Emilie Fairbanks, Esq.

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Licencing for DC Landlords

Small landlords in DC have, in theory, fewer requirements than large landlords for administrative and licencing procedures. If you’ve ever tried to get your single family home or basement apartment licensed as a legal rental in DC you know that’s an utterly ridiculous statement. The hellish nightmare you went through trying to obey DC law for your single rental unit likely felt like a Kafka novel or perhaps like you’d accidentally time traveled to a Soviet republic. 

If you had to deal with trying to get your rental to pass inspection for a tenant with a DC Housing voucher you likely already changed your name and moved to a country without an extradition treaty with the US. I’ll deal with that in another post. Not the extradition part. You need a different lawyer if you actually did that. Don’t do that. It was a joke. 

However it is entirely possible to become a legal, licensed, rent control exempt small landlord in DC. Even if you already have a tenant living in your unit. If you have a tenant living in the unit talk to a lawyer before you start this process. It can be more complex than a blog post can address. But it’s still entirely possible. And beneficial. Don’t hide out from it. You want to be a licensed landlord. Why? Ok for now trust me. I’ll address that in another post too. 

So what are the steps you need to take? First, you need a business license. You might be thinking well now is a good time to get that LLC set up so I can protect myself from liability. STOP! If you own the property in your personal name do not set up an LLC or any other entity unless you speak with a landlord tenant attorney first. The consequences could be giving up your right to be exempt from rent control. Whew. The good news is you can get your business license online in a matter of minutes. The bad news is the property still has to be inspected. So you won’t actually have the lien s finalized until DCRA comes and inspects your property. That can be good. You will know you are in compliance with the DC Housing code. But if you have any repairs to make now is the time. Let’s assume that gets done. 

If you have a single family home or a condo you don’t need a Certificate of Occupancy. If you have more than one unit, you do. So if you have a house with a basement apartment and you are rent both, you do. If you have a duplex you do. That is a separate process with DCRA. It’s pretty painless once you pass the inspection. Of course there is a charge. 

Now that you have those you can get the rent control exemption form. That is the part you really WANT to do. It’s the part that allows you to raise rent, give the tenant notices, and enforce your lease. But it has to be filed in person, so that’s annoying. 

If you need guidance with any part of this process or if you get struck in a loop of failing the inspection or any other part of filing this paperwork please contact us to arrange a consultation. 


New DC Eviction Procedures 

The US Marshals are radically changing the procedure for evictions in DC. They say the new procedures will begin this summer, but we don’t have a firm start date yet. But so far this is what we know. 


Tenants will be notified of their eviction date in advance. Instead of receiving a 75 day period during which they can be evicted, tenants will get the date their eviction is scheduled two weeks in advance, by mail and online. This will almost certainly create litigation over whether tenants received that two week notice properly. We will have to see how judges treat these claims, although usually claims that things weren’t received from the court or the Marshals are treated as less credible than if a tenant says they didn’t get notice from the landlord. The larger problem is that the Marshals have yet to address what happens when an eviction has to be rescheduled for weather. If the tenant again must receive two weeks notice the landlord could lose additional months of rent because of this requirement. On the other hand tenants have often gotten writs stayed on the day of the eviction because they claim they just need a couple more days and they had no idea they were about to be evicted. That claim becomes more difficult to make under these rules. 


Landlords will no longer be required to put tenants belongings out on the street. The locks can be changed and that is the only action the Marshals will consider an eviction. They are saying that this follows the procedure in other states. However, other states have laws about what landlords must do with the tenants belongings. Without other rules it’s unclear what the landlord’s responsibilities are. It’s possible tenants could sue over what happens to their belongings. Tenants advocacy groups have encouraged that landlords put items in storage. Some states have laws requiring storage for certain periods of time. But DC doesn’t. Without a law saying storage is required for a specific period of time and who needs to pay for storage the Marshals Office is creating a huge problem with no solution. The Marshals specifically aren’t saying landlords can’t put items out on the street but now if a landlord does so there could be liability if the items are stolen or destroyed. Unfortunately no one knows.


What Isn’t Changing

Everything you need to do to get a legal eviction isn’t changing. You still have to go to court, get a judgment, file all the same paperwork, and pay all the same fees. Locking your tenant out without legal process will still result in a wrongful eviction claim and a ton of trouble. 


Undoubtedly there will be plenty of people ready to hand out advice on what you “should” do under these new rules. The fact is no one really knows. Unless DC City Council decides to pass a law about what should happen to tenants belongings, it’s not clear. The circumstances of each case may be different but as we learn what judges find palatable that will guide what becomes the new acceptable process in DC. But that will take some time. Buckle up. It may be a rough summer. 


