Dear PoP – Can The Owner of an Unregistered Basement Apartment Use the Tenant Landlord Court?

by Prince Of Petworth November 2, 2010 at 2:30 pm 31 Comments

Photo by PoPville flickr user Faucetini

“Dear PoP,

Does the owner of a basement apartment that is not registered in the District of Columbia as a rental unit
have standing in Tenant Landlord Court to bring eviction to a tenant that hasn’t paid rent in 3 months (after 30 notice is provided)?

In other words, must a rental unit actually be registered with Housing in order for the landlord to have standing in Tenant Landlord Court?”

This is an interesting question and probably another reason to register your apartments. But do any current landlords/lawyers know the answer?

Learn more about applying for a rental permit from DCRA here.

  • Patrick @ Griffin & Murphy


  • Brian

    you will have to get your Basic Business licence and a Certificate of Occupancy as well as register with the office of Tax and Revenue for your rental. If you don’t have any of these, you won’t have a chance in hell at DC Superior.

    • Patrick @ Griffin & Murphy

      You don’t need the business license and the certificate of occupancy to have standing in the landlord-tenant branch. Landlords evict “illegal basement” tenants all the time. That said, a tenant could make a landlord’s life hell with the Rental Accommodations Division and DCRA if the landlord hasn’t jumped through all of the hoops to register the rental units.

  • FigNewton

    This reminds me that I’ve been meaning to register my rental. Will I have trouble with the city because it is already occupied?

    • R

      My landlord’s license expired at some point before we started living here or during the time that we’ve lived here and he was able to get it renewed with only jumping through the usual DCRA hoops, but not extra ones. I think it must have been lapsed for a while, though.

  • Native American JD

    Pay your back taxes thief. your taxes pay for the landlord tenants court. As an illegal landlord, you shouldn’t get standing. Your willingness to violate the law for personal profit should be held against you in your attempt to evict what amounts to a squatter.

    No good actors in this plot.

    • JoeyLaidBack

      Dear Native American JD,
      Clearly, you have not been admitted to any state Bar.
      Until such a time, I suggest you refrain from offering your opinion on legal issues in the District of Columbia.
      Your judgmental rant is not helpul to anyone.

      For the record:
      My basement was my exercise room until I allowed a co-worker use the space when he was kicked out of his former residence by his ex-girlfriend.
      The arrangement was intended to help him get on his feet while paying me very minimal rent.
      He paid the rent faithfully for 4 months, and then complained about the accommodations. The lease was month to month, and he reported me to housing after I suggested he find a new place to live. The basement was never registered as a rental unit.
      Housing issued citations for a loose floor tile, missing baseboard molding on one wall, and a window that was screwed shut for safety. They also noted dampness after a heavy rainfall. Since then, he has not paid rent for months and remains in the basement. I would like to take the basement back for my personal use.

      Contrary to your uninformed assertion, I pay my taxes faithfully, both housing tax and income tax. I also intend to include the additional rental income on my tax this year.

      In the future, I would suggest you become more informed before you insult anyone with words like “thief.” You show your ignorance when you act without information.

      • PM in DC

        This sounds more like a small-claims court issue. Especially since your intention was never to be a landlord, just a good friend. Also, if your intention is to return the space for a personal use, landlord-tenant court may not be appropriate.

        Intended or not, you are a current landlord by accepting payment for the space and agreeing to a lease so the person would be considered a tenant with all the rights that go with it. Since you are wanting to use the space again for your own personal use and you are the owner, you must give the tenant a 90-day Notice to Vacate and he must comply. If the place is never to be a rental, going through the process with Housing and DCRA is simply not necessary. You may want to find counsel who may help you if you feel in over your head because doing things wrong will cost you the most in the end.

    • quincycyclist


      You’re always on this board and others screaming about the lack of affordable housing in places you want to live in the District. The reality is that getting rid of all of these illegal basement apartments would significantly decrease the number of living spaces in the District AND increase rents.

