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Washington D.C. Landlord and Tenant Lawyer

July 24, 2013
Landlord Tenant Law

Landlord and tenant law in Washington D.C. provides tenants with some of the most friendly laws in the United States. A tenant with a competent lawyer may prevent the mightiest landlord from evicting him from his business or home. Naturally, a landlord in Washington D.C. may experience extreme difficulties in evicting a tenant who failed to pay rent without an excellent lawyer.

The D.C. Superior Court's Land Lord Tenant Branch requires patients, flexibility and active perseverance. The Nawash Law Office fully understands the benefits and difficulties of the Land Lord Tenant Court in Washington, D.C.

Attorney Kamal Nawash provides comprehensive legal services beyond what is offered by many other landlord and tenant lawyers. His broad range of services in landlord and tenant litigation includes such services as lease, contract and preventing the loss of a tenant's home or business.

Landlord and tenant laws in Washington D.C. are driven by both legislation and case law, with complicated rules and procedures. Litigation is complex and requires the skilled guidance of the Nawash Law Office. We welcome your visit. Please call us and reserve an appointment.

The tenant-landlord relationship is established by a contract, which gives both the tenant and the landlord certain rights and obligations. At minimum, the landlord is entitled to the timely payment of rent, and the tenant is entitled to safe, decent, and sanitary housing. Historically, the landlord has enjoyed the upper hand in this relationship, and has been better able to reap the benefit of this bargain. Additionally, the tenant is a consumer in a market whose behavior greatly impacts the availability, affordability, and quality of an essential commodity -- housing. That is why the District of Columbia has enacted laws to help the tenant benefit from his or her bargain with the landlord, and also to promote available, affordable, and quality rental housing in the District.

This Tenant Bill of Rights is not exhaustive, nor should it substitute for legal advice in the event of a dispute with your landlord. Rather, it is intended as a primer to empower you with knowledge of the basic rights of tenancy in the District. Except for rent control, all the rights below apply to each and every tenant in the District.

1. LEASE: A written lease is not required to establish a tenancy. If there is one, the landlord must provide you with a copy of the lease and all addendums. The landlord must also provide you with copies of certain District housing regulations, including those for Landlord & Tenant relations. Certain lease clauses are prohibited, including waiver of landlord liability for failing to properly maintain the property. The landlord may not change the terms of your lease without your agreement. After the initial lease term expires, you have the right to continue your tenancy month-to-month, on the same terms, indefinitely. (14 D.C.M.R. §§ 101, 106 & 300-399)

2. SECURITY DEPOSIT: The landlord must place your security deposit in an interest-bearing account. The landlord must post notices stating where the security deposit is held and the prevailing interest rate. Within 45 days after you vacate the apartment, the landlord must either return your security deposit with interest, or provide you with written notice that the security deposit will be used to defray legitimate expenses. The landlord must notify you of the date and time of the "move-out" inspection. (14 D.C.M.R. §§ 308-311)

3. DISCLOSURE OF INFORMATION: Upon receiving your application to lease an apartment, the landlord must disclose: (a) the applicable rent for the rental unit; (b) any pending petition that could affect the rent; (c) any surcharges on the rent and the date those surcharges expire; (d) the rent control or exempt status of the rental accommodation; (e)certain housing code violation reports; (f) the amount of any non-refundable application fee, security deposit, and interest rate; (g) any pending condo or coop conversion; and (h) ownership information in the registration form and the business license. The landlord must make this information accessible to you throughout your tenancy. Upon the tenant's request once per year, the landlord must also disclose the amount of, and the basis for, each rent increase for the prior 3 years. (D.C. Official Code § 42-3502.22)

4. RECEIPTS FOR RENTAL PAYMENTS: The landlord must provide you with a receipt for any money paid, except where the payment is made by personal check and is in full satisfaction of all amounts due. The receipt must state the purpose and the date of the payment, as well as the amount of any money that remains due. (14 D.C.M.R. § 306)

5. RENT CONTROL: Unless the unit is exempt from rent control, the landlord may not raise the rent: (a) unless owner and manager are properly licensed and registered; (b) unless the premises substantially complies with the housing code; (c) more frequently than once every 12 months; (d) by more than the Consumer Price Index (CPI) for an elderly or disabled tenant; (e) by more than the CPI + 2% for all other tenants. Any rent increase larger than (d) or (e) requires Rent Administrator approval of a landlord petition. You are entitled to receive a copy of, and you may challenge, any landlord rent increase petition. You may also challenge any rent increase implemented within the prior 3 years.

