Knowing your rights as a renter (often referred to as tenant rights) helps protect you from housing discrimination or unfair practices like rent or fee gouging. It also helps ensure you always have a clean, safe place to live and that there's no confusion about which responsibilities are yours and which are your landlord's.
Every state's laws are a little different; read on for details about Washington D.C.'s.
While lease agreements tend to be pretty lengthy, we strongly recommend you get yourself a tasty beverage, find a comfortable chair, and read the lease -- at least three times. If this is your first time renting or the lease feels especially overwhelming, fear not. We’ll walk you through a couple of things to look out for.
As a renter, you’ve essentially agreed to pay a monthly rent to the owner of the house or apartment serving as your home. First and foremost, pay this rent! By signing a lease, you’re contractually obligated to submit this payment each and every month that you live at this home.
While rent is your number one responsibility, there may be other things that you need to take care of, depending on what you agree to in your rental agreement/lease. For example:
- Yardwork (Cutting the grass, trimming the trees, etc.)
- Renter Insurance
- Cable & Internet
- Snow Removal (if applicable)
Depending on how your lease reads, you may be expected to pay for or perform the work yourself. If you’re not comfortable doing so, try to negotiate in advance of signing a lease. (Some cities also required landlords to cover the cost of certain utilities so check your city or state website to confirm.) It’s okay if you’re not comfortable paying for or performing these responsibilities — try and negotiate with the landlord if possible. If you can’t come to an agreement on the terms of the lease agreement, shop around for a home and landlord that is willing to work with you.
Your landlord's responsibilities
Your landlord’s responsibilities begin when the lease is signed and continue until shortly after you move out. At a minimum, the landlord is responsible for providing you with an acceptable place to live (D.C. Municipal Regulations § 14-301). This means the rental unit must be, by legal standards, relatively clean and safe.
The landlord must also take care of things like trash and utilities (basically, everything mentioned above under “Renter Responsibilities”) unless they’ve been specifically outlined as your responsibility in the lease. If there’s no language in the rental agreement that specifically requires you, as the renter, to mow the grass outside your rental unit, it is safe to assume that your landlord will take care of it. If there’s any confusion about who is responsible for what, it’s a good idea to talk with your landlord before signing the lease.
A landlord has to be clear and transparent when it comes to rent and the contractual agreement of how much rent will be. Once it has been completed, they're not to change this amount unless first notifying you in written notification. If they don’t notify you, they’re performing an illegal action and may owe you compensation (D.C.Official Code §42-3501.01 et seq.).
Finally, a landlord is responsible for getting you and all proper information that may pertain to the rental unit. This includes such things as providing the renter with a written notice if the unit is being foreclosed on as soon as reasonably possible. This is to allow enough time for the renters to make proper accommodations and changes to their living situations (Pub. L. No. 111-22, § 702 (2009)).
Rental repairs and maintenance
Questions about rental repairs and maintenance are some of the most common. Here’s what you need to know:
- In general, most landlords want to keep their rental units in decent shape. The longer they delay repairs, the more it costs them in the future. That being said, not all landlords think this way.
- Landlords are generally allowed to enter your rental unit to make repairs, but they must give you notice ahead of time. You should never feel like you have to let them in if they show up announced.
- If the landlord needs the tenant to be involved in the repair process, the landlord must provide the means to the tenants without charging them, if that means hiring a plumber or electrician to take a look at the complication (D.C. Municipal Regulations § 14-301).
Who’s usually responsible?
Leak in the roof
Paint mistakenly splashed on the walls
Broken steps to front door
Lightbulbs burned out
Broken water heater
Power Outage due to loose wiring
Rental security deposits
In Washington, DC, a landlord isn’t allowed to impose a deposit amount prior to a rental agreement in excess of the equivalent to one months’ rent per dwelling unit. This doesn’t take into consideration the number of tenants that are moving in, and as such, should always remain consistent (14 District of Columbia Municipal Regulations §§ 308). (For alternatives to paying a full upfront security deposit, check out companies like Rhino and The Guarantors.)
