Q: What do I do if I have a dispute with my landlord over rent?

A: In the event of a rent dispute in the District of Columbia, the tenant should first determine what legal claims he or she may have.a

The D.C. Office of the Tenant Advocate has case managers available to help renters figure this out. Any District tenant can walk in to meet with a case manager Monday through Friday between 8:45 a.m. and 3:30 p.m.

Bring along all relevant documents including rent-increase notices for the past three years, related correspondence including about maintenance and repairs, and a copy of the lease.

Once the tenant gets a handle on the legal merits of his or her claims, it is a good idea to try to resolve the dispute directly with the landlord.

If direct communication fails, then the tenant’s course of action may depend on the rental unit’s rent-control status.

In a Rent-Controlled Unit

If rent control applies to the unit, then the tenant may file a “tenant petition,” which is an administrative action usually requesting a rent reduction and/or a rent refund. A tenant petition must be filed at the Rent Administrator’s Office at the D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development.

The tenant petition is adjudicated by an administrative law judge at the D.C. Office of Administrative Hearings. Any party may appeal an adverse decision to the D.C. Rental Housing Commission.

Through a tenant petition, the tenant may challenge a rent increase for one or more of the following reasons:

-The increase is larger than the allowable amount under rent control.

-The property, the owner or the management company is not properly licensed or registered.

-The tenant was not given a proper 30-day notice of the increase.

-The landlord failed to file the required forms with the Rent Administrator.

-The unit or accommodation was not in substantial compliance with the housing code (if it’s not because of tenant neglect or misconduct).

-Related services and facilities were eliminated or substantially reduced.

Keep in mind that rent control does apply if the landlord has failed to properly claim a rent-control exemption.

Without Rent Control

If rent control doesn’t apply to the apartment because the unit has been properly exempted, then the tenant’s possible rent claims may be limited.

Generally, the tenant has no administrative remedy and will have to go to court.

The tenant will have to show the court that the landlord has breached a material term of the lease agreement or has violated a general legal duty —for example, the duty to maintain the premises in compliance with the housing code.

If You Go to Court

Any tenant may file a rent claim in the Civil Division of D.C. Superior Court. If the disputed amount is $5,000 or less, the tenant can file in the Court’s Small Claims Branch.

Superior Court’s Housing Conditions Calendar, a program allowing tenants to sue landlords for housing code violations, is another venue for tenant actions. However, the program only provides injunctive relief for housing code violations, thus it cannot award monetary damages or rent adjustments.

Superior Court also has a Multi-Door Dispute Resolution Division to help mediate landlord-tenant (and other) disputes.

The Court’s Landlord Tenant Resource Center helps both tenants and landlords assess possible legal claims.

Can You Withhold Rent?

Some tenants choose to withhold the amount of rent that is in dispute. Then, when the landlord files an eviction action for not paying rent, the tenant can raise his or her claims as a defense.

This strategy is very risky — and generally not advisable — because it may result in the tenant’s eviction.

If the tenant does go this route, the tenant should place the amount of disputed rent in an escrow account. That will ensure that the tenant has the funds available to pay whatever amount the court may ultimately decide is owed to the landlord.

If rent control applies and a tenant petition has been filed, then the court will “stay” (suspend) the landlord’s eviction action, pending the Office of Administrative Hearings’ decision regarding the amount of rent owed.

Contact the Office of the Tenant Advocate if you have questions.


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.