From the Forum – TOPA 101 for Neighbors?

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TOPA 101 for Neighbors?

“I’m looking for some insights and advice on DC’s TOPA – not from a tenant or homeowner/landlord perspective, from a neighbor perspective.

The row house adjoining ours has a tenant who’s almost 2 years into the TOPA process. In the meantime, the house has fallen into a dangerous state of disrepair. It’s a public safety hazard on a number of fronts – it’s teeming with all manner of vermin, has poison ivy growing everywhere, reeks of urine and animal feces, is a tinderbox waiting to go up in flames (if it doesn’t collapse first), has garbage strewn about, several areas of standing water breeding mosquitos, attracts addicts and the like.

The owner has desperately been trying to sell the place but the tenant’s got everything tied up in court. I can’t say for certain but from what I’ve learned of the situation, the tenant has no real intentions of owning the home except for any chance he has at a piece of the sale when it flips. It has all the markings of someone abusing the law but what I care most about is the state of the home itself. Does the tenant have responsibilities to maintain and care for the property or is that all on the owner? If he’s trying to use TOPA does he have to prove that he’s capable of caring for the property? If there’s a real public health problem do we as neighbors have any recourse? I feel rather helpless while this cesspool of a home continues to throw up a symbolic middle finger to the rest of the block and keep me worried that I’ll have to grab my 17 mo old in the middle of the night and flee because it’s caught fire.”

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18 Comment

  • Why is TOPA relevant here? The house is still owned by the landlord and rented by the tenant, right? If so, it’s the same as any other rental in disrepair.

    • The owner is likely trying to sell the property. The tenant is holding out for some concession to vacate the property and is using the strong tenancy laws here in DC to drag that process out (probably in the hopes that the owner will get sick of the delays and offer some cash). The owner is making it as unpleasant as possible in order to NOT to pay in the hopes the tenant just agrees to vacate. I doubt there is an active lease here.

      I’m confused about the TOPA part as well. All that says is that the owner has to allow the tenant to make a reasonable offer on the property before selling the public. The owner doesn’t have to accept that offer if it’s lower than market, and there’s nothing to say that the tenant is any position to actually buy the property anyway. Hence the standoff. If the house is in the description you say it is there are a myriad housing violations that the owner could be fined for. If you’re literally worried the house i going to go up in flames (sounds a bit hyperbolic) then report it to the city. Know that this will likely embolden the tenant, though, if any repairs are made to bring it up to code.

      • Right — that’s kind of my point. The landlord still owns the house and is responsible for any of the housing violations (which can be reported to DCRA or the relevant authority). The tenant is still just a tenant (whether via a formal lease or not) and wouldn’t have any additional obligation to maintain the property by virtue of anything related to TOPA..

  • Unless the lease says otherwise, the homeowner (i.e., the landlord) is responsible for maintaining the premises in a habitable state. It sounds like the homeowner may be allowing the home to descend into crap as a way of forcing out the tenant.
    As I understand it, TOPA is pretty simple. Homeowner gives tenant written offer of sale; tenant has 30 days to accept it. If tenant doesn’t accept the offer, the offer expires. So what’s the problem here? Maybe the homeowner hasn’t been complying with the law and the tenant is calling him or her on it.

    • Not that simple. If the tenant accepts, they get to hold the landlord up for a crazy amount of time in contract negotiations.

    • I believe the sale can’t go through until the tenant signs a piece of paper saying that he/she has been offered the right of first refusal and isn’t interested in making an offer, or something to that effect. (I bought a place where multiple tenants were living, and things were held up for a little while until the seller’s agent got all the signed forms.)

    • In DC, the tenant has a lot of levers if ze wants to be difficult. Take 60 days rather than 30 to respond to each requirement. Don’t respond to communications. Match the subsequent offer … then withdraw it. Make it difficult to show the place by leaving it a mess or not being out of the apartment when agreed. Make false allegations. Not show for the court date. Show late for the rescheduled court date. Draw the process out by 7 months, then flat-out ignore the court order. Not be subject to U.S. Marshall-supervised eviction because it’s winter. My one and only experience as a landlord involved all of this, and it cost me $10,000 in court and attorney fees.

