail; email is better. And take pictures documenting the problem, from beginning to end.
D.C. tenants can also file a petition to ask for a rent discount because of maintenance problems; how to do so depends on whether your apartment falls under D.C.’s rent-control law, so contact OTA for more information, Cohn says. L.E.W.
Where to Go for Help
Office of the Tenant Advocate (202-719-6560) A District office that helps tenants evaluate rental complaints and draft court documents.
DC Tenants Advocacy Coalition (202-628-3688) A nonprofit that educates tenants and lobbies for tenants’ rights.
Montgomery County Office of Landlord-Tenant Affairs (240-777-0311) A county office that educates and helps tenants resolve disputes.
Maryland Attorney General (410-528-8662) The go-to for tenant-landlord affairs in Prince George’s County.
Fairfax County Consumer Affairs Branch (703-222-8435) An office that can provide mediation for renter-landlord disputes.
Arlington County Housing Services (703-228-3765) A county office for information and mediation services.
Alexandria Office of Housing (703-746-4990) An office that helps landlords and tenants resolve complaints. L.E.W.