Washington, D.C. is infamous for having a permanent housing shortage, which begets inordinately high rents. The median rent in Georgetown is $3400, which is downright reasonable compared to Woodley Park, which comes in at a whopping $4490 per month. These numbers include all rental properties, so to put these numbers in perspective they do factor in larger homes in Northwest D.C. With numbers like these, you might think that landlords hold all the power in the landlord/tenant relationship and that tenants have few rights. In fact, the opposite is true, the District has some of the most comprehensive fair housing laws in the U.S.
Fair Housing Act
The Civil Rights Act of 1968, also known as the Fair Housing Act,
Prohibits discrimination in housing based on race, color, religion, national origin, sex, disability, and familial status (presence of kids under 18 in a household.)
In addition, the D.C. Human Rights Act of 1977 expanded protections for the following characteristics and categories.
- Personal Appearance
- Sexual Orientation
- Gender Identity
- Family Responsibilities
- Political Affiliation
- Source of Income
- Place of Residence or Business
- Status as a Victim of an Intra-Family Offense
Tenant Bill of Rights
The D.C. Office Of The Tenant Advocate went even further in codifying tenant rights, enacting the D.C. Tenant Bill of Rights in 2014. This legislation pulls out the really practical aspects of the standard lease and explains tenant rights and landlord responsibilities in simpler language. The rights outlined apply to every tenant in the District; the only exceptions are on the topic of rent control.
These are some of the most important points of the Bill of Rights.
A lease does not have to be in writing. This surprises many tenants and landlords alike, but tenancy may be established with an oral agreement. If the landlord does require a written lease, you must be provided with the lease, relevant addenda, and District housing regulations regarding landlord and tenant relations.
Some lease clauses are prohibited. For instance, a waiver of landlord liability for failing to maintain the property is prohibited–the landlord is required by law to provide a safe and habitable residence, at their expense. Also, the landlord may not change the terms of the lease unless you agree–preferably in writing. When your lease expires, you have the right to continue tenancy indefinitely on a month-to-month basis. The only change that can be made is a lawful rent increase.
You are also entitled to a receipt for any rents paid, unless you pay by check when the cancelled check serves as the receipt. The receipt should confirm the purpose (rent) and date of payment, and the balance due if it’s a partial payment (more common in times of Covid.)
Your security deposit is limited to one month’s rent. Your landlord must keep the deposit in an interest-bearing account and you have the right to know where the money is kept and the prevailing interest rate. Your security deposit must be returned with interest within 45 days of your move out, and if any of your deposit was used to defray repair costs you must be notified in writing within 30 days.
Disclosure of Information
This primarily refers to rent controls and rent increases, although pertinent information regarding the lease (rent, application fee, security deposit, housing code violations, and any mold and remediation within the past three years) is also included. If there is a petition to increase rent, surcharges on the rent and the expiration date, and the rent control or exempt status of the dwelling are all part of the Disclosure. The Tenant Bill of Rights falls into the Disclosure category, too.
Discrimination is prohibited across the board in Washington, D.C. However, it can be insidious and difficult to prove. Discrimination can be either perceived or actual, and is not limited to refusing to rent. Some landlords engage in discriminatory behavior after a tenant has taken residence by creating a hostile living environment, or refusing to make reasonable accommodations to give tenants equal opportunity to enjoy the premises.
Discriminatory acts include refusing to rent; renting on unfavorable terms, conditions, or privileges; creating a hostile living environment; and refusing to make reasonable accommodations to give a person an equal opportunity to use and enjoy the premises.
Social Media Discrimination
Technology provides a screen for discrimination through social media algorithms. It is illegal to post discriminatory housing notices anywhere, but monitoring the internet is a particular challenge. Craigslist has addressed that issue head-on by publishing Fair Housing Act notices on their website, but they’re not the worst offender. That distinction goes to social media outlets, whose algorithms let them discriminate with no repercussions. Facebook is the worst offender; they discriminate by NOT showing some real estate listings to users who don’t meet the algorithmic metrics.
This means that thousands of D.C. residents aren’t seeing all their housing opportunities if they use Facebook as a resource. The National Fair Housing Alliance filed a lawsuit against Facebook in New York City federal court in March of this year.
Source of Income Discrimination
Fair housing laws in Washington, D.C. are very clear that residents with housing vouchers are not to be discriminated against on the basis of income. Some landlords do not want to lease to households using vouchers, and put up income barriers to approval that they would not otherwise. The standard rent to income ratio for tenant approval is that household income must be at least three times the rent. Housing voucher recipients pay 30% of their income towards the rent and the voucher pays the balance; D.C. rules stipulate that landlords count vouchers as regular income so the prospective tenants do qualify for housing.
If you suspect a rental company has turned you down for housing because of income, you have the right to file a complaint with the D.C. Housing Authority.
A landlord can evict a tenant for one of ten specific reasons outlines in the Rental Housing Act of 1985. You cannot be evicted because your lease has expired, or because the property has been foreclosed on or sold. Even if you have been a less than ideal tenant and the landlord has a valid reason for eviction, they can’t force you out by making your life miserable–changing locks, cutting off utilities, or other “self-help” methods. An eviction must go through the judicial process, and you must be given the chance to cure the lease violation. Finally, any eviction must be pursuant to a court order.
Washington, D.C. residents enjoy some of the strongest tenant protections in the country, but the rules are complicated and if you have an issue with your landlord, even the friendliest regulations can seem daunting. Renting through an established property management company ensure your rights are protected and you have an advocate should you have a problem with your landlord.