Dear PoP – Tenant Rights

Photo by PoPville flickr user Mr. T in DC

“Dear PoP,

My DC apartment building has been sliding into deeper and deeper disrepair, yet rent continues to go up. My specific question is about access to water. My building cuts off the water to entire building at least once a month – but usually more than once a month. We get a notice posted outside the front door the day before this happens and we’re told to not expect water from 9:30am-4:30pm while some maintenance is being done. This is seriously inconvenient when you’re on an erratic schedule (like myself being a student about to defend my thesis) and you only know the night before that the water will be turned off the next day and you will now have to change your schedule around to shower, do laundry, and cook and clean.

What rights do I have as a tenant when my water is being turned off during the day with little notice and this is occurring more than once a month?”

I realize this might be better for legal question of the week but I already submitted one for this week. So has anyone dealt with a similar situation? If so how did you deal with it? Does it say anywhere in the lease how often utilities may be disrupted? Obviously in emergencies there is nothing that can be done but does shutting off the water once or more a month sound reasonable?

27 Comment

  • Are you on section 8 status or other rental programs?

  • It is common and legal in most cases because it is probably needed. They may simply be repiping the building slowly and need to shut the water off. However, there is an implied warranty of habitability. If you use that argument, you may be able to void the lease if you can show that you don’t have access to the necessary plumbing. A court, though, will likely think that once a month is not inconvenient.

  • Emergency is a word thrown around all too casually in DC. One only has to walk down any street and see a couple dozen illegally-posted “Emergency No Parking” signs to grasp that. IMHO, it doesn’t sound the least bit reasonable to have your water turned off once a month. If they are truly having to do “emergency repairs” every month, it’s due to neglect to fix the problem correctly in the first place. I would call the DCRA Housing Code Inspections division at (202) 442-9557 and report that your building is having major plumbing problems and request an inspection.

  • No legal rights are being violated. Many old buildings are not plumbed to be able to turn off the water to just the affected area (e.g., a unit that has a leaky pipe, is being renovated, etc., or when repairs to a central feature like a boiler need to take place), so the building has to turn the water off for everyone while the work is being completed. There is nothing much the building can do about it.

    You could move to a newer building that is plumbed differently, though, if you feel like that would make your life more convenient and easier. That is probably the best long term solution so you don’t spend any more time thinking about how others are causing you problems, when you should be focusing on your schooling. Or you could stay, so that if you defend your thesis poorly you have an excuse.

    • Defending my thesis poorly is not an option! And if it happens, I only have myself to blame. Now why I’m rolling into the lab wearing clothes that need to be washed, THAT I can blame on my building…

    • Ferchrissakes, U, it’s a legitimate question. No need to get nasty about it.

      • I agree with U. How privileged do you have to be that having lost access to water for a few hours once a month has you up in arms about how it’s going to ruin your life.

        • It is more than a few hours once a month. It has been happening every two weeks lately and with little notice beforehand.

          It is not an issue of being privileged – it is an issue of how often can a building turn off water before it infringes on your rights as a tenant? And how much notice do they have to give before they turn off water to an entire building? These are legitimate issues. Privilege has nothing to do with it. And for the record, I never said it was ruining my life. It is just an major inconvenience that is happening more and more frequently.

  • I lived in a building where we were all owners and our water got shut off a few times per month. The building was older (1920s)and had no water shut-off valves for each unit, so to fix any plumbing problem you had to shut off water for the entire building. We would ask plumbers to install shutoff valves when doing a major repair but there wasn’t any way to fix this issue for every single unit unless we charged everybody hundreds to have a plumber do this…and of course, the water would have to be shut down while installing all of these!

    So, yes it was inconvenient, but I doubt there is a way around it. Unless you want to be the person with a water leak that can’t get fixed because of some new rule prohibiting the water getting shut down…just deal with it.