Another important thing to keep in mind in Washington, DC in respect to security deposits: When to expect your money back after you move out. Assuming you leave your unit in decent shape and have not missed any rent payments, your landlord must return your security deposit within 45 days after you have moved out of the rental unit. (14 District of Columbia Municipal Regulations §§ 309)
Rental agreements: rent increases, payment, and fees
If you’re entering into a new rental situation, it’s very important to understand the financial side of your new living arrangement. While most people tend to base their decision on the rent amount, don’t be surprised if your landlord requires you to pay other fees. These include:
- Security deposit — Permitted, but only up to an amount equal to two months’ rent;
- Screening fee — state law is silent on this, so permitted if the landlord wishes to impose such fees;
- Late rent fees — a landlord can charge late fees on missed rent, but the amount cannot exceed 5% of one month of rent. In weekly rental situations, late fees cannot exceed $3.00 per week or $12.00 per month.;
- Cleaning fee — state law is silent on this, so permitted if the landlord wishes to impose such fees;
- Application/reservation fee — If your rental unit is in high demand, a landlord may require some form of down payment to hold it for you and to process your rental application. Any money you pay towards this must be applied towards your rent if you sign a lease, so it can’t exceed the total rent owed to the landlord.
- Rent increases — The general requirement is one month’s notice to increase the rent on renters and this is only permitted in between rent agreement terms.
- Pets — Check your lease before you get a pet. DC law doesn’t require landlords to accept pets, and if you don’t get permission in advance, it can be considered a violation of your lease and be cause for eviction. Additional pet rent or pet security deposit is not uncommon.
- Emotional support and service animals — If you have a mental or emotional disability, federal laws state landlords must make “reasonable accommodations,” which can include an emotional support or service animal. There are a few exceptions and this tends to be a pretty tricky area for both renters and landlords to navigate together, so be upfront about what you need and follow all required steps. Landlords cannot charge you extra for an emotional support or service animal.
Rent termination and eviction
Once you’ve moved into your rental unit, the place is yours until your lease is up, your landlord terminates the rental agreement early, or you’re evicted. Eviction is an unpleasant process for everyone, so it’s best for you and your landlord to do everything you can to avoid it. Being evicted makes it hard to find housing, can affect your credit, and does not relieve you from paying rent unless the landlord finds someone new to move in.
Your landlord can only evict you under certain circumstances. The most common reasons for eviction are missing rent or violating the lease (unauthorized pets or occupants — things like that). However, they can’t simply change the locks, dump your stuff on the front yard and kick you out. In order to legally evict you, a landlord must follow proper procedures and serve you an eviction notice before you are required to move out of your rental unit. The process includes:
- First, the landlord must provide you with a written statement that the contract has been broken.
- In most instances, they will allow you to remedy the infraction, and the contract can be continued as per usual.
- However, if the contract cannot be repaired, then the landlord reserves the right of repossession (D.C.OFFICIAL CODE.§ 42-3505.01(d)(Supp. 2008)).
- If the lease violation isn't fixed, the landlord can file for eviction,
- In the case of a successful eviction action by a landlord, you have 60 days from the filing of the warrant of eviction notice to remove yourself from the premises.
- And, if your landlord has legal grounds to evict you, they have to provide proper notice and give you sufficient time to move your stuff out. If you haven’t moved your stuff out after 45 days, they can dispose of anything you’ve left in the unit.
One of the largest reasons for a termination request from a tenant may be a domestic violence or sexual assault victim. In these situations, the termination of the lease can be done as long as a written notice is sent to the landlord. Once the notice has been received, the tenant has 14 days to vacate the premises and is only responsible for rent for the 14 days following the notice of termination (DC Law § 42–3505.07).