  • Take up a neighborhood collection and pay the person to leave and sign over all topa protections.

    TOPA in DC isn’t fun, I agree with the intention but it gets abused all the time.

  • Until it’s sold, the owner is responsible. Report it, for all the failings.

    TOPA isn’t the problem. TOPA has been in place for years, and adds only a few procedural steps and a few weeks for properties with less than 4 units. TOPA certainly isn’t slowing the overall DC real estate market. Maybe the owner failed to give notice to the tenant (e.g. desperately trying to sell instead of properly trying to sell) and there was some legal action, but that has nothing to do with the neglect. The city will lien it up, and neither of them will get anything out of the deal unless they clean it up.

  • OP, I’d recommend that if you haven’t done so already, you contact your ANC rep, DCRA, your councilmember, and the Executive Office of the Mayor’s liaison person for your ward. (Or some combination thereof.)
    And maybe also contact the Department of Health, although I’m not sure they can do a rat abatement on the property unless it’s at the request of the homeowner or the resident.
    When you say it reeks of urine and animal feces… is this a possible animal-hoarding situation? If so, call D.C. Animal Control and see if they can come check it out.

  • TOPA or no TOPA, the landlord is still responsible for maintaining the property. If they are failing to do so, you, or the tenant, or anyone else, can report the property to the city and force the owner to undertake the necessary repairs. This one is solely on the landlord.

  • File a complaint to DCRA housing violations: [email protected]

    How to file a complaint: or do it here:

    Informational flier:

    If that doesn’t work, report the building as vacant and request an inspection:

    Although it will clearly be inspected and found to be occupied, the landlord and tenant will be cited for housing code violations found during the inspection (ie. trash, fire hazard, animal waste, etc.).

    I had an abandoned house next to mine and reported it. Took about 48 hours for the inspection to occur. The owner was cited and given 72 hours to fix the problem. He didn’t, so DC reinspected the property, again cited the owner, then sent workers to clear the trash, mow the lawn, etc. and charged the owner. It was a surprisingly easy process in which the only input to get it to happen was my ‘vacant property’ notification email.

    Good luck!

  • Yes, squeek to the powers that be. I’ve only had to go through this with reasonable people and without issue, but I seem to remember that even in intractible situations it’s limited to about 6 months, even less if it’s multi-tenant. I think 30 days for tenant to respond to notice, 60 days to negotiate, 60 days to settle, and 30 days for bank related closing issues. Plus, I thought non-responses can’t stall the process.
    While written to protect tenants, I can’t fathom how this could take 2 years. How is this posssible, anyone else have experience with a protracted TOPA? how does it happen?

  • Not sure what the hold up could be, but I’m not surprised.
    I understand that some of the local tenant’s rights non-profits actively advise residents to hold up sales in order to extract payments from landlords. The ironic thing is this makes landlords reticent to rent and especially to rent to low income residents. The end result of this version of TOPA is to incentivize high end rentals (where tenants are more transient) and condos, while restricting the market for affordable housing.

    • rich tenants have the same rights. And better access to representation. I don’t understand your logic.

      • In my experience, rich tenants choose to be a tenant and are not looking to extract anything from the sale. If they want to buy, they do. If they don’t want to buy, they don’t hold anything up trying to score a couple of thousand dollars. It’s not worth their time out lawyer’s fees.

  • Just went thru a TOPA situation myself (needed to get tenants to leave so we could buy the house) even AFTER all legal tenant rights have been exhausted, it’s nearly impossible to close on the property because few/none of the title insurance companies will insure if there is any outstanding TOPA situation. And No title insurance = no mortgage. Sounds like this landlord is a slumlord but is probably out of options save for a forcible eviction,which I surmise is not easy or common in the district

  • If you haven’t spoken to the owner or renter, that sometimes can work. But, you should be able to file a complaint with the Housing Inspections department, especially if there are health and safety concerns for you.

    Otherwise, contact your council member. Depending on the member, they are pretty attentive, otherwise, there are at large members as well, like Elissa Silverman.

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