Emilie Fairbanks, Esq.

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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. 


The New Late Fee Law in DC: What Landlords Need to Know 

On December 8, 2016 the "Rental Housing Late Fee Fairness Amendment Act of 2016" (D.C. Law 21-172) took effect. It's taken some time to figure out what the new law means for landlords in practice. But it added a number of rules for DC landlords about how, when, and how much in late fees you can charge your tenants. Here’s are the five things you need to know to avoid getting into trouble and to take advantage of any remaining rights you have to charge late fees. 

1) Late fees are limited to 5% of the rent. You therefore want to amend future leases to charge 5%. Not a fixed amount. You might think but if I just figure out what 5% is, isn't that just as good? No! When you later increase the rent and your tenant doesn't sign a new lease, which they aren't required to do in DC, you will be charging less than 5%. If your lease doesn't specific a late fee you can't charge it at all. The 5% law brings DC into line with Maryland law, which also caps late fees at 5%. 

2) Late fees can't be charged until after the 5th of the month. 

3) If the tenant has a subsidy or voucher you can only charge the late fee on their portion. So if they pay only $50 per month, you can only charge 5% of $50. However, the lease may specify they pay 5% of the rent, because their potion can change at any time. 

4) If your tenant fails to pay rent, they don't have to pay late fees to avoid eviction. Only rent anod court costs are part of the amount required to be paid to avoid eviction. This rule essentially means you either need to get a money judgment or go to small claims to collect late fees. This has also changed the way some court forms must be filled out and they will be rejected if not properly filled out, so be careful if you aren't sure what to do. It can cost you extra weeks in court and therefore extra months of lost rent if your forms are rejected. 

5) It is still worth charging late fees. Some landlords become so disgusted with the rules they give up even charging late fees. But having an incentive to pay on time in the lease is still important and the law could always change again. Having a 5% cap also stops judges who weren't allowing any late fees on money judgments and may make it worthwhile to get personal service when possible. 

If you have questions or need assistance with a DC landlord tenant matter please contact us to set up a consultation.  


Upstairs Downstairs? What's with the new DC Landlord Tenant courtroom?

If you've been to DC landlord and tenant court lately you may have noticed some changes. I talked about the changes a year ago in some detail in Changes Coming in 2016 but here I will focus on one big change and how is is working. The biggest change is the new fully functioning "upstairs" courtroom. This courtroom is now reserved for motions, status hearings, and a few other types of hearings. Trials and initial returns are still held downstairs in the courtroom across from the clerk's office. The idea is to make things run more smoothly and get people out of landlord tenant court faster. Does it work? Sometimes. If you have an initial hearing you could still be there several hours. Your tenant could go to the Resource Center or to talk to a law student. If you have a trial you should still expect to spend ALL DAY there. If you have a motion in the upstairs courtroom you may or may not do better. Motions still take time. Often the hearings drag on. Sometimes you will be out more quickly, sometimes not. If you and the opposing party are both there and both sign in on the sheet in the upstairs courtroom you stand a better chance of getting out quickly. But there are no guarantees. The less pressure you put on yourself to be done, the better your negotiating position. If you really have to leave the other side may use that to pressure you. So be ready for the long haul. 


Should I Sue for Nonpayment of Rent? 

DC landlords often contact me when they have a tenant who isn't paying rent. Sometimes the tenant hasn't paid rent in months or even years. Sometimes the tenant is making occasional partial payments. Often a landlord has heard rumors or read news stories about how hard it is to evict someone in DC. They don't want to spend more money and time on a process they could lose. Let's clear up some misconceptions by addressing some of my most frequently asked questions. 

1) Will a nonpayment case take forever? Is it even worth it? 

Nonpayment cases in DC take time. There is no getting around that. Some of them take a long time. DC Courts are sometimes inefficient and aren't running on the kind of budgets they need to serve our city. BUT let's look at the alternatives. If you don't sue for nonpayment the tenant continues not to pay you. It's just human nature. If you went to work and weren't paid and didn't bring it up week after week, year after year your employer might not notice or it might just fall to the bottom of the list. After all, if your money doesn't matter to you who else will care? There are steps you can take to minimize your risk in a nonpayment case, such as inspecting the property before you file and making sure everything is in working order, having a proper rental licence for the property, and maintaining or cleaning up your records of what is due. 

2) But I don't have a rental licence. Should I avoid filing? 

If you don't have a licence you still have the right to sue for nonpayment of rent. Talk to a lawyer who can help you decide the best course of action to get the licence or just file the suit. 

3) I don't have a lease with the tenant. 

That's ok. If you have established the amount of rent through emails or texts or the tenant paid the rent for a period of time and then stopped you will have the ability to prove the rent amount due. You don't have a basis for late fees. The important issue here is did this person EVER pay you? If not they might not be a tenant and you may have easier ways to evict them. Talk to an attorney about your options.  

4) I don't have the time to go to court/I live far away from DC. 

An attorney can go to landlord & tenant court for you on nine out of ten hearings. A property manager can handle rent collection for you going forward if that isn't what you want to do. Don't let a bad tenant take advantage of you because you are living far away.