From the Forum – Help with problem tenant

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Help with problem tenant:

“We have rented a condo for a few years and were unaware that we needed to register the unit. We only found out about the registration process because our current tenant has stopped paying rent and we were looking for information on how to evict him. In a previous post on popville (November 2010), someone referred to the case Curry v. Dunbar House as an option for landlords that have not registered. Has anyone successfully and legally evicted a tenant from a non registered unit? Can anyone recommend a landlord – tenant lawyer that I could consult?”

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44 Comment

  • My guess (only a guess) is that if it was not licensed then the lease was void and you cannot sue for rent, but you can sue for eviction, provided you give tons of notice.

  • Check out the landlord-tenant court website. There’s an online chat option where you’re supposed to be able to discuss issues of this kind. They also have people at the office you can discuss this with if you’d rather chat in person. I’m really sorry about this – it’s easy to get screwed as a landlord in DC. The laws tend to favor tenants pretty heavily. We tend to be pretty picky about who we’ll rent to because of this, but we’ve ended up with largely excellent tenants as a result. Good luck!

  • As a first step, I’d visit the Landlord Tenant Resource Center at 510 4th St NW, room 115. It’s an office run by the DC Bar and staffed by volunteer lawyers who can speak to both landlords and tenants for free to offer legal information about these kinds of cases, not legal advice. They may be able to help you figure out how to find a good lawyer to hire. They’re open every day from about 9am to 12pm, but go early to sign up early, because they get busy fast.

  • Emilie Fairbanks is a landlord tenant lawyer here. Never dealt with them but seems knowledge and has a faq for related questions.

  • I am so sorry to hear this. Going to court would be the only option to evict the “l’tenant terrible”. I had a co-worker with a similar situation (in MD albeit) and she did take the tenants to court for property destruction and for not paying rent. Her tenants did show up in court, but secretly moved out before the court date. I believe she had a locksmith on standby and changed the locks literally right after the judge rendered his decision. The judge ordered the tenants to pay, but now she needs to take them to another court to get the actual $$$ from them. On the bright side, it might be worth doing it just to make the person move out. You can also check if he might be a Federal employee/military and see where he works and try to get him this way. I would apply for the license through the DCRA immediately and pay the $200 something license fee. You can always delay the actual inspection with no issues as long as the license is current. DCRA let me delay the inspection for over 120 days :). Good Luck!

  • Is the license requirement new? A long time ago I rented out a condo. I don’t remember any licensing, but I had no trouble using the courts when I had to use a tenant.

    And yes, having been both a tenant and a landlord, I can say that DC laws do, indeed, benefit the tenant more than the LL.

  • +1, apply for the license right away. I had a friend who was in a similar situation, she went through the process of applying for the license and making the unit legal before she was able to evict the tenant. It took 8 months or so. Good luck!

  • This sounds like a place you own that you rent out (not someone living in an unregistered basement unit), correct? A few questions:

    1) Have you been receiving the Homestead deduction for this property?
    2) Did you tenant sign a lease?
    3) Do you report the income from this rental unit as income on your taxes?

    • The answers to #1 and #3 might be relevant for making your own moral judgment on the OP, but as far as I’m aware, D.C.’s Office of Tax and Revenue doesn’t seem to interact much with other D.C. government agencies. I could be wrong, but I don’t think the Office of the Tenant Advocate cares about whether the OP is being sneaky on his/her taxes — only whether the OP is honoring the lease.

  • I’m sad to say that fastest and cheapest thing to do may be to pay him to leave (and thats often true if it’s a registered lease or not). Landlords in DC need to get some of their rights back.

  • Simple, change the locks when they leave and move their stuff out when you have window of time later. Since it’s not registered, the lease is invalid and none of you have any rights.

  • My “wounded innocence” meter went off when I read this letter. Did the landlord *really* not know they were supposed to register?

  • Exactly. If it’s not a legal rental unit, they aren’t legal tenants, and therefore are technically trespassing, whether they’re paying rent or not. Change the locks and hire some folks to drag their stuff out to the curb.

    • Accountering

      Yup, not true. This is an illegal eviction and will get you in a heap of trouble. Love the fools who have no clue what they are talking about chiming in. Listen to this guy at your own risk!