      Taking a blanket stand that anyone who is not registered is a thief is just counter-productive. Lots of basement apartments are up to code with the exception of ceiling heights and window space. Other than that they are entirely livable and people are happy to live in those spaces.

      I am no landlord apologist. Tenant laws should be biased towards tenants because landlords hold a lot of power. The rule of thumb as always is “don’t be a jerk.” Landlords, keep your spaces livable and fix problems when they arise. You can’t just sit on a property and rent it out and not expect to spend money maintaining that property. Tenants, don’t use “reporting to DCRA” as the first weapon in your arsenal when you have a landlord problem.

  • j

    actually you still have a contract with the landlord so some action should be able to be taken and the landlord will have to deal with the resulting fines, etc. but you agreed to pay rent for said illegal rental and you have breached the contract.

    • Anonymous

      That’s what I thought. I was once in a sublet situation where I was paying rent to a tenant (my roommate) and she wouldn’t return my security deposit when I left. If I had taken the issue to court it would have been between me and her, not me and the landlord, even though she had no ownership of the property.

      Similarly, the terms of the lease in question should state that the tenant gives the landlord X amount of money per month or else he’s out. Whether or not the unit is legal has nothing to do with the terms of the contract that was signed by both parties.

  • Joe

    Flip the script.

    …must a rental unit actually be registered with Housing in order for the [TENANT] to have standing in Tenant Landlord Court?

    • Ragged Dog

      You can take a landlord that’s not registered to court. That’s the landlord’s issue, not yours.

      • sb

        interestingly, you can’t sue your landlord in landlord-tenant court, except for the very recently created housing conditions docket. you have to go to regular superior court, or, for smaller amounts of money, to small claims court.

  • joker

    Ok, this is going to sound harsh, but tenants are atleast half culpable for rental problems…as much as the landlord.

    My recommendation? If they haven’t paid in 3 months and you’ve given 30 days notice, its time to dum their stuff on the curb midday and change the lock. Adults enter into lease agreements and if adults can’t bother to honor them or go to gross lengths to avoid them, then they can suffer “adult like” consequences.

    I’ve had two buddies do this over the years, and it was only in the worst of circumstances where someone wasn’t paying rent or untilities for 4 or 5 months and refused to leave. It saved them many months of frustration and many thousands in lost income.

    Yes yes…I know, everyone is all indignant and claims they will go to the City Tenant Rights lawyers and sue, but in reality, the biggest issue someone has when they come home at the end of the day and see all their stuff in the street is finding a place to move all their stuff to, and finding a roof to put over their head, and after taking the week or so to get their lives back in order, they simply choose not to pursue it.

    And for the ~50% or so who do end up pursuing it, potentially paying a few thousand in fines is usually offset by the fact that they owed you thousands to begin with and were going to owe you many thousands more that you were never going to get.

    Cut your loses and move on.

    • Ragged Dog

      That’s a FANTASTIC way to get the crap sued out of you in DC.

      This isn’t Wyoming.

  • anon

    Is there a signed lease? If yes, you’re screwed. If not, the next time the tenant is out, go to Home Depot and hire 6 day laborers. Have 1 change the locks while the other 5 carry the deadbeat’s junk to the curb. Problem solved in under an hour.

  • anon

    It has to be done:

  • hg

    What is your reason for not paying? Is there an unresolved repair issue? What is the problem?

    Landlords who hasn’t registered their unit doesn’t necessarily mean they haven’t been paying taxes on the rental income, so Native American JD person, don’t call people names without knowing all the facts first.

  • hg

    Just for your info:
    I went through the process of getting CofO and Business license for my rental unit, so I have ample knowledge now, wish someone told me these steps properly before, but any how I am happy to share to those who might want to do the same so here goes:
    1. Get CofO for your basement apartment (there are several steps you must accomplish to get it). In my case, the house came with a CofO so I just got the name transferred to mine.
    2. Apply for business license: this involves lots of steps, but the people at dcra will tell you what to do and often it just requires you to go from office to office to show you don’t own tax, etc, and pay for the registering, and for rent control registration fees.
    3. You then go to SE DC to register your unit with rent control people. Now, if you have 4 or less rental units then you get an exemption number, if you have 5 or more units you get rent control number. Only units you own in Washington DC count to figure out if you are exempt or not.
    4. Once you are done there, you are supposed to get a phone call from the inspection people within 10 days, which isn’t always true… I had to call few times after the 10 days passed to schedule the inspection myself.
    4. When inspection is successful you get a paper tell you passed. In about a month you should get your Business license through mail, if not keep calling.
    And I don’t think, you get penalize if you currently do not have business license, but decide to get one (even with tenant occupied). It wasn’t my experience so I don’t know. Check with someone.

