When Is It Illegal for Landlords to Retaliate in Washington DC?
It’s illegal for Washington DC landlords to do any of the following with an intent to retaliate against a tenant:
Increase rent or obligations.
Attempt eviction (including pressure to evict outside the legal process).
Violate tenant privacy.
Harass or unduly inconvenience the tenant.
Refuse to honor a provision of the lease or rental agreement.
Tenants get six months of legal protection after they take a protected action. During this period, courts presume retaliatory intention with any of the items listed above, unless the landlord proves a clear and convincing justification. These are the actions the law protects:
Complaints to the landlord or the government about failure to maintain the property.
Participation in a tenant organization.
Asserting rights under Washington DC’s housing laws.
Taking legal action against the landlord.
What Can Tenants Do in Response in Washington DC?
Retaliation comes up most often as adefense in eviction cases,but Washington DC tenants can also respond bysuing for quiet enjoyment.In either case, the tenant can recover attorney fees, plus expenses associated with the retaliation. They can also ask for an injunction that cancels the lease.
Unlike most places,in Washington DC a violation of the housing law is potentially a criminal offense. A retaliating landlord may also face criminal fines or jail time. The details depend on which anti-retaliation law the tenant chooses.
“No housing provider shall take any retaliatory action against any tenant who exercises any right conferred upon the tenant by this chapter, by any rule or order issued pursuant to this chapter, or by any other provision of law. Retaliatory action may include any action or proceeding not otherwise permitted by law which seeks to recover possession of a rental unit, action which would unlawfully increase rent, decrease services, increase the obligation of a tenant, or constitute undue or unavoidable inconvenience, violate the privacy of the tenant, harass, reduce the quality or quantity of service, any refusal to honor a lease or rental agreement or any provision of a lease or rental agreement, refusal to renew a lease or rental agreement, termination of a tenancy without cause, or any other form of threat or coercion.”
“In determining whether an action taken by a housing provider against a tenant is retaliatory action, the trier of fact shall presume retaliatory action has been taken, and shall enter judgment in the tenant’s favor unless the housing provider comes forward with clear and convincing evidence to rebut this presumption, if within the 6 months preceding the housing provider’s action, the tenant: (1) Has made a witnessed oral or written request to the housing provider to make repairs which are necessary to bring the housing accommodation or the rental unit into compliance with the housing regulations; [or] (2) Contacted appropriate officials of the District government, either orally in the presence of a witness or in writing, concerning existing violations of the housing regulations in the rental unit the tenant occupies or pertaining to the housing accommodation in which the rental unit is located, or reported to the officials suspected violations which, if confirmed, would render the rental unit or housing accommodation in noncompliance with the housing regulations.”
“In determining whether an action taken by a housing provider against a tenant is retaliatory action, the trier of fact shall presume retaliatory action has been taken, and shall enter judgment in the tenant’s favor unless the housing provider comes forward with clear and convincing evidence to rebut this presumption, if within the 6 months preceding the housing provider’s action, the tenant: (3) Legally withheld all or part of the tenant’s rent after having given a reasonable notice to the housing provider, either orally in the presence of a witness or in writing, of a violation of the housing regulations; (4) Organized, been a member of, or been involved in any lawful activities pertaining to a tenant organization; (5) Made an effort to secure or enforce any of the tenant’s rights under the tenant’s lease or contract with the housing provider; or (6) Brought legal action against the housing provider.”
Default remedies in a contract dispute like a rental agreement are damages (costs) and rescission (modifying or canceling the contract, in this case the lease). Additionally: “Civil fines, penalties, and fees may be imposed as additional sanctions to criminal prosecution or other civil actions for a violation of this chapter or chapters 2 through 14 of this subtitle.”
“It is the purpose of this section to declare expressly a public policy in favor of speedy abatement of the public nuisances referred to in subsection 101.1, if necessary, by preliminary and permanent injunction issued by Courts of competent jurisdiction.”
“The Rent Administrator, Rental Housing Commission, or a court of competent jurisdiction may award reasonable attorney’s fees to the prevailing party in any action under this chapter, except actions for eviction authorized under § 42-3505.01.”
Washington DC provides for potential criminal charges against landlords who violate the housing law. The current penalty is up to $300 or up to 90 days in prison for each offense (which can be counted as each day an offense continues past the mandated notice period). If the offender is not licensed as a housing business, these penalties can be combined for each offense. SeeD.C. Mun. Regs. tit. 14 §§ 102.1-.3 (2023)
NOTE: Washington DC is additionally unusual in that it has two statutes against landlord retaliation. SeeD.C. Code § 42-3505.02 (2023) for the broader, more common statute. However, see alsoD.C. Mun. Regs. tit. 14 § 307 which also covers landlord retaliation. The statute in D.C. Mun. Regs. is written more narrowly (for example, it doesn’t specifically cover harassment or privacy violations against the tenant) but does carry the potential for criminal sanctions. The statute in D.C. Code is much broader in what it covers, but does not mention criminal penalties.