Dear PoP – Landlord Not Legally Registered, What Next?

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“Dear PoP,

We’ve had a pile of small interactions with our landlord that have added up to a major headache for our basement unit, so I took the advice from the last Griffin&Murphy column featured and checked with the Department of Housing and Community Development Rental Accommodations Division to see if my landlord is properly registered with the city (he’s not).

What’s the process that happens after you report a landlord who is renting illegally to the city? My house is zoned incorrectly, my landlord doesn’t have a Basic Business License, and I’m assuming he hasn’t been paying any taxes from rental income to the city this entire time. I don’t want to move out, or force my roommates to, but I do want my landlord to realize he doesn’t have authority to treat us disrespectfully or ignore our issues with the unit. I’d like to flex what muscle we have and I don’t think it’s fair that some home owners go through tremendous amounts of work to get their units up to code and approved by the DCRA while others simply ignore the law.”

Unfortunately the legal column has gone on hiatus due to time constraints but in the past readers have often been helpful providing advice as well. Does anyone know what next steps should be taken by the reader?

46 Comment

  • the asker can always contact the Office of the Tenant Advocate ( for information. There’s also a Landlord-Tenant Resource Center in landlord-tenant court. It’s geared more to helping people with litigation.

  • seriously be careful with this because you don’t want to get in trouble for blackmail. whenever you say “i’ll report you IF” i don’t think that sounds good. i say you and your friends find a new place, move out, and report the landlord. that is really the only clear-cut, no stress, totally legal, morally good way out of this. and i think it makes a lot sense in this situation.

    • Totally agree with this… Just move out and report the landlord. Save yourself unwanted headaches.

      Also – where did OP look up if the landlord is legal or not? I couldn’t find it on the DHCA site.

      captcha = becopery Marion
      ahahaha. love it.

        • Thanks for the link!

          Just found out that I have apparently never rented a legal apartment in DC, even from a land lord who seemed so up to speed in terms of giving us a solid lease and a copy of some relevant tenant laws.

          Just exactly how widespread is the whole illegal apartment thing in this city?

          • I saw some comment somewhere that most rentals in DC are not in compliance. There was some obscenely low number like I would say in the hundreds.

          • I think it’s the BBL (Basic Business License) that’s the most important thing to look at, in terms of this database.

            I looked up my own apartment, and it lists the following “conditions”:


            …which is BS, because I know for a fact that my landlord followed every regulation to a T. So I don’t think this portion of the query is to be trusted. It seems to me that the most accurate info comes from the BBL section of the query (because theoretically, if the unit was not habitable according to code, the BBL wouldn’t have been issued in the first place).

        • Gordon,

          You are reading from the link of definitions of the holds, not any particular holds on the property.

    • If you decide to report your landlord you better not mention that fact to your new prospective landlords.

      Most rentals in this city are not legal. Unless it’s a multi-unit building, meeting codes is can be prohibitively expensive for most small-time landlords.

      The avaiability of many reasonably priced basement units and single-family homes is a direct result of this fact.

      So you can either pay $2400 a month at a fully-code-compliant 1 or 2 BR unit, like new construction around Coluimbia Heights, and feel good about being in a legal rental.

      Or you can rent a non-legal basement or single-family home for probably 1/4 to 1/2 the price per square foot. It will probably have more problems, and you may or may not have a good landlord, but that’s the tradeoff.

      Seriously, I would use the threat of legal action (or actual legal action) as a very last resort. And I really fail to see how that would help your situation – you’ll be moving out either way, right? So it’s really just retaliatory. If that makes you feel better, go for it, but you won’t end up any better off or with a better night’s sleep for it.

  • Re-read your post. Readers here of course have no idea of the actual situation. We can not pick up any nuances you may have intended, so you sound like someone – well, let’s just say someone no one would ever want to deal with in any way – like the annoying tattletale aspiring line-monitor in kindergarten.

    We have no idea what “small interactions” caused a “major headache” enough to have you “not want to move out.” You want to “flex your muscle,” and are vaguely offended over “disrespect” and the idea that “fairness” as you perceive it is not happening.

    If it is bad – move out and then if you feel it is a dangerous situation report it – after you move out.

    • And YOU sound like someone who has never had to deal with a jerk landlord before. They’re not all sunshine and roses, dear.
      Sometimes you just want to get stuff fixed. And moving is a PITA.

    • And you sound like an angry jerk. Presumably this site is, among other things, a place where we can help one another, and not one where people post useless, hostile vilifications of someone in a bad situation asking for advice.

      • Prince Of Petworth

        I suspect that comment from Zoned incorrectly! may be coming from an illegal landlord…

      • Wow – I don’t know how pointing out to the OP that their specific language and lack of information hurts their case – is “hostile vilification.” I actually considered it good advice. Make your case clear – don’t sound like a brat – is always good advice.