6. BUILDING CONDITIONS: The landlord must ensure that your unit and all common areas are safe and sanitary as of the first day of your tenancy. This is known as the "warranty of habitability," which is implicit in your lease and explicit in District regulations. The landlord must maintain your apartment and all common areas of the building in compliance with the housing code, including keeping the premises safe and secure and free of rodents and pests, keeping the structure and facilities of the building in good repair, and ensuring adequate heat, lighting, and ventilation. (14 D.C.M.R. §§ 301 & 400-999)

7. QUIET ENJOYMENT: The landlord may make any necessary repairs, but the landlord may not unreasonably interfere with your "quiet enjoyment" of the premises. This applies to construction projects and to any unwanted effort to try to get you to vacate your apartment. (D.C. Official Code § 42-3402.10)

8. DISCRIMINATION: The landlord may not discriminate against any tenant or prospective tenant who is in a protected class. Discriminatory acts include refusing to rent; renting on unfavorable terms, conditions, or privileges; creating a hostile living environment; and refusing to make reasonable accommodations to give a person an equal opportunity to use and enjoy the premises. Protected classes include race; age; disability; familial status; sexual orientation; victim of intra-family offense; source of income (including government subsidies); and about 10 other categories. (D.C. Official Code § 2-1401.01 et seq.)

9. RETALIATION: The landlord may not retaliate against you for exercising any right of tenancy. Retaliation includes unlawfully seeking to recover possession of your unit, increase the rent, decrease services, or increase your obligations. Retaliation also includes violating your privacy, harassing you, or refusing to honor your lease. (D.C. Official Code § 42-3505.02)

10. RIGHT TO ORGANIZE: The landlord may not interfere with the right of tenants to organize a tenant association, convene meetings, distribute literature, post information, and provide building access to an outside tenant organizer. (D.C. Official Code § 42-3505.06)

11. CONVERSION: The landlord may not convert the rental accommodation to a cooperative or condominium unless a majority of the tenants votes for the conversion in a tenant election certified by the District's Conversion and Sale Administrator. (D.C. Official Code § 42-3402.02)

12. SALE: Before selling the rental accommodation, the landlord must offer you and your fellow tenants the opportunity to purchase the accommodation. (D.C. Official Code § 42-3404.02)

13. RELOCATION ASSISTANCE: If you are displaced by a substantial renovation or rehabilitation, demolition, or the discontinuance of the housing use, you have the right to receive relocation assistance from your landlord. (D.C. Official Code § 42-3507)

14. EVICTION: The landlord may evict you only for one of ten specific reasons set forth in Title V of the Rental Housing Act of 1985. For example, you may not be evicted just because your lease term expires, or because the rental property has been foreclosed upon. Even if there is a valid basis to evict you, the landlord may not use "self-help" methods to do so, such as cutting off your utilities or changing the locks. Rather, the landlord must go through the judicial process. You must be given a written Notice to Vacate (except for non-payment of rent where you waived right to notice in your lease); an opportunity to cure the lease violation, if that is the basis for the action; and an opportunity to challenge the landlord's claims in court. Finally, any eviction must be pursuant to a court order, and must be scheduled and supervised by the U.S. Marshal Service. (D.C. Official Code § 42-3505.01)

D.C. landlord & tenant information

Under the Rental Housing Conversion and Sales Act (hereinafter the "Act"), [1] District of Columbia residential tenants have unusual rights.Unlike other jurisdictions, before an owner of a housing accommodation [2] may sell the accommodation, issue a notice of intent to recover possession, or issue a notice to vacate (for purposes of demolition or discontinuance of housing use), the owner of the accommodation must give the tenant the opportunity to purchase the accommodation. [3]

The tenant's rights can be somewhat confusing. We have outlined them in this article.

