Washington, D.C., Landlord Tenant Laws

Rules regarding landlord-tenant relationships are governed by a collection of different state statutes in the Washington, D.C. area. One unique quality of Washington, D.C. law that both landlords and tenants need to be aware of is that the local government draws a distinction between dwellings classified as rooming houses, boarding houses, apartments, and houses that are specifically used as profit-making rental properties. There are separate statutes for each of these types of dwellings that have some differences in their terms, which is something that many other states do not do.

Another unique quality of Washington, D.C. law is that while there is a local mayor and city council, Congress actually has the final authority over city law and has the ability to directly overturn these local laws. There is thus an element of direct federal control over Washington, D.C. law that is not present in other states. The “home rule” prevents Congress from implementing new statutes in the city, but Congress is free to overturn them at any time and can also remove elected officials from their positions.

What Laws Cover Landlord-Tenant Relationships in the Washington, D.C.?

Washington, D.C. Municipal Regulations 14 is the primary document that landlords and tenants will want to familiarize themselves with. Sec. 300 to 311 covers general landlord/tenant relationships and rules. Sec. 1000 to 1099 covers the rules for rooming houses, Sec. 1100 to 1199 covers the rules for boarding houses, and Sec. 1200 to 1299 covers the rules for apartments. While identifying an apartment or a rental house is fairly self-evident, what exactly makes a dwelling a rooming or boarding house? Under the city statutes, both a rooming and boarding house have at least five tenants who sleep on the premises and to whom some sort of meals are served. However, it is considered a rooming house if the occupants are  not members of the immediate family of the owner and do not have exclusive control of their accommodations. Otherwise it is a boarding house. The licensing process for both is virtually identical, however.

Some sections of Washington, D.C. Code 11 to 16 and 42 are also relevant to landlords and tenants. 42-3201 to 42-3610 covers real property and rental housing, while 11-1301 to 11-1323 and 16-3901 to 16-3910 cover small claims and conciliation. Unlike many states, a business license is required to operate any kind of rental housing in Washington DC. The licensing process varies slightly depending on what type of housing the rental unit is. The local government also charges the landlord a small fee for each rental unit they operate.

Security Deposit Rules

Regs. 14 308-311 govern security deposits in the Washington, D.C. Landlords may only ask the equivalent of one month’s rent for a security deposit. The landlord must place the security deposit in an interest-bearing account within 30 days of receiving it, but they are only required to pay out interest to the tenant if they stay in the dwelling for 12 months or more. The interest must be paid once every six months, and at the end of each year the landlord must also disclose where the deposit is currently being held and what the prevailing interest rate was for each six-month period that interest is owed in.

There are no statutes regarding pet deposits, advance notice of deposit withholding or record keeping of deposit withholding. Landlords are required to provide a receipt for all payments to them by tenants, however, including any and all deposits. The one exception is if the payment is made with a personal check that specifically notes the date and the purpose of the payment; in this case the canceled check serves as the receipt under Regs. 14 306.

If a landlord violates these regulations, the tenant is entitled to the full return of the deposit plus any interest earned, and the landlord can be fined up to $5000 for each incident. Landlords may also not ask a deposit of tenants who have occupied their current unit since July 17, 1985 or prior.

Lease, Rent and Fee Rules

There is no statute establishing a default due date for rent in the Washington, D.C., nor are there statutes on late fees, returned check fees, prepaid rent or a rental grace period. If a landlord wishes to increase the rent, however, they must first file notice with the Rental Accommodations and Conversion Division as stipulated by Code 42.

Tenants may repair and deduct rent only for the installation and maintenance of smoke alarms. There is no statute on withholding rent for failure to provide essential utilities. Landlords may recover court and attorney fees, and there is no statute about making an attempt to mitigate damages.

If a tenant agrees to move out at the end of a lease, then refuses to quit the property when they are supposed to, the landlord is entitled to collect double rent from them for the rest of the time that they remain in the unit.

Notice and Entry Rules

Both lease terminations by the tenant and notices of eviction by the landlord generally require 30 days notice in the Washington, D.C., as explained in Code 42 and Regs. 14 310. If the landlord is moving to evict the tenant, the tenant has 30 days to remedy the situation by either paying the owed rent or rectifying the lease violation. Landlords do have the right to terminate the lease immediately if there is evidence that the tenant has engaged in illegal activity within the dwelling, however.

There are no statutes on notice prior to entry, lockouts or utility shutoffs. However, a state Supreme Court case (Simpson vs Lee) has set precedent that lockouts are not allowed, but utility shutoffs may be allowed under certain circumstances.

Required Disclosures and Notes

Regs. 14 300-308 and Code 42 cover the majority of required disclosures. Landlords are required to provide the tenant with a copy of anything the tenant has signed, including the lease, within seven days of their signing it. The landlord must also provide the tenant with a copy of Chapter 3: Landlord and Tenant Laws from Regs. 14 at the outset of each tenancy. The landlord must also clearly disclose what each payment and deposit is for and the terms under which the payment was made in writing.

The Washington, D.C. has some legal protections for tenants who are victims of domestic violence. Landlords may request verification of this status, and once it is provided the tenant can give 14 days notice to break any lease provided it is within 90 days of a domestic violence incident. Landlords must also change the locks if requested by the tenant, who then has 45 days to reimburse the landlord for the cost of the new locks.

Retaliation by landlords for tenant complaints is illegal under Washington, D.C. law. Retaliation is assumed if the landlord raises the rent, terminates a lease, reduces services or refuses to renew a lease within six  months after the tenant asserts their rights to the landlord, makes a complaint with a government agency or gets involved with a tenant’s organization, according to Code 42.

Small Claims Courts

The small claims limit in Washington, D.C. is $5,000. Eviction cases are not heard in small claims court. Landlords and tenants can file a small claims case by filling out Statement of Claims and Information Sheet forms at the Small Claims Clerk’s Office.

Washington, D.C. Realtor Associations

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