All leases and rental agreements in Washington, D.C. contain an implied warranty of habitability. It doesn’t matter whether the lease is written or oral — both contain an implied warranty. In fact, it’s pretty much legally impossible for someone to rent property to another person without guaranteeing that the property will be habitable, as defined by the warranty.
Courts in D.C. have ruled that the duties of a landlord under the implied warranty of habitability are exactly the same as the duties listed in the D.C. housing code — meaning that a violation of the housing code is a violation of the warranty. D.C.’s housing regulations are hundreds of pages long, but here are some specific examples:
This list is not exhaustive. Tenants should take a look at the D.C. Housing Code to figure out whether the landlord does have a duty to perform the repair in question. (Luckily, the code is well-organized and easy to read and understand!)
If a tenant is living in a rental unit that contains a housing code violation, there has been a “breach” of the implied warranty of habitability. In other words, the landlord has broken the legal promise they made their tenant.
Usually, landlords are not expected to know that the warranty has been breached until their tenant informs them. Tenants can give notice either in writing or orally, as long as there is a third-party witness present. Then, the tenant has to wait a “reasonable” amount of time, as per the law, to allow the landlord to fix the problem, before dealing with the repair themselves.
There are several cases indicating that — even if a tenant didn’t inform their landlord of an issue that violated the warranty of habitability — D.C. courts believe that a landlord would still be aware of the problem if they were diligent in their duties. However, this is an exception, not a rule, so a tenant should try their best to inform their landlord when the warranty has been breached.
If a landlord refuses to fix a breach of the warranty of habitability after being notified and given a reasonable amount of time to take care of the problem, then a tenant has a few different options:
Repair and deduct: If a tenant needs to use their own money to fix a condition that breaches the warranty, they may then deduct that money from their monthly rent. Their landlord isn’t allowed to evict them on the grounds that they haven’t paid their rent.
Sue for damages: If a tenant suffers damages due to a breach of the warranty, they can take their landlord to court. For example, if a broken or leaking pipe creates a flood that damages a tenant’s possessions, the tenant may sue for the cost of those damaged or ruined possessions.
Rent withholding: If a breach is severe enough that a rental unit is essentially unlivable or unsafe to live in, the tenant may be excused entirely from paying rent. The landlord will likely sue the tenant for unpaid rent, and the tenant will use the breach of the warranty as a defense. If the jury rules in the tenant's favor, they may be allowed to cease payment of rent entirely — and if the tenant has already moved out of the unit, they have been “constructively evicted.”
The D.C. government can levy fines on a landlord who fails to correct housing code violations, and can even pursue criminal charges against the landlord in some circumstances. If the condition is sufficiently dangerous, the District of Columbia can immediately order that a property be vacated and shuttered until the violations are fixed.