      • +1. My understanding was that D.C. considers a lease to be binding even if the unit itself is not a legal rental unit, and even if the lease agreement is oral (!) rather than written.
        I’d recommend that the OP apply for a business license straightaway. Beyond that, talking to the Landlord Tenant Resource Center mentioned above sounds like a good idea, and the OP should probably start looking for a lawyer.

    • This is just wrong and will get a landlord into a lot of trouble. OP should get a lawyer to navigate the required notices and court process.

  • I’d look into what rights they’ve acquired…potentially squatters. If they lived there longer than 30days without paying rent, then they have squatters rights. It happened to an ex who allowed a longer-term tenant to stay after losing a job to get back on her feet. Cops were called, but they couldn’t do anything because of squatters rights.

  • I had no idea about registration until I got a call about the rental being illegal and a $5k fine. The resources for landlords are scant, and how would you know unless you know to look? I think it should be apart of the buying packet in case you decide to rent down the road.

  • It might be easier to make the case that the owner simply didn’t know they had to register a rental unit if they didn’t claim the Homestead and paid taxes on the rental. It’s perhaps more complicated if they treated the rental as their primary residence and didn’t pay taxes on the rental income..

  • If they signed a lease, it is a legal rental. It is owner’s responsiblity to apply for the license with DCRA and a good tenant should inquire on the status of license before they will move in. It protects the owner and the tenant. Many decent real estate agents in DC will not even bother to rent it out if there is no license. Apply for the license and take the tenant to court.

  • I just love the replies from the guy who seems to know that everyone else’s advice is wrong, yet he is incapable of offering anything of use on the subject.

    • Ehh, I’m not sure exactly what the best course of action is either, but like Accountering, I know enough to know that the scenario of “landlord does not have a license” does NOT mean “lease is invalid and therefore landlord can throw tenant out, change locks, etc. with impunity.”

  • If they aren’t paying rent, and it’s not a legal rental space, then they are trespassing and/or squatting. Haul their shit out and change the locks. From the sound of it, they’re probably not capable of lawyering up on this anyway.

    • Allison

      You would be surprised at the tenacity of those incapable of lawyering up. Some of these people — in part due to their experience with the legal system for better or worse — are extremely litigious and indigent, meaning they can get expensive things that pose a barrier to the rest of us, like filing fees, waived. Even if their case has no merit, they sometimes have a miraculous ability to stick around raising hell forever. I’d rather face a competent and even well funded opponent in court than an incompetent indigent one any day.

      • This. I had some idiot former business partner of the idiot that flipped my house trying to sue me from his jail cell for a while after i bought my house – filing all sorts of motions claiming he actually owned the house I’d bought from his business partner. totally crazy but super annoying.

  • +1,000,000

  • Really?!?!? Meter is still flickering…..

  • This is perhaps the worst advice I’ve ever seen on PoPville – and that’s sayin’ something. Do not do this.

  • “This is perhaps the worst advice I’ve ever seen on PoPville – and that’s sayin’ something. Do not do this.”
    This is directed at Anonymous at 3:42 and 4:15.

  • Please consult a lawyer re: changing the locks. I’m pretty sure this is the worst course of action you can take. I’m a patent attorney so I don’t know much about landlord/tenant law but I vividly recall my real property professor repeatedly yelling “DO NOT CHANGE THE LOCKS!!”

  • Hopefully the threat of having to appear in court and defend their behavior before a judge will persuade the tenants they should just move out. Probably won’t get your rent back, but solves the bigger problem.

  • Please consult an attorney re: changing the locks. I think this may be the worst course of action you can take. I’m a patent attorney so I don’t know much about landlord/tenant law but recall my real property professor repeatedly yelling “DON’T CHANGE THE LOCKS!!”. Why? I do not remember but my knee jerk reaction is that a landlord changing the locks is a very, very bad thing.

  • Do you think a page in your buying packet would help? Did you actually read the hundred of pages when you bought your house or trust the explanation of your agent and title company?

  • That’s the worst and most ridiculous advice I’ve ever seen on POPville, ever.
    OP could be arrested for attempting such a thing, and end up being sued themselves. Regardless of legality of lease, the tenant has established residency and that can’t just be easily taken away.

