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What Every D.C. Renter Should Know

You found it: the perfect apartment in the District of Columbia. The neighborhood is fun. The commute isn't bad. And you might even be able to park your car somewhere. But before you sign a lease, you should know what rights and obligations you will have under the District's housing code.

  1. How can I learn about D.C. rental law?
  2. Is there any basic information I need to know about renting?
  3. What do I need to know about my security deposit - and when can I get it back?
  4. Does my security deposit collect interest?
  5. Is there anything special I need to know about getting a group house?
  6. Should I ask the landlord for an official inspection of the apartment before I move in?
  7. If something needs to be fixed when I move in, what should I do?
  8. Can my landlord enter my apartment -- or let repairmen in -- when I'm not there?
  9. When is a landlord permitted to raise the rent?
  10. Can I, as a tenant, be cited for violating housing codes?
  11. Does a landlord have an obligation to heat an apartment?
  12. What about air conditioning?
  13. Whom do I call if I disagree with my landlord?
  14. What can I be evicted for -- and what is the process?
  15. What else does the "Tenant's Guide" cover?
  16. Can the HRA help me in other ways?
  17. Related Web sites
1. How can I learn about D.C. rental law?

The District of Columbia Housing Code (DCHC) is enforced by the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs Housing Regulation Administration (HRA).

DCRA publishes the "Tenant's Guide to Safe and Decent Housing." This 30-page booklet summarizes the Rental Housing Act of 1985, and Chapter 14 of the DC Municipal Regulations (DCMR), which cover the city's laws and regulations for rent-controlled apartments.

The booklet is available in both English and Spanish. To obtain a copy, visit the Housing Regulation Customer Service Center in Room 7100 at 941 North Capitol Street, NE, Washington, D.C., 20002, telephone (202) 442-4610, or send the office a large self-addressed, stamped envelope to receive the guide by mail.

The guide is also available on the DCRA web site at www.dcra.dc.gov on the "Housing Regulation" page under rent control.

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2. Is there any basic information I need to know about renting?

Before you dive into the code's specifics, keep in mind the following advice for D.C. apartment-hunting: Read your lease and understand what your responsibilities are when you sign it.

Tenants lack of awareness of the obligations they agreed to in their leases tenants is one common problem. To avoid surprises, obtain written copies of all your agreements, and make sure you understand the obligations that you are taking on under those agreements when you sign your lease.

Low income individuals may seek assistance on these matters with the D.C. Law Students In Court Program, an organization of court-certified, third-year law students who assist income-limited individuals on legal matters. The phone number is (202)638-4798.

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3. What do I need to know about my security deposit -- and when can I get it back?

Often the security deposit is the first major exchange of money between a new tenant and a landlord. DCRA suggests you clearly understand the landlord's terms and conditions regarding the deposit, and its return when the time comes. The landlord is required to state these terms and conditions on the lease or on your receipt for the deposit.

When you move out of the apartment, the landlord has 45 days to return your deposit or to notify you in writing if he or she intends to apply the money toward damages in the apartment. If your landlord does this, he then has 30 days from the day he notified you to return whatever money is left over and provide you an itemized statement of the repair costs.

The DCHC also authorizes the landlord to make an inspection of the apartment three days before or after your tenancy ends, but must notify you in writing of the inspection at least 10 days before it occurs.

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4. Does my security deposit collect interest?

The law dictates that the interest rate on the deposit be equal to thepassbook interest rate for the escrow account holding the deposit, or that it shall accrue at a rate not less than 5 percent per year.

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5. Is there anything special I need to know about getting a group house?

Since sprawling, high-rise apartment buildings are relatively scarce in D.C., group houses are a common rental option and come with a unique set of leasing issues.

"A number of people sign a lease," in a group house, says Ann Marie Hay, director of the D.C. Law Students In Court Program, "but then people sequence through the house. Some move out, new people move in -- and then some of the people who originally signed the lease are no longer there."

Under a concept known as "joint and several liability," if legal disputes arise or back rent is owed, the house's landlord can pursue all the original signers of the lease for remedy, or the landlord may choose to concentrate on the one or two left in the house.

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6. Should I ask the landlord for an official inspection of the apartment before I move in?

The regulations state that apartments and their furnishings must be "in a clean, safe and sanitary condition." It's important, therefore, that you ask a prospective landlord permissin to inspect an apartment before you sign or pay anything. According to Hay, a pre-move-in walk-through with someone from the building management is a smart way to avoid disputes down the road:

"Flush the toilet, turn on the faucets... if something isn't in working order, it should be put in writing," says Hay. That way, you can't be held liable for damage that existed when you moved in.

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7. If something needs to be fixed when I move in, what should I do?

Make a detailed list of anything that needs to be repaired when you move into an apartment, and give it to the landlord or his representatives. Either have it signed and dated by the landlord, or send it by registered mail and keep a copy for yourself.

Log all calls. Tenants may need to be patient and flexible while the landlord schedules repairs. If a repair must be made because of a code violation, the law will dictate how fast the repair must be made.

If this is not the case, however, and you think a reasonable amount of time has passed, you should call DCRA.

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8. Can my landlord enter my apartment -- or let repairmen in -- when I'm not there?