Magistrate Judges in DC Landlord Tenant Court

As of January 1, 2018 a couple types of DC landlord and tenant cases will be potentially heard in front of Magistrate Judges instead of Associate Judges. First, all cases before Housing Conditions Court will be heard by a Magistrate Judge. Second, cases in landlord and tenant court will be heard by a Magistrate Judge on Fridays.

So what, you might ask? A judge is a judge. Not exactly. To have your case heard before a Magistrate Judge all parties have to agree and sign a paper saying they agree. In Housing Conditions Court that’s no big deal. There is rarely any money at stake and the court is focused on finding solutions to problems between landlords and tenants, not punishing anyone. However, for eviction cases the potential for problems is serious. Eviction cases are taken very seriously by the Court of Appeals. Any appearance that there has been any irregularity could be a problem. It is much easier is question the authority of a Magistrate Judge. The Magistrate Judges are completely capable but they have less authority. So there is some risk with allowing your eviction case to go forward before a Magistrate Judge. It’s a hard choice and one that will likely be strategic and different in different cases. If we can help you sort out how to proceed with your case contact us.  


Nightmare DC Tenants 

Recently we discussed difficult tenants. I suggested some of those tenant behaviors could be fixed by changes in your behavior. Now let’s talk about an entirely different topic. Nightmare tenants. These tenants aren’t the tenants who just stop paying or call too much or don’t tell you about problems. These tenants are a DC speciality. They are professionals. They know the law. They are playing a game. And the law is on their side. These tenants want to go to court. They want to sue you and they fully expect to be sued by you. It’s a hobby for them. The good news is they are rare. Most bad tenants aren’t out to get you they are out to protect themselves. These tenants are indeed, out to get you. How will you know you have a nightmare tenant? 


  1.  They have been evicted before, or sued for eviction before, often on a regular basis. When they get sued they fight, countersue, and make eerily similar claims against many different landlords. This is why tenant screening is so important. Viewing someone’s court history can tell you so much. If they have been evicted before the situation might be something you are willing to overlook, perhaps it was twenty years ago and they have a clean rental history after that. But a pattern of evictions over time is different and troubling. 
  2. They are always the victim. Whatever the situation, you’ve wronged them, their prior landlord wronged them, their boss wronged them, you get the idea. This comes up if the rent isn’t paid or you need access for repairs. They are never available to let you in because of a series of unending disasters in their life, always caused by another. Or they can’t pay rent because of the horribly unfair actions of bosses, the government, creditors, etc. But this is where tenant screening comes in as well. Perhaps you found they recently lost a job and therefore don’t meet your income requirement but they assure you they will have another job soon. Do they  also come with a story about how the boss fired them for no reason at all? Do they have another story about their miserable divorce and their last landlord who didn’t return the security deposit? All of those things could be entirely true. But would you tell your sob story to a prospective landlord? The constant victim can’t help it. And they are a bad news tenant. Because you are about to be the next perpetrator in their story. 
  3. They ask for things and then get furious when you provide them. They complain about roaches. You send an exterminator. They are just enraged you didn’t accommodate their schedule to have the exterminator come after 7pm. So you pay extra and have them come between 7pm and 9pm. The tenant is even more furious they came so late and she had to wait. You can’t win. Each offense gets you texts, letters, or emails threatening legal action and explaining your crimes in great detail. If you ask what the tenant would like you to do you often get....crickets. Nothing. There is no solution because the anger was the goal. 


If you recognize this tenant you are probably feeling angry, desperate, and a little crazy. Maybe my discussion of tenant screening makes you want to throw your computer into the sea. Heck of a lot of good that advice does now! I get it. But you aren’t alone and there are strategies to move you forward. However, many of these tenants know the law. They didn’t get this far not knowing their rights. So you must act with caution. You cannot respond in kind or try to quickly fix your problem with advice you got on the internet. Each nightmare tenant situation is unique. Don’t hide from it. But contact a lawyer with expertise in DC landlord and tenant matters so you can get your life back sooner than later. This isn’t a DIY moment. On this blog I often suggest many steps you can take to handle your own landlord tenant problem. My goal is to empower you to solve easy problems on your own and come to us for the hard stuff. This is the hard stuff. So find a qualified attorney. If you want to consult with us contact our office to schedule a consultation. But consult with someone. 