  • There is so much bad information being given here. The best advice is to go to the L&T resource center. They are only open until noon. I’ve evicted plenty of tenants and you can do it but get some help. You’d be better off getting a lawyer because there is some inside baseball stuff to know but if you are going it alone, starting at the resource center is the move.

  • I’ve been in the landlord position with a god awful tenant (someone who was subletting from me). I went through hell and back, and here is my advice, based, unfortunately, on personal experience:

    1. Go to the Landlord Tenant Resource Center at the DC court, as others have said. Get there EARLY. They are only open until noon, and they stop taking people once their list is full, even if it’s well before noon. I recommend getting there 15-20 minutes before it opens, or when it opens. Otherwise you will spend your whole morning there. They are really great and will point you in the right direction.

    2. I’m not 100% certain, but I strongly suspect that even if you haven’t registered your unit, the tenant has the same rights he would have if it were registered. That means you have to give 30 days notice for nonpayment of rent, and then you can file for eviction, and your court date will be set 2-4 weeks after that. Get ready for 2+ months of a non-paying tenant. It’s possible that once you serve the 30 day notice, your tenant will realize you mean business and just leave.

    3. I recommend Edward Cordone from Blumenthal and Cordone as a landlord lawyer. He was recommended to me by a major tenant advocate in the city as someone who is really good and honest. I also know people who have represented tenants against his clients, and they all have a lot of respect for him and say he’s an upstanding guy.

    Good luck!

  • le sigh, I have been down this road. A few things:

    1. Stop posting here. This is a litigious matter and stuff you mention here can be brought up. Happened to us… posted here asking for advice, all that stuff got brought up in court.

    2. Get a tenancy lawyer. You will have to lawyer up. You will have to go to court, many times to resolve this. Do not change locks. Do not shut off utilities. Do not forcibly evict the resident/tenant/whatever.

    3. Prepare for a long haul and start documenting everything. It may get messy meaning you will have to go to a few different type of courts to resolve this.

    Best of luck.

  • Talk to a lawyer. Talk to a lawyer. Talk to a lawyer.

    I spoke with a lawyer at one point on this when I, too, learned the hard way that I was supposed to register. Honest. To. God. Mistake. I am a follow-the-rules person so I was horrified. I was a first time home buyer and then became a first time landlord. It was all new to me! My tenant moved out in the middle of the night during November right after Thanksgiving. There I was at the worst time of the year to find a new renter and the lawyer with whom I spoke said I was lucky. Lucky?! Really? I depended on the rental income and suddenly found myself in this predicament. I was ready to take her to court, but I had no recourse. He said I was lucky because my tenant moved out. He told me to count my blessings because she could have turned around and done exactly the same thing your tenants are doing. He cited an example (much like yours) where a tenant found out his landlord wasn’t registered (no basic business license and apartment hadn’t been inspected by DCRA) and stopped paying rent. It went on for a few months and the landlord ended up having to pay the tenant 5K to move out and that was on top of several months of non-payment of rent!!! My heart broke for the guy.

    You realize very quickly that tenants have the rights and landlords simply don’t. Fyi, I immediately applied for my basic business license, had the apartment inspected by DCRA, went to the rental accommodations office and secured the paperwork for rent control exemption. If you notice on the formal DC rental lease, you have to provide your rent control exemption number on the lease. Also, read carefully…the law indicates you also have to provide copies of certain sections of the DC housing regulations (basically the portion dealing with tenants’ rights) to your tenant upon lease signing. I cross every T and dot every I. I went as far as to writing an additional section on my lease that I had my new tenants sign acknowledging that I provided them with required copies of the DC housing code. Leave no room for error!

    Best of luck to you … it’s a’s a nightmare…but TALK TO A LAWYER and there should be some way out of this for you!

    Good luck

  • It can be very difficult to get rid of a tenant. I own a row home, and rent out bedrooms – I live there too – so that makes things extra awkward when someone is not paying rent as planned. Through my experience, the best possible thing to start with is to make a complete ( and polite) nuisance of yourself with said tenant. It’s also important to note that ( I think) any payment, even a payment not made in full, or on time, re-sets the clock for the tenant to have a period of non-evictable non-payment.

    Failing that, I have heard from another landlord that if you need the property for personal use, and have anything to back that up, or you are moving into the property, it is easier to evict.

    Good Luck!

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