PoPville Discussion Sparks New Web Site from DCRA about Basement Rental Info

More Monroe Street Rowhouses
Photo by PoPville flickr user Mr. T in DC

Well this is rather cool. Last week’s legal question about basement apartments has sparked a new Web site from DCRA. It is called Rent Your DC Basement Apartment Legally. They say:

“Yesterday, the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) ending up in a huge conversation about the fears, misconceptions, challenges, issues and obstacles facing DC residents who are either considering renting their basement as a rental property, buying a home with a basement apartment they plan to rent, currently renting their basement apartment (legally and illegally) and other various scenarios. The District of Columbia is filled with basement apartments and entire generations of folks have at one point or another lived underneath other people.”

Check back here as they populate the Web site with helpful info.

10 Comment

  • When I was going through the legalization process, I had no one to to guide me. I’d make it more clear to people that the process breaks down like this:

    1) Spend a half day in the DCRA building
    2) Spend a half hour at DHCD
    3) Wait for inspection

    Simple, but this link really makes the process seem so much more convoluted than it is —


    People will opt out for no other reason than the process SEEMS strewn with red tape. This website would do well as a kind of “Two Family Rental For Dummies” reader.

  • I think this is an excellent idea, but I was simply underwhelmed by the amount of material. The material available from DCRA, including the checklists, is convoluted and overly technical for the average person looking to rent out his/her basement. What people want/need are not <> references to obscure codes, but real information, measurements, numbers, etc.

    How about telling us the minimum ceiling height… and the minimum height under a soffit/hvac chase? How about explaining egress issues.

    Is it sufficient to have a walk out basement AND an unlocked stairway to the main home? Or does a homeowner/potential landlord need to dig down and install a front door or egress window.

    DCRA is not as customer oriented/homeowner friendly as many other jurisdictions, but it is a more complicated area. This website is a great idea, but it needs to do more than just link to existing confusing documents to be really helpful. Great step in the right direction DCRA, let’s keep going!

    • Might I suggest you look to an architect? The building codes can be downright complicated, filled with exceptions to just about every rule. Not to mention the fact that new code editions are issued every three years AND DC has their own set of codes as well as zoning regulations. It’s not easy to give a prescriptive set of rules to follow – not all buildings are the same. Money would be well spent hiring an architect familiar with the process.

      • I disagree, sorry. Many, many jurisdictions do just what I suggested, which is put out a series of prescriptive guidelines. This isn’t meant to skirt the permit process or any type of licensing, but rather to give folks an idea of what to expect without paying/consulting an architect. I am not suggesting that DCRA provide proscriptive advice for everything, point in case, I hired an architect to design an addition, money very well spent. That said, can’t they provide simple guidance such as minimum ceiling height, description of egress requirements, placement of furnace, etc? Frankly, this doesn’t change on a case by case basis and these issues are not likely to change with new version of the code. I am not suggesting they provide full stamped plans for a basement apartment remodel, but rather a point of reference for homeowners/landlords as well as potential tenants.

        As a potential landlord, it might be nice to know that my 6′ ceilings are significantly below the minimum or that I need a front and back entrance. Also, as a renter, wouldn’t it be nice to know walking in what at least some of the minimum requirements are?

        • Sure, they can give “prospective advice” but you will only get part of the information you really want. For example, they could say ceiling heights need to be 7′-0″. But what about the four exceptions listed in the code? Would those exceptions preclude you from having a legal, habitable space? It depends… There’s an entire section on “Emergency Escape and Rescue Openings” as well as “Means of Egress.” There are exceptions in those sections too. Most “simple” questions at first have an answer that starts out with “Well, it depends…” All I am saying is that you won’t have the full story for your specific project with a list of “requirements.”

          However, even if they gave you the prescriptive advice you are asking for, your bigger problem is going to be the plan reviewers at DCRA. They are bordering on being incompetent and are on some weird power trip. As associate of mine has submitted a very simple basement conversion and has received comments that were not relevant to the project, asked for information clearly shown on the plans and cited the totally wrong building code. Even after a meeting with the client and all of the reviewers, the reviewers could still not even give straight answers to simple questions.

          Good times…

  • I appreciate the helpful info from Mike Rupert but still have some basic questions:

    – Do you need a Certificate of Occupancy for any rental (such as a whole rowhouse)? Or just a BBL?

    – What is the process if you are not in compliance? What if you need to make changes but the house is already rented out? (assuming these are not dangerous items, but needed to add an electrical outlet to a room or repair peeling paint)

  • COO’s are explained a little more here:

    Salient point for me: “Please note that single family homes, individual units in an apartment building and individual suites in an office building do not require Certificates of Occupancy.”

  • I’m all for living and working within the law, but I’m not sure we’re really making it easier to find residential shelter in this city by creating yet more reasons for not being a landlord in the District of Columbia.

    There was plenty of affordable housing all over this city attainable to all from university students to retired widows including in the best sections of Northwest before there was ever a Rental Accommodations Act and any rent control in this city.

    Much too much government is more responsible than anything else for the unavailability of good affordable housing in this city because the providers of the same are not welcome here.

    The Act as well as Home Rule has been a dismal failure to Washingtonians.

  • All homeowners have to have homeowners insurance. No insurance company wants to expose itself to the potential liability from a dangerous rental unit. If the govt. is really serious about insuring the safety of rental units, they should hand the responsibility of actual inspection over to the insurance companies and then simply require owner/landlords to provide proof of compliance in order to get a C of O.

    One form, one fax – done.

    DC residents have a very justified distrust of our govt. Yes, I know there are many hard-working honest people, but if even 20% are bad, whether due to incompetence, laziness, prejudice, dishonesty or outright malfeasance, that is too high a percentage to take a chance on.

    I appreciate this effort to provide some more accessible information, but as long as I know the effort to “get legal” has even a 20% chance of requiring multiple trips to Kafkaesque offices, volumes of paperwork, hours of my time and the high possibility of dealing with and/or having to bribe (I have been asked several times)dishonest (or just ordinarily dumb) govt. inspectors I will simply not do it.

    • Excellent idea, Outlaw landlord.

      This proactive, solution oriented, positive direction line of thinking will become increasingly popular.

      More of these innovative private sector solutions will become more favored and sought after once we all come to realize that the very expensive, very hard lesson we are going to experience when these current central planning public sector solutions fail in the next couple of years.

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