  • This was my question. I’m just a normal renter. I’ve been in my building for close to 5 years now, so I’m month to month now. I realize that I can move, but the instability of my future job situation prevents me from signing a year lease anywhere else. Plus I love my apartment, but I’m really not happy with the recent issues with water. I would say it is even more than once a month – probably more like 1-3 times a month right now. It is really annoying and I feel like if we have to deal with this so frequently, we should at least be entitled to a rent credit.

    The appreciate the advice to call the DCRA Housing Code Inspections division. I think that is probably my best bet in terms of finding out if this is “normal” or not. I just wanted to get more feedback on how normal this is or is not and if anyone else has faced a similar issue.

    The building just switched over to a new manager for the building, and while it might be coincidental, once the new manager stepped in, the water has been turned off more and more frequently. It used to be maybe once a year, now it is more than once a month….

    I really appreciate the feedback/advice!

    • Have you considered just asking the building management why this is happening instead of calling DCRA? Do you really need intervention from PoP?

      The only reason to shut down the plumbing is to do a plumbing repair. It seems like a simple thing to just ask them why this is happening. Tell the manager you would like them to send a notice explaining the reason to tenants and at least try to get them to group plumbing work (doing several repairs at once) to minimize shutdowns to as few days as possible.

    • Talk to management – they are probably real people too, and not getting any jollies over causing tenants inconvenience. Sometimes just understanding the problem can go a long way to making you feel better about an unavoidable situation.

      If they know the building is in the process of ongoing plumbing repairs, ask if they can possibly give more notice -but even a one-day notice gives you time to fill up some jugs.

      • I agree with all this and I guess I should have said I was going to my manager to discuss this, but I’m pretty sure they will just say there is nothing that can be done about it. So I’m trying to figure out when the shutoffs pass over the line of my rights as a tenant. Maybe if I had some proof of this stepping over my rights as a tenant, I could negotiate more notice. Even an extra day’s notice would make this easier to deal with, but still not solve the situation. It is hard to plan your schedule when you come home at 11pm to find a notice telling you your water will be off the next day starting at 930am.

        The whole situation is just not right, in my opinion, regardless of what I can do to cope. Why is this happening more than once a month when it only happened 1-2 times a year last year?

  • Look—-if your building was built before 1985, then it is probably subject to rent control. That means that the owners cannot easily recoup the cost of replumbing the building to avoid the types of shut-off issues discussed in the posts above. Old buildings have old plumbing. Fixing old plumbing cost money. Tenants in rent controlled older buildings need to understand that the benefits they are receiving in terms of lower rents need to be accompanied by lower expectations in terms of building condition. I’m not talking about true slumlords—which are a different story. If you had water from leaky ceilings dripping into your unit, or mold on your walls, or lacked heat, and those things continued unabated, then those are all legitimate gripes to DCRA. But the building owner is probably trying to do these repairs, and shut off the water, at the time of day that impacts the fewest number of people in your building, i.e., during the 9 to 5 workday. Unfortunately, you have a student’s schedule so you are still impacted. The building owner cannot please all of the people all of the time and still get plumbing problems fixed in the building. Have you actually tried to talk to building management about this? You should do this before jumping to DCRA.

  • Hey groovy, you either love it or you don’t. You either stay there or you don’t. Why not just move instead of complaining? And for the record, your clothes were not unwashed b/c of your building.

    • I just want to know my rights as a tenant. When do water shutoffs become excessive enough to warrant rent credits or something similar? This is not a question of moving or not or my clothes being washed (and for the record – that was a joke – sorry that my sarcasm is not translating).

  • I would talk to your manager to let them know you’d appreciate being notified more in advance and ask if they can do that going forward. It sounds like the short notice is affecting you more than the actual water shut-offs.

    While this probably makes you very annoyed, I think 9:30am to 4:30pm is probably the best time they can do it that disturbs the least people. Unlike students, most people are at work during this time. Think of how inconvenient a 5:30pm to midnight shut off would be to those who only have a few hours each evening to cook and take care of their families.

    Unless this is happening for multiple days in a row, I have a hard time seeing why laundry can’t just be done another day. This is not a daily chore. If these occasional shut offs are seriously affecting your ability to go to school in clean clothes, perhaps you should invest in more pairs of underwear and t-shirts.

