Q: I own an apartment in the District of Columbia. It is the only apartment that I own, and thus I am not covered under the rent-control laws. My tenant is on a month-to-month basis, and I have now found another tenant who is willing to pay me much more for the apartment. I have given my tenant 30 days' notice to vacate, but if the tenant does not vacate, can I change the locks so that the tenant will not have access to the apartment?
A: No; absolutely not.
Although you are not covered under the rent-control aspects of the District of Columbia Landlord Tenant Law, all landlords of residential property are covered under the eviction procedures of that law.
You cannot evict a tenant merely because you want to get a higher rental income from another tenant. There are specific grounds for eviction, such as nonpayment of rent or violation of the terms of the lease (where you have given the tenant 30 days' written notice to cure the problem). Additionally, if you want to move back into the apartment, you may do so--but only after giving the tenant adequate notice.
But even if you are entitled to evict a tenant, you cannot use what we lawyers call "self-help." In the olden days, the law permitted a landlord to enter on his own land and recover it by force--even by violence, if necessary. This was traditional under the early common law of England, which is the basis for our current judicial system. However, as early as 1381, even the English recognized that this was a harsh remedy. Forceable entry was made a criminal offense, and it remains a criminal statute in most states in the United States.
Most states have adopted procedures whereby a landlord can regain possession quickly from a tenant who is violating the terms of the lease.
Nonetheless, for a number of years, the courts in the District of Columbia (and in many states) still permitted a landlord to exercise self-help when entry onto the property was peaceable. In recent years, however, our courts have reanalyzed the concept of self-help and now it is quite clear that the only remedy available to a landlord in the District is to go to court to seek eviciton--as well as back rent and possibly damages.
The highest court for the District of Columbia, the D.C. Court of Appeals, specifically ruled several years ago that the landlord's common-law right of self-help "has been abrogated, and the legislatively created remedies for reacquiring possession are exclusive." In rendering this opinion, the court indicated that "to sanction the use of self-help in our densely populated city, chronically plagued with serious housing shortages, would be to invite and sanction violence. . . . A landlord must in all cases resort to the courts to dispossess a tenant."
In fact, the court went further and indicated that a tenant has a right not to have "his or her possessions interfered with except by lawful process, and violation of that right gives rise" to possible damages in favor of the tenant.
Thus, you must go to court to take action against your tenant. Needless to say, this is a time-consuming and often expensive procedure.
It is suggested that you familiarize yourself with the rent-control laws of the District of Columbia, because to some extent they are applicable even though you own only one apartment. These laws spell out the requirements for evicting a tenant.
However, you are permitted to raise the rent so long as you give the tenant at least 30 days' notice. Because you have indicated that your tenant is on a month-to-month basis, you may raise the rent if you give the proper written notice. Of course, the rent must be reasonable, and cannot be used to force the tenant out of the property. If you have a new potential tenant who is prepared to pay a higher rent, you certainly can ask the existing tenant to pay that new rent--or give the eviction notice.
But under no circumstances should you attempt to change the locks, or you may find yourself in court facing a severe punitive-damage claim from your tenant.