Q: Since we are having difficulty selling our house in the District, we decided to rent it out for a year. Perhaps next year we will have better luck. We have heard that renting in the city is not a good idea because of the pro-tenant laws. Can you advise?
A: There is no question that the laws in the District are pro-tenant. However, if this is the only property you own, and if you are careful in the selection of your tenant, you should not have too much difficulty.
You will be exempt from the rent control aspects of District law if you own less than five rental units, whether or not those same rental units are within the same structure. However, you must file an exemption statement with the city rent administrator to be legally exempt from the rent control provisions.
You will not be exempt from the eviction requirements, however, and it is important to know how you can evict tenants. Generally, a tenant cannot be evicted unless he or she:
Is not paying rent.
Is violating a condition of the lease and fails to correct the violation within 30 days of recieving a written notice from the landlord.
Additionally, if the landlord or a new buyer wants to move in, the tenant has to be given a 90-day notice to vacate. After 90 days, the tenant can be taken to court for eviction. But initially, the tenant must also be given a right of first refusal to buy the property.
Landlords who want to make alterations or renovations to their property that can't be done while tenants are living there must give 120 days advance notice to vacate. The plans for renovations must have been approved by the D.C. rent administrator and must show that the work can't be safely or reasonable accomplished while the unit is occupied.
If the landlord wants to demolish the unit and construct something else, the tenant must be notified 180 days in advance, and the building permit must be filed with the rent administrator.
There are other complexities in the law, and anyone who wants to rent out property in the city should get legal advice before signing a lease. The lease has to be worked properly, and an ounce of prevention will certainly be worth the pound of cure.
If your tenant gives you a hard time, and you want to get that tenant out of property, you must go to court. You cannot under any circumstances resort to "self help" measures, whether they be padlocking the door, changing the locks or entering the property and throwing the furniture out. The court of appeals for the District of Columbia (our highest local court) has categorically determined that self-help is illegal, and the tenant can make claims for punitive damages against the landlord. While the court procedure may be slow and cumbersome, it is the only way to approach the defaulting tenant.