“Landlord not responding to tenant living in unhealthy unit”

unhealthy
Photo by PoPville flickr user nevermindtheend

“My neighbor lives with her toddler grandson and others in the basement unit of a group home. Last night she called the fire department because her living room was flooded by a faulty heating system. When the firefighters left they said her landlord needed to fix the faulty system and address electrical issues in the unit. While I was talking to her she mentioned that loose bricks had also fallen from the ceiling and there was a tree (!!!) growing in her grandson’s room. She said that the unit has repeatedly flooded but the landlord has refused to address the problem. Today the maintenance company came but she said they did nothing to fix the faulty heating system–they just sucked up the water and cut out the wet carpet.

She said that she feels sick every time she walks into the unit and has been throwing up a lot. Sounds like mold.

I’m a landlord (with a C of O and an attorney-provided lease) and everything she describes seems like a major violation of DC tenants’ rights. She has repeatedly tried to get them to fix major problems with the unit and they ignore her or do something to cover the problem but don’t solve it and it reoccurs.

I suggested she call the DC tenant advocate and/or ask the city for an inspection and she called them and many others in the DC government, but all said they couldn’t help her because the unit wasn’t registered with them. But she and I agree that that doesn’t make sense because the trust that owns the house we think gets a major tax break from the city for making low-income housing available in Dupont Circle. My understanding is that even if a unit isn’t registered the city would still investigate violations–and would fine the owner for not registering the unit.

Any suggestions for advising her how to proceed? I’m happy to make calls for her, but she does not have the money to hire a lawyer or other advocate and she is unaware of her rights.”

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35 Comment

    • I second contacting DCRA but recommend you call, not do anything over email. Calling, after you press all the right numbers and wait long enough and are polite, will get you an inspector to come look at the violations. The inspector would probably check Basic Business License registration, basic fire code violations, as well as any complaints the person had that are in line with what DC code requires.

      Phrase the violations in terms of the specific code (the details of which are online), rather than just describing the violation in commonsense terms. For example, say, “I have a door that doesn’t open” rather than “My door is broken” — broken could mean it closes but sticks, for example, while “doesn’t open” is a specific code violation.

      You will need to follow up proactively and meet DCRA and their inspectors at every single meeting at the house. Your landlord can reschedule subsequent inspections so as to make sure to be present for them, so be wary about them doing that. I found that hard to stop but just dealt with it the best I can.

      Contact me if you have questions about how my experience went or what you are up against. I am not a legal person of any sort, so it is just my experience.

  • Bread for the City has a free legal clinic and they might be able to provide some helpful advice. 202-265-2400 or http://www.breadforthecity.org/services/legal-clinic/

  • She should be able to withhold rent – I think she would have to open up an escrow account and put the monthly amount there. Not sure if being an “illegal” unit changes that right…I’m really surprised the tenant advocate won’t help!

    • I had similar but less severe problems in a basement apartment. The DC OTA sent out an inspector. He took some notes, nodded a bit, and left. Never heard another word about it.

    • She could, but she could then be forced to defend an eviction action without the assistance of counsel, which will likely result in her being bullied into signing a consent judgment praecipe (consent = I agree; judgment = to lose; praecipe = on this piece of paper) that doesn’t include demanded repairs with teeth.

      I recommend that she visit the landlord tenant clinic, open from 9 to noon on weekdays in the landlord tenant courthouse. In my observations from having volunteered there, her chances of being seen that day without being on the court docket increase exponentially if she arrives before 10am. The lawyers there can help her develop an action plan.

  • I went through something similar a little over a year ago…but the violations in my apartment were nowhere near this bad.

    A couple notes from my experience:

    1) The city should still send an inspector whether the property is registered or not. Mine wasn’t at the time (it now is) and we were able to get an inspector out. It wasn’t immediate, but it did happen.
    2) The inspection is pretty thorough, and it sounds like, in this case, the unit could be deemed inhabitable.
    3) Unfortunately after MONTHS of back and forth, multiple visits from the inspector, fines to our landlord, and even court cases, the majority of the problems listed haven’t been fixed and the inspector’s office doesn’t seem to care. They gave the landlord written notice about some of the more pressing issues, that they needed to be fixed by a certain time period, and fined him. However, they have never been back to check and see whether those have been resolved (they have…but they haven’t been out to check) nor have the followed up with some of the lesser issues (new paint, loose tiles on the floors, etc.). The whole process from start to not even finish (since there are still things that haven’t been resolved) took over a year. With people needing to miss work for inspections and court appearances.

