WHEN YOUR HOME is falling apart, when disrepair verges on danger, you want to act. A homeowner needs money and know-how, but a tenant often needs a landlord who will cooperate, rather than refuse to act for reasons ranging from penury to wickedness. The D.C. Council has bills before it, and leadership during August could result in much-needed legislative action on this problem.
When the landlord fails to repair a code violation, the tenant should not bear the burden of that violation. Current law allows the tenant to withhold rent and use the code violation as a defense against eviction. But, aside from the risks to the tenant, withholding rent does the wrong thing if the landlord's problem is lack of funds. And while escrow agents and lawyers collect fees, the code violations may well continue.
If the problem is life-threatening, court cases permit tenants to do the repairs themselves and then deduct the reasonable costs from rent. Tenant groups are supporting bills introduced by council members Hilda Mason and David Clarke that would substantially expand this repair-and-deduct power to cover any housing-code violation. As drafted, the bills will languish because they go too far in the direction of stripping landlords of control over their buildings. And the bills don't answer some tough questions: What can one tenant do about central heating, or systemic electrical troubles? Who polices the costs and workmanship?
The District has a limited program allowing it to step in to repair "emergency" conditions, but it is tiny relative to the need. Since reimbursement from the landlords is unreliable, appropriations are necessary and they will never be adequate. The ultimate source of cash in the housing system must be rents. Letting tenants do repairs and deduct costs from rent recognizes this principle--the scheme would divert some of the flow of rents into code compliance. But the scheme is flawed because the scope of eligible repair problems is too large (every code violation?) and because tenants could easily order repairs that were too costly, too elaborate or mistaken.
Of course, rent control is the basic problem for housing in the District, second only to high interest rates. Council members who continue to support rent control, but take no action on some revised repair-and-deduct measure, are agreeing to a package deal: controlled rents and uncontrolled decay. The situation is ripe for an aggressive, creative politician to forge a compromise, with protections for the landlord but accommodation of the tenant's interest a decent home, lawfully maintained.