Renting with roommates
Sometimes your roommate situation just doesn’t work out. Unfortunately, you’re both responsible for the lease, and in many ways, you’re both responsible for each other’s actions. Depending on how your rental agreement is written, if your roommate bails, you could be stuck having to pay the full rent on your own. While you can use legal action to go after your former roommate, you may still have to pay full rent when it’s due.
One of the most common questions that comes up when there’s a problem with a roommate is whether you can evict them. In short: no. If your roommate’s name is on the lease as a tenant, you cannot kick them out, so sending an eviction notice would be pointless. If they are not on the lease, they may not be considered a tenant, which technically means they don’t have any legal obligations to fulfill in regards to your lease anyway.
Rental housing discrimination
Thanks to Fair Housing laws in Washington, DC, you’re protected from discrimination when applying for a rental (D.C. Code §§ 2-1402.2, 42 U.S.C. 3601). This means that the landlord or property manager can’t base their decision any of the following:
- National Origin
- Gender Identity
- Marital Status
- Sexual Orientation
- Presence of Children
- Military/Veteran Status
Despite these protections, some people find a way to use a negative background check or a credit report as cover for discrimination. If you feel like any of the above factors were actually the reason why you were denied a place, you may want to talk with an attorney.
The United States Supreme Court inactivated the Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) eviction moratorium on August 26, 2021. However, tenants who live in multifamily properties with government-backed mortgages through Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae may continue to receive modest protection from evictions and certain types of late fees.
Visit the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to learn more.
Some states, counties, and cities continue to offer eviction bans and rent and utility assistance. Visit our Covid-19 Renters rights page to find out what programs might be available where you live.
The Trump administration recently announced a new executive order for a rent moratorium through the end of the 2020 year. The order was put forward by the Centers for Disease Control to help prevent Covid-19 spread. Under the updated directive, families must prove they tried to pay their rent and that eviction would force them into a shelter or close quarters with others. If this covers you, then you’ll need to attest to your situation and a substantial loss of income on a form. Forms are to come available via the CDC website.
The order does not waive any rent debt — it just defers it — still leaving many renters vulnerable. And, it still allows landlords to charge fees, penalties, and interest, according to the draft document posted on September 1st.
The executive order covers more renters than the former CARES Act moratorium which only protected those living in housing with a federally backed mortgage loan, public housing, Section 202 housing for the elderly, Section 811 housing for people with disabilities, rural rental housing, Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher, USDA housing voucher, or VA voucher. That Act protection expired on July 25, 2020.
The executive order covers more renters than the former CARES Act federal moratorium on evictions which only protected those living in housing with a federally backed mortgage loans, public housing, Section 202 housing for the elderly, Section 811 housing for people with disabilities, rural rental housing, Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher, USDA housing voucher, or VA voucher. That Act protection expired on July 25, 2020.
Stay tuned... Congress is currently working on a bill called the CARES Act 2, which could afford more protection for renters if passed.
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If you need some more information, check out some of the resources listed below:
If you need some more information, check out some of the resources listed below:
- Washington DC law help
- DC housing resources
- DC Department of Housing and Community Development
- DC Tenant's Rights Center
- Fair Housing Resources
State rules and regulations
- Landlord and Tenant: D.C. Municipal Regulations § 14-301
- Rent Stablization: D.C.Official Code §42-3501.01 et seq.
- Foreclosure Protection: Pub. L. No. 111-22, § 702 (2009)
- Security Deposits: 14 District of Columbia Municipal Regulations §§ 308
- Repayment of Security Deposits: 14 District of Columbia Municipal Regulations §§ 308
- Evictions: D.C.OFFICIAL CODE.§ 42-3505.01(d)(Supp. 2008)
- Fair Housing: D.C. Code §§ 2-1402.2
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You probably already know that we’re not a law firm, but just to make sure we get this out of the way: We can’t provide any advice or opinions about possible legal rights, remedies, defenses, options, selection of forms, or strategies. And by hanging out with us here at Roost, you agree to our Legal disclaimer.