Q: Every apartment I’ve ever lived in was supposed to be cleaned before I moved in, but it was always a mess when I got there. Is my landlord obligated to clean? Do I have any recourse if he hasn’t?

A: Under the District’s housing regulations, the landlord must ensure the apartment is safe, sanitary and habitable before renting it out.  If the apartment or any common area of the building is unsafe or unsanitary, then the lease is rendered void and the tenant is free to vacate the unit without obligation to pay any rent.

Unsafe and unsanitary, however, is a higher standard than unclean.  Many leases state that the premises will be delivered in a “clean” as well as in a “safe and sanitary condition.”  Thus, if the unit is unclean upon move-in, the tenant potentially could claim that the landlord is in breach of the lease.

However, in deciding whether unsafe, unsanitary or unclean housing conditions exist, a court generally will distinguish between major and minor problems.  The tenant’s first recourse is always to request that the landlord or management office correct the problem.  If that doesn’t work, then the tenant should decide how serious the problem is and proceed accordingly.

One option is to request that the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs inspect the premises for housing-code violations.  The tenant may also file a claim at in D.C. Superior Court’s “Housing Conditions Calendar” to compel the landlord to correct the problem.  This assumes, however, the existence of housing-code violations.

It is important that the tenant maintain a complete record of landlord-tenant correspondence, photographs, notices of housing code violations, the lease, etc.  It is also important that the tenant inspect the apartment prior to moving in, create a check-list of disrepairs and other unsatisfactory conditions and present a copy to the landlord.  When the tenant is ready to move out, this will help prevent the landlord from using the tenant’s security deposit to address issues that pre-dated the tenancy.

About the Advocate
The D.C. Office of the Tenant Advocate is an independent agency of the District government providing legal assistance, policy advocacy and education and outreach services to District renters. Learn more and contact the agency at Ota.dc.gov or 202- 719-6560. The office says it is the first tenant advocacy voice within any state or city government in the U.S.