We are all aware that our city faces disheartening gentrification, and that many are priced out of their neighborhoods day in and day out. It is discouraging and ever more evident that so many regulations tip the scale towards higher end landlords and developers, putting their interests before tenants’. For exactly this reason though, tenants need to be aware of the rights and legal protections that they do have, especially in DC where in some ways these are more extensive than in many other places. Here are a few of your basic rights as a DC tenant.
Tenants have the right to organize.
In DC, tenants’ right to organize is protected under the law. This means that tenants cannot be stopped from meeting and discussing issues regarding their building and community, with or without any representative from management being present. Tenants can also distribute flyers and other literature on unit doors, as well as invite tenant organizers or other technical assistance providers into the building.
Tenants have the right to be heard in court before an eviction can occur.
While the anecdotes are often true about tenants coming home to find their landlord has changed the locks to their apartment, this scenario is actually completely illegal. You can only be put out through the eviction process, which means a landlord first needs to give the tenant summons with a date to appear in court. The most important thing to remember about this is to make sure you go to court and answer when your name is called. Once your case has been heard, a writ needs to be issued by the court before an eviction can occur. Only the US Marshals can legally put someone out during a 3 to 75 day window after a writ of eviction has been issued. Even when the Marshals are at your door, if you can pay the total amount you owe in full the eviction legally cannot proceed. If you are evicted by anyone other than the US Marshals do not hesitate to call the police and seek out legal help.
Tenants do not have to sign a new lease.
This is a protection that tenants have specifically in DC. Even if your building is sold or foreclosed on, you are still bound by your original lease until and unless you decide to sign another. This is important, because it means that you cannot be forced into any terms that weren’t in place when you moved in. This also highlights that you should always ask for a copy and take your time to read any document you’re asked to sign, and seek out clarification with any part you don’t understand. The only changes to the terms of your tenancy should be the amount of rent that you pay. This can go up, but usually only once a year by rent-controlled, or government-limited, increases.
A landlord needs a legally valid reason to terminate someone’s tenancy. The sale or purchase of the building is not a valid reason.
Sadly, tenants will often leave their homes of 10, 20, or 50 years if asked to move when their landlord sells the building. Under DC law there are very specific and fairly few reasons that a tenant can be evicted other than violating lease clauses or not paying rent. For example, tenants from a single unit can be evicted if the landlord decides to make the apartment their primary residence (not a second home or a place for their friends or family). Tenants can also be given a six month notice to vacate if the building will no longer be used at all for residential purposes. But the sale or foreclosure of a property is not a valid reason for eviction. When a landlord buys or sells a property in DC, they do so with all tenants in place. Tenants in DC are also afforded the first right to buy their property when it is for sale, or can assign this right to any interested party that they choose.
Your building cannot be flipped into condos right out from under you.
Before the owner of a rental property may proceed to convert a building into condos, there must be a vote of all tenants that live at the property. If the majority of the tenants do not want the conversion to occur, units cannot be turned condo and the building stays rental. A landlord may offer buyouts for tenants to vacate the building and avoid having a vote, but no tenant is under any kind of obligation to accept, sign any agreement, or leave.
Tenants have the right to a safe, habitable home that meets Housing Code.
While this right sometimes gets into legal grey areas, tenants do have the undisputed right to the peaceful enjoyment of a safe, habitable home. Part of what this means is that problems considered to be housing code violations (leaky pipes or windows, water or heat that doesn’t rise past a certain temperature, and pests, to list just a few) legally have to be fixed by the landlord. There are many resources available and steps you can take towards getting these issues addressed. You should first contact your provided maintenance line to generate a work order number that tracks the problem. Make sure you have documentation of the conditions through photos, emails, or letters, and take note of each time that you have reported the issues. You can then also call for a city inspection with the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, file a case in housing conditions court, or reach out to agencies in the city that offer tenants free counseling or legal services. Remember that any action taken against you by your housing provider in retaliation for pursuing your tenant rights is illegal and absolutely unacceptable. Take steps to get support to help you better understand and exercise your rights.