Offer of Sale

1. Prior to the sale of a housing accommodation, not subject to a vacancy exemption, [4] the owner must send, by first class mail, a copy of an "offer of sale" to each tenant and the Mayor of the District of Columbia. [5] At a minimum, the offer of sale must contain the selling price and the material terms of the sale as well as specific representations, including representations that certain information will be provided to the tenant, listed in D.C. Code Ann. § 45-1632. The price and terms of the offer must constitute a bona fide offer of sale. [6] An owner of an accommodation may not request, and a tenant may not grant a waiver of the right to receive an offer of sale. [7]

Written statement of interest

2. Upon receipt of the written offer of sale, the tenant shall have 30 days to provide a written statement of interest to purchase the property. The statement of interest must be provided to both the owner and the Mayor of the District of Columbia. If the tenant fails to provide a written statement of interest within the 30-day period, the tenant's rights under the offer of sale will be deemed to have expired. [8]

Negotiating a sales contract

3. Upon submission of the written statement of interest by the tenant, the tenant has a minimum of 60 days from the date of submission to negotiate a contract of sale. The negotiation period is extended by one day for every day the owner delays in furnishing the tenant with the information the owner represented would be provided in the offer of sale. [9] The Act also provides for an additional 60-day period from the date of contracting for the tenant to secure financing, with the possibility of an additional 30 days beyond that if the lending institution estimates in writing that a decision with respect to the financing will be made within 90 days after the date of contracting. The owner is obligated to provide the tenant with an extension of time consistent with the lender's written estimate. [10]

New offer of sale

4. If 180 days lapse from the date of a valid offer of sale and the owner has not sold or contracted for the sale of the accommodation, the owner must comply with the requirements of the Act again, beginning with the issuance of a new offer of sale to each tenant and the Mayor of the District of Columbia. [11]

Bargaining without good faith

5. If an owner contracts to sell the accommodation to a third party for a price that is more than 10% less than the price offered to the tenant or for other terms which would constitute bargaining without good faith, the owner shall issue a new offer of sale to the tenant and the Mayor of the District of Columbia. [12] The tenant must provide the owner and the Mayor of the District of Columbia with a written statement of interest to purchase the property within 30 days from the date the offer of sale was received. If the tenant fails to submit a statement of interest within the 30-day period, the tenant's rights under the offer of sale will be deemed to have expired. [13] On the other hand, if the tenant submits a written statement of interest within the proscribed time period, the owner must follow the statutory time periods summarized in Paragraph 3 of this memo.

Right of first refusal

6. In addition to the rights outlined above, the tenant also has the right of first refusal to match any third party contract accepted for the sale of the accommodation. The Act requires that the owner provide the tenant with a copy of the third party contract. Upon receipt of a copy of the third party contract, the tenant has 15 days to match the third party contract. If the tenant has already submitted a written statement of interest to purchase the property, however, the 15 day time period will come at the end of the statutory 60-day negotiation time period referred to in Paragraph 3 of this memo. If the statutory 60-day time period has expired, the tenant will still have 15 days from the date of receipt of the third party contract, to match the contract. In the event that the tenant provides the owner with a contract offer, matching the third party contract, the owner must comply with the statutory time periods summarized in Paragraph 3 of this memo.

As noted above, tenant rights in the District are strong. Be sure to document your efforts to comply with this law, which is referred to as the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act (TOPA). On closing day we (Federal Title & Escrow Company) will ask you to sign an affidavit that states you have fully complied with TOPA.

So what happens when the tenant does not want to purchase the property, all of the legal TOPA requirements have been fulfilled and the tenant does not want to leave the property.

One of the legal grounds for asking a tenant to leave is when you -- or the contract purchaser -- intends to personally live in the property. The tenant must be given 90 days notice (in both English and Spanish) and this notice should be accompanied by an affidavit from the potential purchaser affirming, under oath, that the use will be personal. A copy of the notice must be sent to Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs.

If at the end of the 90 day period the tenant has still not moved out, you have the right to file a lawsuit for possession in the Landlord-tenant branch of the Superior Court. The Court will generally be supportive of your position, so long as you have fully and faithfully complied with all of the legal requirements.

History of Landlord-Tenant Law in the District of Columbia

The District of Columbia is a jurisdiction where tenants have some due process and substantive rights in order to level the playing field in their landlord-tenant relationships. It was not always this way. In fact, it wasn't until the 1960's and 70's when a dedicated group of lawyers challenged the status quo and changed the system for the better. In several important areas of the law, their counter suits against landlords in the city resulted in a more balanced playing field when it comes to landlord-tenant cases. The areas affected by the work of the lawyers include the following:

§ Right to jury trial

§ Void lease if unit is in violation of the housing code

§ Retaliatory eviction actions (landlords sued tenant because they asserted their rights under the housing code) brought by landlords cannot be maintained.

