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Legal Questions Answered By Griffin & Murphy, LLP

by Prince Of Petworth February 17, 2010 at 9:43 pm 8 Comments

Irving Street, NW
Photo from PoPville flickr user rockcreek

Ed. Note: We had a very similar Dear PoP yesterday so here is the official Griffin & Murphy response to a similar question. There will be a bonus legal question answered on Friday.

Griffin & Murphy, LLP, is a boutique law firm in Washington, D.C. concentrating its practice in real estate law (including development, finance, leasing, zoning and condominium conversions), as well as estate planning and probate, civil litigation, and business law. The attorneys of Griffin & Murphy, LLP are licensed to practice law in the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia. Griffin and Murphy, LLP was founded in 1981.

Please send any legal questions relating to real estate, rentals, buildings, renovations or other legal items to princeofpetworth (at) gmail (dot) com, each week one question will be featured. You can find previous questions featured here.


My heat is currently broken (which is super awesome during the latest cold snap). My landlord is (as is typical) dragging her feet about getting it fixed. It’s about time to pay this month’s rent. I don’t want to pay until the heat is fixed. Do I have to?


Every residential lease in the District of Columbia carries an implied warranty of habitability that requires the landlord to maintain the rental property in compliance with the District’s housing regulations. The District’s housing regulations mandate that landlords shall provide adequate heating facilities in their rental properties and shall maintain such facilities in good repair. A landlord must repair a broken heating unit within a reasonable amount of time after receiving notice of the problem, but only a short period of time (maybe one or two days) would be considered reasonable in the winter months. Continues after the jump.

If a landlord fails to restore heat to a rental property within a reasonable amount of time, the tenant should call the Mayor’s Call Center at 311 and ask to be connected to the on-duty housing inspector to request a housing inspection regarding the landlord’s failure to supply heat to the rental property. Also, the tenant may want to withhold the payment of rent until the landlord fixes the heating unit, although this would most likely be considered a breach of the lease if the agreement does not provide the tenant with a right of set-off or abatement. The landlord may file a lawsuit in landlord-tenant court to collect the rent owed and to evict the tenant for nonpayment of rent, in which case the tenant should request a jury trial and ask to pay future rent into the Registry of the Court until the case is resolved. A jury trial could take months before it is heard, and in the meantime, the landlord receives no rent and the tenant gets to stay in the premises. Usually, the landlord will settle the case and fix the problem because the landlord is receiving no rent and cannot lease the property to another tenant. If the case ultimately goes to trial and it is determined that the landlord violated the District’s housing regulations, the court could abate (in whole or in part) the rent owed by the tenant to account for the landlord’s breach of the implied warranty of habitability, although no one can predict the outcome of any court proceeding.

At this time of the year and with all the problems that the snow has caused everyone, including the District government, it may take some time for the housing inspector to come out to the rental property for an inspection. Still, this step should be taken just to protect the tenant and the landlord will be more likely to promptly repair the heating unit if he or she is aware that you have reported the violation to the proper authorities.

This response was prepared by Mark G. Griffin and Patrick D. Blake of Griffin & Murphy, LLP. The material contained in this response has been prepared for informational purposes only and should not be relied upon as legal advice or as a substitute for a consultation with a qualified attorney. Nothing in this response should be considered as either creating an attorney-client relationship between the reader and Griffin & Murphy, LLP or as rendering of legal advice for any specific matter.

  • Another Lawyer

    Wow, that’s a very academic answer. In reality, you are not going to be evicted or brought to court. Withhold the rent to light a fire under the landlord’s ass. The most you risk is a late fee proscribed in the lease. On another note, do you have a heat pump? Heat pumps have hard times in low temps b/c they exchange heat. If so, you should have an emergency heat button on your thermostat that would switch to an electric heating element, similar to a space heater. The caveat is that before you withhold rent, you have to give notice that you are withholding rent for specific performance of the lease, ie providing heat.

    • And I’m sure that, as a lawyer, you would post that recommendation on a public blog and sign your name and your firm’s name to it?

  • matt

    I would also like to know if the heat is fully broken, or just isn’t working all that well. I know the OP said “broken”, but I think it’s germane to the discussion.

    If there is zero heat being produced in the unit, that is a potentially serious health and safety issue.

  • Mal

    I had looked into withholding rent when I had issues while back, and was told that I had to send a certified letter to my landlord stating exactly why I was withholding rent, and in the meantime, I would have to set up a separate bank account and pay rent into that account.

    Also, love this feature. If I ever need a lawyer, I know who I’m using!

    • third lawyer

      This has always been my understanding as to how to proceed in a situation like this.

  • escrow

    This isn’t in anyway meant to contradict the expert advice given by G&M, but to offer a suggestion that I’ve heard avoids breaking the lease by non payment. If you set up an escrow account and show the landlord that you are paying your rent into it until this serious issue is resolved, that should mitigate most issues surrounding the contract and your obligations.

  • moving

    Question along similar lines – one bedroom in my apartment has had serious leaking problems (from the windows and ceiling) for the past 1.5 weeks (both bedrooms have had ceiling leaks previously, which landlord knew about; roof should probably be redone). The bedroom has been uninhabitable since then – some nights it doesn’t leak, but sometimes it does, and you don’t want to wake up to water dripping on your face. This was the last insult for us with this place, so we’re moving, but had to give 30-day notice, which has to correspond with the end of a month. We don’t want to pay rent for March, in addition to the rent for our new place. Plus we don’t think we should pay the half of the rent for the days one of the bedrooms couldn’t be lived in. Is there any way we can pressure the landlord to let us out mid-March instead of waiting until 3/31 based on the expectation of habitability that has not been met??


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