(Illustration by Allie Ghaman)

It’s almost too simple. A few clicks on the District of Columbia Office of the Tenant Advocate website and the “Tenant Bill of Rights” pops up, detailing renter-landlord issues such as security deposits, rent increases, evictions and safety. Despite easy access to these rules and a number of hardworking tenant advocacy groups and legal aid organizations in the city, many renters don’t know their rights.

“D.C. has all sorts of rental housing laws that afford tenants all sorts of rights, but those rights don’t get exercised enough,” says Joel Cohn, legislative director of the District of Columbia Office of the Tenant Advocate (OTA), a government agency that advocates for tenant rights free of charge.

The “Tenant Bill of Rights” is the OTA’s summary of “law of the land.” It must be provided to rental applicants, along with other disclosure documents.

Cohn says his office helps more than 3,500 tenants each year and works in tandem with the volunteer-run D.C. Tenants’ Advocacy Coalition (TENAC) and other legal service providers, including D.C. Legal Aid. They have their work cut out for them.
“There’s plenty of work to be done,” Cohn says.

Rent-control rules
Paul, an IMAX projectionist (he asked that his last name not be used), has lived in his apartment in Adams Morgan since the ’80s.
This year, he received a letter informing him that his rent would increase by $300. At the bottom of the letter was a rent-control exemption number. Realizing he wouldn’t be able to afford the new rate, Paul contacted the D.C. Tenants’ Rights Center, a private law firm that provides affordable advocacy for D.C. tenants.

They found that the property was subject to rent control, and that the increase was unlawful. When presented with the law, the property management company actually had to roll back some prior increases. So Paul’s rent, instead of going up $300, went down about $130.

Marc Borbely, founder of the D.C. Tenants’ Rights Center, says in Paul’s case, the landlord was claiming an exemption from rent control that only applies when an individual owns the apartment. Paul’s apartment is owned by a trust. Through April, landlords who own properties covered by rent control are not permitted to request rent increases larger than 3.5 percent (or 1.5 percent for tenants who are elderly or have a disability). Paul’s rent increases also weren’t being reported to the city, which is required for rent-controlled apartments and houses.

As a decades-long D.C. renter, TENAC chairman Jim McGrath has himself benefited from rent control laws, but he acknowledges that the law can only go so far in protecting tenants.

“It’s a great law on paper. It supposedly keeps buildings affordable for tenants, but it’s covering an ever-shrinking pool of tenants. Its basic protections extends mostly to older tenants who’ve been in the building for a very long time.”

Security deposit transparency
Security deposits are a necessary part of renting, but many renters don’t realize that their security deposit should be put in an interest-bearing account, and the landlord should tell you where it’s being held and what the prevailing interest rate is. It also can’t be more than a month’s rent.

After renting a condo in Petworth for three years, Thyra Smith, an analyst for the federal government, was ready to become a homeowner. When she moved out, she was told that the landlord had switched property management companies, and the new company hadn’t yet received her security deposit.

“I have a law degree, so I knew that didn’t actually matter. The landlord is still responsible for giving me my money back,” she says.
She found TENAC online and emailed the group in May. While waiting to hear back, she tracked down the law on security deposits. Smith told both the landlord and the property management company that she’d take the matter to small claims court. That did the trick: She received her $1,500 deposit plus three years’ interest.

Lead-paint obligations
As renter Patrick Masterson and his pregnant wife prepared their Capitol Hill home for the arrival of their first child in summer 2012, the chipping paint on the windowsills and in the basement started to concern them. So Masterson, a management consultant, contacted their property management company. Nearly a year later, in June 2013, a maintenance team was sent to the home, two months before the couple’s second child was due. Workers vacuumed the flaking chips and scraped the walls of the basement, spreading lead paint dust everywhere.

“I’ve since learned that that is a horrible way to clean it up,” Masterson said. “That’s when alarm bells went off in my head.”

The D.C. Tenants’ Rights Center advised him to contact the Department of the Energy and Environment.

The city agency told Masterson the lead report arranged by the property management company was incomplete and sent their own inspector, who found that lead paint had been exposed at dangerous levels.

Borbely says that in the District, if a tenant informs the landlord in writing that a child or pregnant woman lives in the unit or regularly visits, the landlord is required to provide a report showing the unit has no lead-based paint or has cleared a test.

Ultimately, Masterson and the management company could not reach a “satisfactory resolution,” he says. The ordeal ended when he and his family moved out.

“I really believed that management companies were looking for health and safety issues,” he says. “I didn’t realize how to exert my own rights and be protected.”

Know your rights

D.C.:

District of Columbia Office of the Tenant Advocate:  2000 14th Street, NW, 3rd Floor North, Washington, DC 20009; 202-719-6560; ota.dc.gov

D.C. Tenants’ Rights Center: 406 5th St. NW, Suite 300, Washington, DC 20001; 202-681-6871; dctenants.com

Department of Energy and Environment: 1200 First St. NE, Washington, DC 20002; 202-535-2600; doee.dc.gov

D.C. Tenants’ Advocacy Coalition (TENAC): 202 288-1921; tenac.org

Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia: 1331 H St. NW #350, Washington, DC 20005; 202-628-1161; legalaiddc.org

Maryland:

Home Owners Preserving Equity (HOPE): mdhope.dhcd.maryland.gov/renters

Maryland Attorney General: Landlord/tenant law PDF

Montgomery County Renters Alliance: rentersalliance.org

People’s Law Library of Maryland: peoples-law.org

Virginia:

Buyers and Renters Arlington Voice (BRAVO): 2611 Columbia Pike, Arlington, VA 22204; 703-685-5100; bravotenants.org

Fairfax County Government: fairfaxcounty.gov/consumer/tenant

VALegalAid.org

Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development: 804-371-7000; www.dhcd.virginia.gov

Virginia Housing Development Authority: 877-VHDA-123; vhda.com

More on renting in D.C.:

Should you hire a rental agent to help with your apartment hunt?

Finding rental gems in condo buildings

Dwell Direct brings a food-truck concept to D.C.’s rental market