    As for showering and cleaning, you won’t die if you can’t do it for 8 hours, so try not to be too put out by that. Or shower as soon as you see a notice and then you won’t have to worry. Worst case scenario, try showering at your on-campus gym or something. Buy a pack of paper plates that you can use for these emergencies so you don’t have dirty dishes if that really bothers you.

    Cooking may be hard, but this is DC, so you have plenty of convenient food options around. If you can’t be running out to buy a sandwich, try stocking up on food that doesn’t require water to make, or get some of those filter pitchers that hold a lot of water anyway.

    I would think about what is worse – an apartment that actually cares enough to do maintenance, or one that never does it at all.

    • I agree talking to the manager is a good idea (although I’ve expressed concerns to other staff about this and they seemed to think it was just a normal occurrence – even though it never happened this frequently a year ago…).

      Yes, I can make all these concessions, and I agree with others that this is not an issue of major importance compared to those who have really horrible living conditions. BUT I do pay $1500/month for my apartment. Regardless of whether the building is old or what my schedule is like, I pay a considerable amount of money to live there and I think I should be able to have access to water during the day most days. I can understand the inevitable water shutoffs for basic maintenance, but this is more than that. I think something is seriously wrong with the plumbing in our building and the management is neglecting to fix it to save money, because, like I said, this did not happen a year ago.

      Of course I can make all the concessions that you mentioned (and I regularly do), but should I have to? What are my rights as a tenant in a building? That was the original question – not as to whether or not I can just shut up and “cope” or move out –

      • go to management and mention your implied warrant of habitability, like emil said. your sophistication will be noticed and management does not want to have to discuss that out in court. be polite about it though.

        • This is very good advice. This is exactly what I was needing. My building is owned by a bigger company that owns a lot of property, so I think I would need to mention something that shows I know my rights. And being polite is of course very important. I just know the company is dragging their feet about repairs to save money and I don’t think that is right. If they think they can get away with that, I know they’ll continue to do it. But hopefully if they realize tenants are taking notice and think it infringes on their rights as a tenant, it will help them decide to fix the plumbing sooner rather than later. I love my apartment and I really don’t want to cause any trouble, but I think the way they’re handling this situation is inappropriate.

          • I’m with you on this groovy… We’re shelling out all kinds of money to live in these apartments, so having the water shut off at least once a month is NOT okay in my book. Granted, your hours are different from the majority of folks, but I still don’t see this as acceptable. Major inconvenience, yes it is. I think you should get something in return for this issue, although I’m not sure what. In other words, I have no solution for you, but I just wanted to let you know that I totally agree with you!

  • Your rights as a tenant is that once your lease is up, all your complaining goes out the window. I have lived in numerous apts over the years. Never complained. Why? Because I was in control of where I lived.

    • Prince Of Petworth

      For the record I think this is a 100% legit question. If my water was stopped more than once a month I’d go nuts too.

      • +1. Commenters are being way too hard on groovyrooster. People – you would be annoyed too, and it IS unreasonable.

  • Groovyrooster – I’m also a student working from home and I’ve been experiencing the same problems. I am hoping that the management could at least email tenants the day before work takes place.

  • I think as long as they give you proper warning per the law (24 hours, I think) it’s hard to fight. I had the same problem in my previous apartment and looked into it. The sucky truth is that cut-offs for a few hours here and there, while incredibly annoying and inconvenient aren’t considered an unsanitary living condition. It has to be prolonged for consecutive days before anyone cares.

    Ditto about having to shut off water to the whole building to fix one repair. Depending on # of units and age, there are going to be a billion repairs. I currently live in a condo complex that is from the late 50’s. As people make repairs, they install individual shut-off valves as they go. Slowly but surely, the instances of total water shut off has died down over 7 years.

  • I live in an older building and have the same thing. (Same building maybe?!) That said the one time I was home (since I work 9-6) the problem was resolved by no later than noon. Can’t really see how much of an issue it is unless you are too lazy to shower by 9am.

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