        Are they complaining about persistent flooding or slightly soggy mailbox after a big thunderstorms? Rat infestation or two cockroaches a month? Constant freezing drafts due to lack of insulation or a bit of draft under the door during blizzards? No way to know from the post!

        Are you an abused tenant or a whiny pain in the ass? No way to know from the post. That’s why I quoted their exact phrases and explained the failures of nuance on this medium.

        But for the record – I’ve been an “illegal” landlord for 20+ years, offering clean affordable apts. to a variety of tenants (Section 8 families, Non-profit NGO’ers, Junkie theater lighting designers, underage transsexual Native American go go dancers.) I respond immediately to the smallest problems and could really kind of use the $15,000.00 or more in uncollected rent I’ve lost over the years.

        I would be, and could easily be, legal in a heartbeat if I knew dealing with the city would be a logical, sane process but we all know it’s not.

        I know PoP posters are strangely antagonistic toward landlords in general, but this is just sad and ignorant.

        • I call BS. Before paying on a section 8 voucher, the DC Housing Authority inspects a property. If you’re not licensed, I don’t think you’d pass inspection.

          And assuming I’m wrong and they don’t check that, if you pass inspection, why would it be anything but “a logical, sane process” to get a license for your property?

          • I can only tell you how section 8 worked from around 1990 – to mid-2000’s when I got out. Perhaps – hopefully – it has changed. At that time the voucher was given to the individual who then had to find a place that would accept it. Section 8 never inspected the properties and never vetted the clients. They did guarantee a portion of the rent, but if the client became ineligible for the program – for a variety of non-compliance issues – they were dropped, and the subsidy voucher was stopped with only one month notice to the landlord.

            The client however was now still in the apt. and now responsible for the entire rent. She of course didn’t pay and it was entirely my responsibility to evict her. It took one year. No rent for one year.

            I had one tenant who’s apt. flooded from a burst pipe in the apt. above. Called me at 11 p.m. on Sat. night (though the pipe had broken on Friday.) I was there with carpet machines at 9 a.m. Sunday and she screamed at me for waking her up and then called the police. Yes – the police. (To her credit, she has called me now and then over the years since then to apologize and thank me for being so good to her.)

            When Mike Rupert will guarantee me that I can obtain a BBL with no office visit – just one mail-in or online form of fewer than 5 pages I will gladly apply and happily pay.

            When he guarantees me an inspector who knows what he is doing can be scheduled in one phone call, email request or letter and will show up on time for one appointed inspection, I will be thrilled to obtain my CO.

            Better yet – when they turn the job of inspection over to trained independent inspectors hired by homeowner’s insurance companies (who have the most vested interest in having safe, legal rentals) I will bake them a damn cake besides.

            But I believe a government that abdicates it’s responsibility to serve the people in a sane, logical, swift, clear and competent way nullifies the very laws it claims to enforce.

          • that might happen in another city but not DC.

    • Have you never had a bad landlord. I have and I spent countless hours trying to get him to fix problems. I couldn’t move because I couldn’t afford to and I couldn’t afford to lose my security deposit. Most people can not afford to fork over rent and security deposit and lose their current security deposit. At least not with out saving for a few month. And while you’re saving up to move out you are living in a bad situation.

  • Wow that’s great – you can see the sale price of the apartment as well… thanks!

  • just fyi, i wouldn’t count on DC’s record keeping to be completely accurate. i’ve had to fight with them for a couple of years just to get the previous owner’s name off of my property tax bill. don’t assume the info on these sites is 100% accurate.

  • Additionally, just because they have no business license, you cannot automatically assume they don’t report the rental income. Typically your DC tax return is based on the Federal IRS form, and not getting a license is a whole different thing than playing games with the IRS and department of taxation.

  • Echo what J said – Don’t assume the records you pull up online are accurate.
    If they are, the two “muscle flexing” options that I can see are:
    1) Threaten to report the landlord if your “issues” are not resolved (which, as some have pointed out, could be problemmatic for you); or
    2) Withhold rent (in whole or in part) until your “issues” are resolved.
    The non muscle-flexing option is to break the lease and move out.

    By the way, and this is a general question, I find it interesting how renters seem to only educate themselves about verifying that a landlord is registered with the city after they have signed a lease. At least that seems to be the pattern of those who bring rental issues to this forum.
    Why doesn’t anyone think to verify this beforehand?

  • If the goal is to have the landlord fix the problems with the apt, then you can set up an escrow account where you deposit rent until they fix the problems. I wouldn’t bring up the issue of the lack of CoO/BBL to them, but it will come up should you end up in court, and it should help tip the outcome in your favor.

    • I tried to set up an escrow account in the past for non real estate related reasons, but didn’t have any luck. Is this something a retail bank can handle?