    I hate to say it, but in our case (it was a multiple unit effort) the amount of time/energy/and money (because there are costs associated with filing issues in court) that we spent probably wasn’t worth the outcome, especially since at the end of it all, it didn’t appear DC cared if things were fixed nor did it appear that they truly had our backs.

    I hope you have a better outcome, but I’d urge this tenant to take pictures of all the issues and see what her options are for moving to a safer and healthier environment.

  • She can sue the landlord for housing code violins in the Housing Conditions calendar of the DC Superior Court, civil actions branch. Several local nonprofits, including Legal Aid, can potentially assist in gauging her case and referring her to a pro bono attorney.

  • Maybe this depends on the inspector, but I found dcra to be helpful. Some items require a next day inspection and fix, but other issues can take 2 weeks to get an appt. Mine was no heat, so a next day inspection, and a call to the property manager on the spot. They scheduled a follow-up and came out to verify things were completed. I guess they may have checked, but there was no questions about being registered.
    Another option is the housing complaints court which while not as fast to schedule can force repairs of housing violations.
    It may be worth going to the anc or council person if this trust is getting tax breaks.

  • That One Guy

    How is this not on the mainstream media like 7 on your side or some similar coverage? The living conditions sound absurd.

    • I was thinking the same thing. On top of continuing to contact DCRA…seriously keep calling until someone is willing to actually do their job, I would contact Fox 5, Washington Post, and any other outlets. This is so absurd. Seriously, a tree growing in the basement?! I can only freakin’ imagine the problems this house has and the landlord clearly does not care.

    • Yea, publicity is a great way to force action.

  • If this were a market-rate tenant, I’d advise her to move rather than go through the hassle of trying to stay put and get the landlord to do what he’s supposed to do. But it sounds like this woman might not have the financial resources for moving to be an option.
    .
    If there’s any way she can get affordable housing elsewhere (is it a Section 8 voucher that could be transferred?), it seems like it would be best to photograph and document everything and submit it to DCRA, OTA, etc., and to move as soon as she can. The mold (?) problem sounds really worrying — it’s already affecting her health, and presumably the longer she stays there, the more damage it can do. The landlord should be reported and made to fix the problems, but she shouldn’t have to continue to living there and suffering between now and when the problems are remediated.

  • Also try contacting Children’s Law Center as a potential legal resource since the grandson is involved

  • These tenants sounds like they could be undocumented given their reluctance to seek help. I commend you, OP, for your offer to make the calls and be a good neighbor.

    I second all the advice above. I’m an attorney and the DC Bar’s clinic is very helpful for starting advice, but I think Bread for the City and Children’s Law Center are more likely to get your neighbors actual representation. You should call the DC Office of the Attorney General consumer protection hotline: 202-442-9828 and DCRA. It’s good to have many efforts going at once.

  • Contact DCRA: (202) 442-4400 and hit “4” They can find a rental home for not having a license and they can inspect the property for code violations.

    Contact OTA: (202) 719-6560 (and follow-up)

    Contact DHCD ((202) 442-4610) (http://ota.dc.gov/sites/default/files/dc/sites/ota/publication/attachments/TenantPetitionForm.pdf);

    Finally contact OAG’s consumer protection 202-442-9828; while this is not their arena they can try to follow up with the other agencies.

    Make complaints to all three so different agencies are following up on the issue and a record is made of when a complaint is made and if anything was done. If no one does anything you at least have records that calls/emails have been made. Next step contact the local councilman and email the mayor – it is her agencies afterall.

    And finally contact the local channel 4, univision, etc. news reports. They’d love this type of story.

    Finally, look up pro bono counsel; DC law is pretty clear that it is REALLY hard to sue or get money from a tenant when you’re not licensed in the District.

  • My rental issues are nowhere near that bad, but I can empathize with this tenant’s reluctance to come forward…if you’re getting a really good deal, especially in a good area, you’re willing to tell yourself that things aren’t as bad as they actually are in reality because you don’t want to risk having to relocate.
    .
    We’re in an unregistered 2-unit apartment that has some very shady wiring, and possible mold (and a leaky roof). Because nothing really horrible has happened yet, we’ve been keeping quiet out of fear that an inspection would force us to move, or like in jd’s case, would take an incredible amount of time, money, and headache to not really improve conditions.
    .
    Any advice on how do you get a landlord who is renting illegally/unregistered to go above-board?