Dealing With Difficult DC Tenants

So you think you might have a difficult tenant? Do any of the following sound familiar? Does the tenant call you, email you, or text you repeatedly to report maintenance problems but when you go to look won't let you in or there isn't anything wrong? Does the tenant pay the rent late or not at all some months and when you bring it up the tenant has numerous excuses, stories, and reasons for failing to pay, so you extend the deadline again? Does the tenant refuse to communicate at all and then when you come to see the property after assuming all is well for a long time you find maintenance problems that have caused damage and led to bigger issues? Maybe these problems make you crazy and you think this is the tenant from hell. I will share some tenant from hell stories another time, but in these cases, I regret to inform you that YOU, the landlord, are contributing to the problem. The good news is that means you can almost always be part of the solution. 


Let's take each type of problem tenant. 


1) The Clinger: this tenant calls at all hours, follows up with emails and texts, and maybe even calls DCRA to report problems that either aren't there or that they won't let you in to fix. Sometimes this tenant IS the tenant from hell and you have to tread carefully. But sometimes you are contributing to the problem. Landlord tenant relationships are just that, relationships. So, are you setting boundaries and expectations? Did you tell the tenant how you want to be contacted, what constitutes an emergency (a water leak, the ceiling caving in, a fire, etc.) and what doesn't (ants, loose carpet, shower dripping), and what the process is after a maintence issue is reported? For example, will you call or email to set a time to come inspect and then send a repair person? Will you just send a repair person? Will you give a choice of times or just schedule and notify the tenant of the time? Are you following that process? Lack of information and boundaries makes some people anxious. Provide those things and many of these problem tenants will calm down. Those that don't are high maintence tenants, a different kind of problem, and one that is much harder to deal with. They deserve their own article. 


2) The $$$ Problem: This tenant pays late or doesn't always pay. You might get a payment on the 22nd or you might get a double payment the next month. Or they might miss a month. But if you call, cajole, beg, plead, you might get your money. So you do. Repeatedly. If you don't no money is forthcoming. Despite that pesky lease that says rent is due on the first. Although you often are placated that they usually pay the late fee. Oh dear landlord I have bad news. You are enabling this tenant. You have become their mom, not their landlord. And until you break the cycle, you will have a part time (unpaid) job as their budget coach. Not very profitable. How do you break the cycle? Silence. Stop telling them the rent is due. Then if necessary you may have to take legal action. They are adults. The rent is due should be evident with that turning over of the calendar thing every month. The water company, their credit card, the student loan isn't sending them sad little emails saying oh I was wondering if you have the rent? Nope. So you have made yourself their least important bill. I know you are saying BUT THIS IS RENT. And? You have taught them the consequence to failing to pay is...nothing. 


I often hear two other protests, First. The tenant has money problems, medical problems, kids, dogs, lost their job, it's Christmas...you get the picture. I am paid to lack sympathy. But I remind you dear landlord YOU have kids, a house, a mortgage, medical bills, dogs, etc. A tenant with a history of paying on time and in full who has a sudden temporary crisis may well be a good tenant you want to help. NO PROBLEM. They are not a problem tenant. But create a system. When will they pay you? Can you forgive a month of rent to give them breathing room and then go back to normal? Another  not problem that falls into this category is the tenant who always pays on the sixteenth because they just have too may bills due on the first. If you can be the bill due on the sixteenth and it causes you no financial problems (really), change the lease. Great. Everyone is happy. But the tenant who is taking advantage of you often NEVER paid on time. They didn't start the lease well. They have a new excuse every month. I am not suggesting they are bad people. They can't afford your property. 


The second protest I hear is that landlord tenant law in DC is so tenant friendly there is no point to suing. I have covered Should You Sue for Nonpayment previously so I will just say this. Unpaid rent isn't like wine. It doesn't get better with age. Maybe you shouldn't have let this tenant in. Ok. Maybe you shouldn't have let the rent amount unpaid get so high. That is in the past. Time to deal with it. It won't get better if you don't. 


3) The Quiet Mess: Oh the tenant who doesn't tell you your property is falling apart. Doesn't that piss you off. Sadly, no matter what the lease says, unless they caused the damage, (and really even then) the only person you have to blame is you. Because DC law requires you inspect the property regularly. What does that mean? In my experience twice a year. You are required to check the heating system in the fall by law, so that's one. Add a spring inspection for any ice damage or bugs and you are set. You will know what's going on. If they don't let you in and your lease is written correctly you can potentially pursue them for eviction for that. Would you want to? Maybe. Not letting you in can be a sign something is wrong. Hoarding, unauthorized occupants, damage, and unauthorized pets are often founds when inspections are done. So provide notice and inspect your property. Don't wait to hear from the tenant. They don't care about your property like you do. It isn't their investment. 


The good news is these are all problems with relatively easy solutions. They may take time but they can be solved. If you need help or guidance contact us to schedule a consultation.