      I will say, by the time you’ve gone to the step of paying into escrow, you better have already called him out on the lack of legality. It will make him much more responsive.

      Be very straightforward and unemotional, and speak to the facts. “If we end up in court over any problems, small or great, related to this rental, you will automatically lose the case due to your lack of C of O. That said, I want to work with you to get your unit fixed up. How soon can we have XYZ fixed? I am willing to make rent payments into escrow until that time.”

      Email may be a good way to approach this, because it establishes a paper trail that you can use in court later.

      • Bear

        Yes–always, always, always leave a paper trail. And not just for court–I once had to place my rent in escrow to get my landlord to replace a broken fridge. They got all up in arms and said I hadn’t informed them of the problem. I forwarded them several old emails that they had responded to, so I know they received them.

        I think in their case they weren’t trying to be evasive, they were just genuinely busy and preoccupied and it fell off their radar. They were very apologetic and took care of it the next day, but keeping records of communication definitely helped in this instance.

  • Bear

    It sounds like you may be having some similar issues as me and my old roommates had with our previous landlord, who didn’t live in the area. We rented a great house that had three bedrooms upstairs and a full basement suite with a separate entrance, living room, bedroom with closet, and full bathroom. He had hired a management company to manage the property in his absence. We were admittedly uninformed–none of us knew about the regulations for landlords being “legal” or “illegal.” But since the property was professionally managed we assumed it was legit.

    In summer 2008, due to various issues, the basement developed a mold problem. The management company was unresponsive to say the least. It took close to 6 months to get the mold cleaned up, a dehumidifier installed, and the issues that led to the mold addressed.

    When our lease was up the following spring, the landlord switched management companies. Apparently the old company never made him register as a legal landlord, get the business license, etc. The new company did make him do it, but it turns out that for tax purposes he had the house listed as a three bedroom–he wasn’t counting the basement, and apparently was not thrilled with how it would affect his tax assessment if he had to register it as a 4 bedroom. He tried to force the basement tenant off the lease using various shady tactics. We fought a good fight (armed with advice from the DC Office of the Tenant Advocate) and he eventually backed down, got the house inspected, registered, etc. The basement didn’t pass at first, but after some repairs/updates did just fine.

    Throughout the process we continued to pay rent, though in retrospect we may have gotten more prompt responses to our problems had we put it in escrow. We were concerned about not getting our lease renewed. Once the mold was taken care of (and before it started) it was a fantastic house to live in, with very affordable rent–not easy to find in DC.

    Of course, about three quarters through that year’s lease we received notice that the landlord was selling the house–the whole thing was too much of a hassle for him.

    I guess what I would advise, just from my own experiences, is to first find out if your basement is up to code–and if not, what the issues are that would prevent it from passing inspection. Ours were fixable (little things like providing a fire hydrant), so it wasn’t a huge ordeal to get it up to code when the landlord finally agreed to do so. If you think it could pass easily or without too much effort, you are in a better position to use the CoO/BBL to your advantage.

    If you have more serious obstacles (like ceiling height or something else that isn’t easily changed), you need to carefully assess what you want out of the situation. If you want all tenants to be able to remain in the house, tread lightly–I’d go the route of putting your rent in escrow. It gets their attention while still showing that you’re responsible and intend to pay rent if/when issues are addressed.

    If you report them to DCRA and the basement unit is found to not be up to code (and not able to be brought up to code), then the landlord will have to pay a fine and will be barred from renting out the unit. Not sure that’s what you want–it could result in the basement tenant (or everyone) having to move, increased rent, etc.

    Hope this long-winded response is of some help…

  • What do you really want to do? Get the place fixed? If so, file a case on the housing violations calendar and it will be heard in about 3 weeks. The judge is only concerned with the state of the unit at the time of the hearing and will order repairs and have a second hearing to make sure they were made. The lack of a business license is not the end all as some people seem to think as the tenant would still be liable for some amount of rent.

  • Hmmm. Sounds like you have no idea what you’re talking about. You haven’t even tried to get a BBL. It’s -really- not that big a deal.

    The fact that you choose underage kids and junkies as tenants tells us how good a businessman you are.

    Listen, you can stay illegal but it’s a huge risk to you. If someone stops paying rent, you’re absolutely screwed.

    • Bah! That was a response to

      6:23 PM | Zoned incorrectly

      The captcha got me. Had some funky exponents, and then gave me an error message.

    • Yeah – Now I always check my prospective tenant’s bodies for needle marks before signing the lease. . .

      • If you don’t even check ID, you’re hopeless. You rent to children. It’s a joke.

        You’re not vetting tenants properly, so you’re a prime target for junkie ne’er do wells. They know how to game people.