    • If you’re unwilling to report as is suggested here, then there is nothing you can do short of withholding rent. Even with that, what would you do if ll just changed the locks one day and threw your stuff in the street? If he’s renting such a shoddy place, I wouldn’t put it past him.
      Shoddy wiring is a fire waiting to happen. Mold can make you very sick, and a leaky roof can ruin your stuff if it gets bad enough.
      I hope you have renters insurance.

      • Mold isn’t an issue that DC will deal with. DC has no legal power to enforce mold actions. The inspector will tell you basically ‘that sucks, that’s toxic, but there is nothing I can do, sorry.’

        And don’t call OTA, go down there. They’re in the Reeves Center and if you’re patient they take walk ins. I’ve found them to be very useful.

      • Yeah, having a LL change the locks and toss your stuff out would be bad. But on the other hand, that is illegal and jurisdictions take that very seriously. I bet you could get $5k-$10k (at least) in civil action of a LL did that.

        NOTE: I have no prior experience in this, just a guess.

    • If the unit is in decent condition, the landlord has nothing to lose by getting a BBL. But if various things are substandard, it might cost the landlord more to fix than he thinks is worthwhile — he might elect to stop renting it out rather than putting in the $$$ to make the necessary repairs.
      .
      So it’s your call — reporting the landlord could mean that you lose the place completely.

      • Yes, that was my thought. If the unit is unregistered, can the city force the owner to register it? Can the city force the owner to do the work necessary to register it, since they ARE renting it out now? The city can say they can’t rent an unregistered unit – but what does that get the tenant, an eviction? So the landlord can’t use the city courts to take action against a tenant in an unregistered unit, but does that give her any teeth the fight an eviction, whether it is a legal or illegal one? She would then need to find a new place to live, no? And if that were easy for her to do, then she likely would have done so by now, no? Her issue is likely economic – she needs help finding a new place to live. If it is true that the city can’t force the owner to register the unit, is it to her advantage to fight the landlord, or is what she really needs is assistance in finding a decent apartment that she can afford, and help with affording it if needed. Seems to me the issue is finding her better housing she can afford.

        • I was reported for an unlicensed rental (unaware but I needed a license but up to code unit), and it was get it done in a week or take a 5k fine. So yes, they can force you to register. That comes with an inspection which I assume comes with repair orders for code violations thereafter. If you refuse, I’m not sure where that leaves the tenant, but eviction is tough in dc, so op would have a while to look, I think. It could be dragged out further by letting the car come up in winter; no evictions in winter.
          With that in mind, op above needs to decide what’s more important: a cheap 2 bdrm or a quality place to live. I’m not sure it’s really a deal if you’re not happy or you’re just hoping the other shoe doesn’t drop. But that’s for any of us to determine.

      • Trying to get the district to take action would be nice, especially if they could fine the owner, but I’m not sure it would help the tenant. It would be nice if there was a law by which she could collect damages for the owners illegal behavior in taking money for a substandard, unhealthy unregistered apartment.

  • She needs to file suit and get on the DC Housinf Conditions Calendar in DC Shperior Court. She may be able to get pro bono representation from a white shoe firm (though I presently forget the name of the referral org who could help with that). In any event, there are plenty of ways to put pressure on the landlord to get this taken care of for her.

  • I find it impossible to believe that DCRA does nothing. I know firsthand of a situation where a tenant called the DDoE part of DCRA and an inspector was at the property the next day. The unit was NOT registered with the city and in fact there were no permits on file at all. The landlord was issued a violation notice and there was constant follow-up. Perhaps she can start there — it sounds like the unit has multiple violations so she should start with lead paint hazard and that will get her some attention for certain.

  • If this unit is low income/legally Section 8? housing, doesn’t that mean the landlord is required to pass all these inspections/criteria before the place can be enrolled for Section 8 and before anyone can move in? Something’s not adding up right with the tenants or landlord.

    • Yeah, I’m not clear about this either — “the trust that owns the house we think gets a major tax break from the city for making low-income housing available in Dupont Circle.” Maybe the OP and the tenant are incorrect about this? Or maybe the trust gets a tax break for making low-income housing available _somewhere else_ in Dupont Circle?

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