Housing laws do not address a landlord's ability to enter an apartment or let repairmen in without prior notification. If you want to establish the ground rules for your tenancy, DCRA suggests you form an agreement with your landlord before you move in.

"Some tenants insist on being present when repair work is to be done, and ask the landlord for, say, 24-hours' notice," says Hay. "If the relationship is good enough, then some kind of agreement can be reached."

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9. When is a landlord permitted to raise the rent?

The Rental Housing Act of 1985 covers more than 60 percent of all rental housing in the District. According to this law, there are several ways a landlord can raise an apartment's "rent ceiling" -- the legal limit that can be charged for that unit. Often there is a yearly automatic rental increase based on the Consumer Price Index for Urban Wage Earners and Clerical Workers (CPI-W).

Once every 12 months, landlords of properties covered by the law are allowed to increase the rent ceiling by a percentage equal to the CPI-W, which typically ran at between 1 and 3 percent during the last few years.

(Note: the rent ceiling is the legal amount a landlord is allowed to charge on an apartment covered by the law, but not necessarily the amount he will charge.)

A landlord can increase the rent any amount he likes so long as the amount remains under the rent ceiling, and does not violate the Unitary Rent Ceiling Adjustment Act. Rent can be increased only with 30 days written notice, and only if at least 180 days have passed since the last increase.

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10. Can I, as a tenant, be cited for violating housing codes?

Yes, you can. "Tenants can be and are issued Housing Violation Notices for unsanitary conditions" says the DCRA.

The law dictates that tenants have a responsibility to maintain and clean the apartment, to use all the electrical, gas, plumbing and heating equipment properly. Landlords have the right to ask for HRA inspections of an apartment if they think it's not being maintained properly -- but they must have evidence.

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11. Does a landlord have an obligation to heat an apartment?

If the heat in your apartment is not under your control, the law dictates that the landlord must keep your apartment at a minimum 68 degrees Fahrenheit between 6:30 a.m. and 11:00 p.m., and at a minimum 65 degrees the rest of the time.

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12. What about air conditioning?

If air conditioning is provided by your landlord, it must be in good and safe working order and be able to cool your apartment down to at least 15 degrees Fahrenheit lower than the outside air temperature, according to published weather reports. If you think your air conditioning is faulty and complain to the DCRA, inspectors will take a reading in your apartment.

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13. Whom do I call if I disagree with my landlord?

If you have a dispute with a landlord that you cannot resolve, you can file an official complaint with the Housing Regulation Customer Service Center. When you call, be sure to have as much information as possible about your landlord and the building, including names of the owners, addresses and telephone numbers. Let the customer service representative know where they can reach you during the day.

A staff member has five to seven days to contact you to schedule an inspection -- if they can't find you, your case may be closed. DCRA says inspections are normally conducted within five working days after they contact you, or seven working days if the complaint is about the exterior of the building.

In scheduling inspections, the DCRA gives priority to interior inspections in occupied housing. The D.C. Municipal Regulations and the Rental Housing Act of 1985 explicitly prevent landlords from taking retaliatory action against tenants who complain about housing violations.

Retaliatory action includes attempts by a landlord to take back the apartment in violation of housing laws, reducing the quantity or quality of services provided, unlawfully increasing rent, harassing, threatening, coercing, or violating the privacy of the tenant, or refusing to honor any or all of a lease agreement and refusing to renew a lease agreement.

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14. What can I be evicted for -- and what is the process?

A landlord may not evict you without prior written notice unless the tenant has waived their right to written notice in the lease for nonpayment of rent. If a landlord wants to evict you for violating your tenancy agreement, it must be a violation of a specific lease provision and he or she must take action within six months of the violation. If your landlord serves you with a "Notice to Correct or Vacate," document, indicating an intention to evict if you do not remedy the problem, you have 30 days to correct the violation.

You can also be evicted if the building you live in is scheduled for substantial renovations or alterations, or is to be demolished or no longer used as a housing property. In such cases, you have several rights as a tenant, including the right to be notified in advance, the right to relocation assistance, or possibly the opportunity to buy your dwelling, depending on the situation. Contact the Housing Regulation Administration Customer Service Center at (202)442-4610 for more details.

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15. What else does the "Tenant's Guide" cover?

In addition to explaining much of the above in fuller detail, The "Tenant's Guide" outlines the full hearing and adjudication process after a tenant complaint is filed. The booklet also touches on conversion of properties into co-ops, what properties fall under the rent stabilization law and how rent stabilization works. If the apartment you live in or are looking at falls into these categories, you should pick up the booklet. Both the booklet and HRA Customer Service Representatives can also direct you to some free or low-cost legal services, should you need them.

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16. Can the HRA help me in other ways?

If you have questions about housing code violations, call DCRA at (202) 442-4610 or visit the website at www.dcra.dc.gov. If you have questions about rent stabilization laws, security deposits or evictions, call (202)442-4610.

If you have more general questions, call the Housing Regulation Administration Customer Service Center - (202) 442-4610.

Additional Resources:

D.C. Law Students in Court Program - (202)638-4798. Their office is located at 806 7th Street, Suite 300, NW.

D.C. Landlord Tenant Court - (202)879-4879.



17. Related Web sites
D.C. Landlord Tenant Court
D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs

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