§ Prospective rent can be paid into the court registry while a landlord-tenant case (the disputed rent) is being litigated by the court system;

§ Apartments where a tenant resides possess an implied warranty of habitability that the unit complies with the housing code when a tenant resides there.

The effect of these cases was dramatic. With respect to implied warranty of habitability, the principle has become revolutionary across the country as numerous jurisdictions have adopted the ideal and made it the law in their own court system in landlord-tenant cases. Retaliatory evictions also are forbidden in jurisdictions all across the country. Lawyers in the District of Columbia working at the Neighborhood Legal Services Program were most responsible for these changes locally and indirectly in other cities and states as well.

A summary of this radical rearrangement of judicial process in the District of Columbia is important to recall because even today tenants face these same issues.

The first important decisions to be rendered by the D.C. Court of Appeals in this area of law were the court decision in Brown v. Southall Realty Co. The decision was rendered on November 7, 1968. The case involved Lillie Brown, a tenant of Southall Realty, a District of Columbia realty company. Southall Realty Co. sued Ms. Brown for non-payment of rent. Ms. Brown resided in an apartment at 1340 Kenyon Street N.W. Washington D.C. Ms. Brown contended at the trial level that rent was not due to her landlord because the apartment contained significant housing code violations at the time the unit was leased. This according to Ms. Brown rendered the lease contract between the parties illegal.

The trial was held in the Court of General Sessions and as expected, judgment was entered against Ms. Brown. She was ordered to pay the rent owed. The Brown case addressed two important legal concepts. First, it determined whether a lease agreement between a landlord and a tenant is a contract; and second, Brown determined whether the existence of housing code violations in an apartment that was the subject of the agreement between the parties, rendered the lease agreement illegal. With respect to both legal concepts, the D.C. Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Lillie Brown:

Although appellant notes a number or errors, we consider the allegation that the trial court erred in failing to declare the lease agreement void as an illegal contract both meritorious and completely dispositive, and for this reason we reverse.

Due to the fact that at the time the lease was executed there were housing code violations in existence that rendered the unit "unsafe and unsanitary," and the fact that the landlord was aware of the violations, the contract was declared illegal.

"The lease contract was, therefore, entered into in violation of the Housing Regulations," the Court wrote, "requiring that they be safe and sanitary and that they be properly maintained." In other words, the law of the District of Columbia required rental units to maintain a certain level of habitability; in this instance, the landlord knowingly leased a unit that violated those laws yet leased the unit anyway.

Very importantly, the Brown decision by the Court was rooted in contract law. The Court held that '(t)he general rule is that an illegal contract, made in violation of the statutory prohibition designed for police or regulatory purposes, is void and confers no right upon the wrongdoer.'

Edwards v. Habib. was another critically important case in the development of housing law for tenants in the District of Columbia. Edwards solidified once and for all that a landlord could not retaliate against a tenant because the tenant reported housing code violations in a rental unit to the proper governmental authorities. It was an extremely important ruling in regards to the ability of tenants to assert their rights under the law. The tenant in Edwards was Yvonne Edwards. Ms Edwards, at the time of the lawsuit, was employed by the federal government at the Department of Commerce on salary so low that Ms. Edwards, the mother of three children, lived below the poverty level.

Using the U.S. Constitution as support for its opinion, the Court held that to allow a landlord to violate the law by using a threat of eviction against tenants who complained of housing code violations defeated the congressional intent innate in the city's housing code. In other words, Congress passed the housing code for use in the city so to allow landlords to circumvent the code by filing lawsuits against tenants who sought protection of that code rendered the code powerless. It was a no-brainer.

Javins v. First National Realty is probably the most well known of the important cases that changed landlord-tenant law in Washington D.C. and around the country. Javins fundamentally reworked the relationship between landlords and tenants in the District of Columbia. For decades, tenants had not been allowed to present any evidence that their apartments were leased to them or were being leased to them in violation of the housing code of the District of Columbia. Javins was the case that finally changed that relationship.