        Choose: rube-in-waiting or legit landlord who’s afforded legal protection against problem tenants.

  • We cover a lot of these issues at which was actually created as a result of a 90+ comment post on PoP.

    First any basement apartment in the city needs to have three things – first a certificate of occupancy which means it was inspected and meets zoning requirements (with DCRA), second it needs a business license (with DCRA), and third needs to be registered for rent control (DHCD).

    There are thousands of legal, licensed basement apartments in the city and we are trying to help those who rent illegally get legal easier and assist them – it’s safer for the tenant and the landlord.

    If you email me (address posted above by DL) I can be more specific about your unit, but you need to see our inspections checklist and show it to your landlord. If your basement is located in a zone where basement rentals are not allowed – it gets tricky but you do have tenant rights.

    If your apartment is in a zone where basement apartments are allowed, you can report the housing code violations and that your landlord is unlicensed to DCRA. Call 202-442-9557 or email [email protected]. They will cite the landlord for the violations and give him a timeline to make repairs. He will also be cited for not having a license and be given time to do so.

    While we agree with several of the posters above about the pseudo-blackmail approach, we also are realistic. If you can show the landlord the violations and ask him to repair, then you will feel safer. We really prefer yo report this so the next renter and the next renter are not put in the same situation you face. Or you can leave and then report.

    Hope this helps. – Mike Rupert, DCRA

    • Mike here’s the thing, back in the Williams administration I called DCRA about getting my basement apartment certified, etc, and I was told over the phone that if I was renting an apartment that would contain a door to the rest of the house that no certification was required as I was renting a room in the house.

      In the end we did not complete building out the kitchen in the basement and never rented it.

      But explain, why is it I was told by DCRA I didn’t need to be certified? people act on this board like that’s an “illegal” apartment.

    • Mike, if the landlord has only one unit, why does it need to be registered with Rent Control? I thought that didn’t apply unless he/she rented 4 units.

  • i’ve been to landlord tenant court twice and won twice. the district has the best laws in the country for tenants. set up an escrow account (open an account and put your rent money in there), tell him what’s wrong in writing and he’ll take you to court to get his money or he’ll fix what is wrong and you settle out of court. the judge will decide how much should be withheld, if any. but make sure you pay rent to escrow each month. he can’t get more than what your rent is. if you don’t pay into your account the judge will think you’re a louse.

  • This seems to be a good thread, with some solid advice.

    One thing though – landlords are not balling out of control like ya’ll think. Even in an appreciating market like DC, and when landlords put down lots of cash, there are not huge monthly profits. Plus tenants are generally really good people – but they, unintentionally, destroy things. Garbage disposals, washer and dryers, dishwashers, central air etc etc – they don’t use them properly and repairs are constant. Don’t vilify your landlord. Often times they are struggling to make it just like you.

    That being said – slum landlords who won’t repair anything should be outed – as should be non-paying, worthless renters.

  • @Neener,
    You received bad information back then and I apologize. The myths and bad information from the past on these basement units is why we’re doing so much outreach on them.

    The kitchen unit in the basement is really what distinguishes a \basement apartment\ from a \room in the basement.\ If your basement is up to code and has a room but no kitchen, you could rent it out without having a license. You can up to two \boarders\ living with you in rooms as long as you share the whole house. Hope this helps.

  • Bear

    Here’s a related question:

    What is the process for renting our a condo unit legally? Are there similar procedures for renting out a basement unit, or is it a different process entirely?

  • hey everyone, I’m the person who sent in the question –

    Want to thank you all for the helpful information, esp. Mike from the DCRA. To those who said I sounded “vague” and “whiny,” please know that I intentionally did not include specific ways my landlord has infringed on my rights as a tenant as I don’t know if my landlord reads this blog or not(!).

    I will mention, though, that rooms have fire sprinklers but no smoke detectors, windows are barred shut with no way to open them, and the apt has had bedbugs and rat infestations (to name a few major issues). I would like to make the apartment better not just for myself but also for whoever comes after my lease is over.

    These issues aren’t minor in impact or in number, and the information you all provided will be really helpful in gaining leverage to fix them should I need the extra incentive for my landlord.

  • Just came across this researching the same question. I’m in a similar boat. Landlord is unlicensed. He raised the rent between me and the last tenant $200. Technically he can’t do that if he unlicensed, right? Meaning I should be able to get the same rent as the previous tenant?

    I ask for this reason: I showed up and the place needed a lot of repairs. Some he’s done. Some he hasn’t, including things he said he’d do (but failed to get in writing). He told me the previous tenant paid what I paid now (false). He has no legal garbage, so i constantly get yelled at by the neighbors, although he told me that was this buildings garbage (false). He hasn’t removed paint from the floor his painters caused, claiming its been there for years (false, the previous tenant can vouch for that). What can I do?

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