    • Anonymous

      Thanks for this. I’m looking for a house with a basement I can rent out– hopefully with a CofO already but I’m willing to go through this process if not. Assuming one stays on top of the paperwork and everything, about how long does the whole prcoedure take?

      • hg

        No problem. If all you have to do is change name to an existing CofO that is a one day work. Just make sure to take with you something that shows that you own the house now. Like the deed.

        If you are going to apply for a CofO from scratch, it could be pretty length since you have to go through a CofO inspection process (ceiling heights, separate entrance, etc). I never went through it.

        The Business license application (after you have the CofO) can be finished in one day since you can register for business license, pay, go to SE DC to register with rent control. Then wait 10 – 20 days for inspection appointment, then perhaps get an inspection in another 20 days time, then once you passed, then you are good to go. Business license can come whenever, but within one month if you are one of those people who can follow up. If you don’t pass business license inspection, then you can correct the items then schedule another inspection, which can take again up to a month.
        Good luck!

        • Tres

          This is a perfect account of what would happen. Like hg mentions, follow up politely via phone. They sometimes have things ready to go that they sit on for a couple days. If you’re trying to rent it out ASAP, you have to follow up.

          Another strategy is to stipulate (contractually) that you want a C of O to the seller. See if you can get them to jump through the hoops while under contract.

          • Anonymous

            I doubt I’d be able to do that because I’m buying on the Hill and the demand is so high here. The sellers would have no incentive.

  • landlord

    A 2 month process to jump through all the hoops costs me $2-3000.00 in lost rent.

    When will the city realize landlords could simply pay $1000.00 to get the whole process done quickly and efficiently. The best case scenarios still involve 3-4 entire days of work and visits to 2-3 different offices. This is NUTS!

    • Ragged Dog

      Contact your Council person. They make the laws.

  • Ragged Dog

    My aunt decided to lock her tenant out of her illegal basement apartment (in DC) because he kept leaving the gate to the property open and letting her dogs out. He stopped paying rent but regained access to the apartment. They went to court, he won, she lost. He lived rent free until she bought him out for something in the low thousands.

    There’s one data point.

  • photodork


    Check your headline…


  • Anonymous

    Just wondering- is there a way to find out if your landlord has registered the unit as a rental? is there a public listing or other means of finding it out? my landlord is a huge deadbeat and i would love to have the house inspected. just want to make sure that i jump through the tenent hoops first.

  • DC Girl

    See the following case: Curry v. Dunbar House, 362 A.2d 686, 689 (D.C. 1974) A Housing Provider is entitled to the reasonable value of the use and enjoyment of the premises.

    A landlord’s right to sue for eviction for non-payment of rent is a right that is irrespective of whether the landlord is registered with DCRA or not. A Court would be remiss to nullify a contract between 2 people for failure to register the property with DCRA. A tenant can be evicted from a property for nonpayment of rent even if the property isn’t registered with DCRA. This case discusses the issue.

    Also, most small landlords don’t even know about the relatively new requirement to get a Business License and register the property. So the DC Office of Administrative Hearings will give small landlords a pass if the landlord can prove that they (1) did not know of the law (2) charged a reasonable rent level and (3) are not in the full-time business of real estate.

  • PinkyJosephine

    @DC GIRL

    Excellent response to a very interesting question!
    Without taking a side on the issue, you provided an
    objective assessment with case law in support.
    Kudos to you!
    We need more folks like you in our discussions.
    Bravo again!



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