Five women living together, especially when one of them is the landlord, sounds like it could be a disaster. But in a hip rowhouse along the H Street corridor, Christie St. Pierre, Kelly Sampson and Elizabeth Sallie are going on three years of calling the arrangement home.
When their landlord bought the rowhouse in spring 2013, she gutted the place. “We pretty much moved into a construction zone,” says St. Pierre, 31, a dietitian for Fairfax County Public Schools. The house had a plywood back wall and a camp stove in the kitchen when all five women moved in that fall. It was a leap of faith, especially for Sampson and Sallie, who didn’t know their new landlord or housemates beyond email addresses.
“Our landlord was very upfront from the beginning about expectations and house culture,” says Sallie, 24, a middle and high school Latin teacher. Things like attending similar churches and prioritizing hospitality in their home are givens, along with “the smaller [things]: Buy new eggs if you’re at the store, keep common areas neat,” Sallie says. Open communication and regular dinners or Netflix binges together have turned the five housemates into friends, no easy feat when personalities, viewpoints, interests and ages are all over the map — and one of the roommates holds the mortgage.
The four renters have formal month-to-month leases that they re-evaluate each year. “But throughout the year as things arise, it’s pretty informal,” says Sampson, 29, a lawyer in D.C.
One of those things that can arise is the issue of repairs. Typically, a landlord has to get a renter’s permission to enter the premises for projects and repairs, but what happens when the property is her premises, too?
“If anyone is going to be in the house working she always gives us a heads up and tells us what’s going on,” says St. Pierre, adding that project “outcomes have been so great since moving in” that all the housemates look forward to new work being done.
In fact, a live-in landlord doesn’t have more room to bend tenant law than a landlord who’s far away.
“The fact that the landlord lives there does not give the landlord more or fewer rights as the landlord,” says Joel Cohn, legislative director for D.C.’s Office of the Tenant Advocate. For example, an on-site landlord can’t evict current roommates just to get someone she likes better, and a “self-help eviction” — dumping a tenant’s stuff on the curb and changing the locks — is unlawful in the District. A landlord, even one who is also a housemate, can only evict for one of 10 reasons outlined in the Rental Housing Act of 1985, such as selling the property or discovering that a renter has engaged in illegal activity there.
In other words, you can’t evict someone for not replacing the toilet paper roll or bringing a boyfriend over all the time. “All sorts of issues that can be problematic for a tenant can be enhanced when the landlord is also there as a tenant,” Cohn says. “Not issues like washing dishes but issues like subletting.” His advice to tenants and landlords is to have a written lease and to include in it issues that are important to the tenant, such as the right to sublet his or her room (or not).
John Finton, 41, a paralegal in Old Town Alexandria, has taken the informal route with his landlord-roommate and has never had a written lease. It seems to be working out just fine — they have shared her Alexandria condo for more than 13 years.
“I think it works well because we knew each other before,” Finton says. Moving in with a friend, he says, shows you a different side of that person but may just make for smoother sailing because you generally know what to expect.
When Finton was looking for new digs after his old landlord didn’t maintain the Alexandria apartment he was renting, his current landlord offered him her spare room. The two had worked together years earlier and kept up as friends after moving on to other jobs. When he moved in, they “made an effort to talk about everything upfront and made verbal agreements,” Finton says. Their unwritten rule: If anything is going to change, give the other person as much notice as possible. Partly, he says, “so we can figure out who actually owns what.”
Finton also credits “the same sense of humor” and a willingness to give the benefit of the doubt when misunderstandings arise as two keys to his successful arrangement. “We do function more like family at this point.”
But even when communication is clear, boundaries are established, roommates share a sense of humor and personal space is respected, misunderstandings can arise. “After 13 years,” Finton says, “there’s still a fight about room in the medicine cabinet and shelves in the linen closet.”
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