As the Court famously stated at the beginning of the case, "[t]hese cases present the question whether housing code violations which arise during the term of a lease have any effect upon the tenant's obligation to pay rent." While Javins discussed numerous important issues, the key legal concept that the court ultimately decided is now known as an implied warranty of habitability in rental housing. This principle would have the greatest impact on the landlord-tenant law than any other concept in the last 40 years. It, in effect, changed the way in which rental housing was defined. The famous decision in Javins was rendered on May 7, 1970. The decision reversed and held that "a warranty of habitability, measured by the standards set out in the Housing Regulations for the District of Columbia, is implied by operation of law." A "breach" of the "warranty gives rise to the usual remedies for breach of contract. Tenants, according to the decision, had an "interest" in the "land" below the apartment. is not as important as the tenant being most interested in the overall package of services from received as a result of the lease agreement. Landlord-tenant law had finally been modernized to demonstrate the reality of "American city dwellers, both rich and poor," seeking 'shelter' that included an important roster of "goods and services " that "includes not merely walls and ceilings, but also adequate heat, light and ventilation, serviceable plumbing facilities, secure windows and doors, proper sanitation, and proper maintenance." The decision was revolutionary in spirit. Feudal land systems were, at last, updated to represent the reality that the agricultural age was over and the industrial age was in effect.

Another case that transformed landlord-tenant law in the District of Columbia and around the country is known as Bell v. Tsintolas. The case created a procedure where tenants were required only to pay future rents into the court registry while a case was heard in the court system. The court concluded that "future rent be paid into the registry of the court as it becomes due during the pendency of the litigation" under its power of "equitable jurisdiction." The court ordered "prepayment" was "not favored and should be ordered only in limited circumstances…on motion of the landlord, and only after notice and opportunity for a hearing on such a motion." It was a life changing case for the poor who often sacrificed their chances to fight a case in court because of the previous procedure that did not allow tenants such flexibility.

Finally, Pernell v. Southall Realty, a key U.S. Supreme Court case, should be mentioned here as well. The case would establish once and for all that tenants had a right to a jury trial in the District of Columbia in landlord-tenant cases. A lawyer from the Neighborhood Legal Services Program, Norman Barnett, who is also a graduate of the Howard University School of Law, presented a straightforward argument again handled the case. His excellent brief stated:

The language of the Seventh Amendment shows, and decisions of this Court confirm, that the constitutional standard of trial by jury is basically historical and analytical: the right is preserved where the claim is a "legal claim" that would be tried by jury under English common law prevailing when the Seventh Amendment was adopted.

In the end, the U.S. Supreme Court voted 9-0 in favor of the petitioner, Dave Pernell. Justice Thurgood Marshall, a graduate of the Howard University School of Law wrote the opinion stating that the District of Columbia's court system "must preserve a right to a jury trial." Landlord-tenant courts, Justice Marshall wrote, are here to see that "justice is done before a man is evicted from his home."

Of course, change did not end in 1974 with the Pernell case. The public interest lawyers of the city continued to fight to equal justice in the landlord-tenant system every year and progress continues to be made. There have been so many significant victories in the landlord-tenant system, there are simply too many to note. The five biggest cases, as discussed above, are; Javins v. First National Realty; Pernell v. Southall Realty; Edwards v. Habib; and Bell v. Tsintolas. These cases form the crux of legal protections for tenants and guidance for landlords conducting business in the city.

Landlord-Tenant Case Law - The District of Columbia: Leading Cases

§ Brown v. Southall Realty 237 A2d 834 (D.C. App 1968) - Void Lease concept

§ Javins v. First National Realty 428 F.2d 1071 (C.A.D.C. 1970) - Implied warranty of habitability

§ Pernell v Southall Realty 416 U.S. 363, 365 (1974) - Right to trial by jury, landlord-tenant cases

§ Edwards v. Habib 397 F.2d 687 (C.A.D.C. 1968) - Retailiatory eviction

§ Bell v. Tsintolas 430 F2d 474 (C.A.D.C. 1970) - Rent escrow payments into court registry

§ Jonathan Woodner Co. v. Breeden 665 A.2d 929 (D.C App 1995) - Breach of contract, damages, punitive damages

§ Entrepreneur, Ltd. v. Yasuna 498 A.2d 1151 (D.C App. 1985

§ Mahdi v. Poretsky Management, Inc. 433 A.2d 1085 (D.C. App 1981)

§ McNeal v. Habib 346 A.2d 508 (D.C. App.1975)

§ Diamond Housing Corp. v. Robinson 257 A.2d 492 (D.C.App. 1969)

§ Edwards v. Habib 366 F.2d 628 (C.A.D.C. 1965)



For an experienced Landlord Tenant lawyer in Washington DC, call attorney Kamal Nawash at 202-776-7191

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