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Eviction Laws and Tenant Rights in the District of Columbia

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In a Nutshell

Landlords in District of Columbia can’t just change the locks, toss your belongings out on the front yard, or shut down essential utilities. A landlord must follow the eviction process in order to have a tenant evicted for any reason. Here's an overview of what this means for tenants in District of Columbia.

Written by Upsolve Team
Updated November 11, 2021

It’s tough to face eviction. In addition to the prospect of losing your housing, you may not know your rights or feel powerless under the law. Fortunately, the District of Columbia’s eviction laws provide protections to renters. Knowing these laws can help you successfully prevent an eviction. This article can help you if you’re renting in the District of Columbia and you haven’t been able to pay your rent or if your lease is close to ending and you’re facing a possible eviction.

What Is Eviction? 

An eviction is a legal process that a landlord uses to get a tenant out of a rental unit. The landlord must first provide you notice. When the notice expires, the landlord needs to get a court judgment to make you vacate the property. If the landlord evicts you without a court order, they’ve violated the law by doing what’s called an “illegal eviction” or “illegal lockout.” 

In the District of Columbia, you can be evicted for three main reasons: violating the lease terms, not paying the rent in full on time, performing illegal activity on the premises.

Who Can Be Evicted in the District of Columbia?

For an eviction to occur, there must first be a landlord-tenant relationship. This is usually established through a rental agreement. That said, other occupants who live with the tenant but aren’t on the lease can also be evicted, such as a child living with a parent.

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Why Can Someone Be Evicted in the District of Columbia? 

There are three main causes of eviction. The first is related to paying rent. This could mean you haven’t paid all of your rent, are late paying your rent, or are behind on multiple rent payments. Second, you can evicted for violating the lease, like having a pet that isn’t allowed or committing an illegal act on the property. The last is when the lease expires and you don’t leave.

If you’ve committed an illegal act, the landlord will need to provide you with a 30-day notice to leave the property or face eviction. If you violate the lease through other means, including not paying rent, the landlord will give you 30 days to fix the issue or face eviction. 

In D.C., there are also more rare types of evictions related to property use. For example, if your landlord wants to demolish the property you’re currently living in, they need to give you 180 days’ notice to leave. If the landlord wants to renovate the unit, they need to provide 120 days’ notice, and you may be able to return. If the landlord simply decides that they just don’t want to rent the unit anymore, they need to give 180 days’ notice to vacate. If the landlord wants to use the property for themselves, they need to provide 90 days’ notice leave. If the landlord wants to sell the property, they also need to provide 90 days’ notice to leave.

Late, Short, or Behind on Rent? 

Owing back rent is treated as any other type of lease violation, so you have 30 days to pay the rent or face eviction. Although D.C. law forbids the landlord from charging you late fees until the rent is five days late, there isn’t this kind of protection for eviction. Interestingly, though, D.C. provides you with the opportunity to pay the rent through the eviction process.

Lease Expiration or Termination

A lease termination and expiration are different. When you sign a lease, it will usually be for a ceratin term. Once that time is up, the lease expires. In Washington D.C., landlords can’t evict you when your lease expires. Instead, when your lease expires, it automatically goes to a month-to-month lease. The landlord can increase rent payment on this new lease, but the rest of the lease stays the same. So long as you continue to pay the rent in full, you have a right to stay. 

But your landlord can evict you if the lease is terminated. When your lease is terminated, you lose the right to live on the property. Your lease can be terminated in D.C. for two reasons. First, if you do something illegal on the property, your landloard can terminate your lease, and you’ll have to leave in 30 days or face eviction. Second, if you violate the lease in any other way that isn’t illegal, then the landlord must give you 30 days to fix the lease violation. If you fail to resolve the issue, the landlord then can terminate the lease. 

The District of Columbia Eviction Process 

The eviction process for Washington D.C. can be complicated. This section provides a guide for how it works and covers tenant protections.

What does a landlord have to do to begin an eviction?

Generally, a landlord will need to provide 30 days notice for an eviction. The landlord must provide this notice in written form to the tenant. When it concerns a lease violation through non-payment or something else, the landlord must give you 30 days to fix the issue. So if the issue is nonpayment of rent, you must pay the back rent and get current. If you violated the lease by having a pet that’s not allowed, you’ll have to get rid of it. If you did something illegal that breaches the terms of the lease, the landlord doesn’t have to give you a chance to fix the issue. 

What happens once the eviction action is filed with the court? 

When the notice expires, the landlord will then need to file an eviction lawsuit with the tenant branch of the D.C. Superior Court. After that, the landlord needs to serve you with a summons, which includes information on where the trial will be and what it concerns. You can be served in person, someone who’s over 16 and lives at the property can be served on your behalf, or the copy of the summons can be posted in an obvious place at the property and mailed first class to you.

Eviction proceedings happen at least seven days after eviction filings unless you’re facing eviction over drugs. Then it can happen as soon as five days later. The eviction hearing will occur 21 days after the landlord first filed the complaint. If you’re facing a drug-related eviction, it will only occur 14 days after the filing of a complaint.

In other states, you need to file an answer to the summons with the court. In D.C., you’re only required to file a formal answer if you want a jury trial. If you request a jury trial, it will add two weeks to the timeline. If you don’t request a jury trial, then the hearing will proceed at your first appearance. If you don’t appear at the first hearing, then the judge will rule that day, and you’ll risk a default judgment. This means the judge has ruled against you simply because you didn’t show up.

At the first eviction hearing, the judge will try to broker an agreement between you and the landlord. For example, if you owe rent but are withholding it over the landlord’s refusal to fix the heating, the judge might arrange for you to provide the past-due rent in exchange for the property owner fixing the heating. If the judge determines that you don’t have any type of defense for the eviction, they’ll rule against you at the first hearing.

If the judge brokers an agreement between you and the landlord, then they’ll schedule a second hearing at least 10 days later. If the court finds at the second hearing that you’ve failed to abide by the agreement, they’ll rule against you and you will face eviction.

Telling Your Side of the Story: Affirmative Defenses and Counterclaims

There are two main ways you can respond to an eviction. The first is an affirmative defense. An affirmative defense is a reason why you shouldn’t be evicted. The second is a counterclaim, where you sue the landlord for money that you feel they owe you.

Examples of affirmative defenses include:

  • The landlord failed to fix serious issues with the property.

  • You didn’t receive proper notice.

  • The landlord is discriminating against you.

  • You’re facing retaliation for asserting your rights.

A counterclaim is where you sue the landlord for damages. These claims won’t stop the eviction lawsuit, but they can help you get money you’re owed or reduce the amount of money you owe the landlord. Counterclaims will often concern rent you feel you shouldn’t have been required to pay. You can file answers and counterclaims at the eviction hearing. You fill out separate forms for each.

What Happens After an Eviction Trial?

The court will rule on the matter at the hearing, and they will issue a writ of restitution at least two days after the judgment. From here, the landlord must fill out a writ at the court. Also, the court will send the writ to the U.S. Marshals Service of the Federal Government. You will have 3-14 days to move out after the writ is issued.

It’s important to note that, if you’re facing eviction over nonpayment of rent, you can fix the issue anytime before the writ is issued by paying the rent. Once the lawsuit occurs, you can work with the court to figure out how much you owe in rent and pay it back in a process approved by the court.

If the court rules against you and issues a writ, your only option to continue to fight the eviction is to file an appeal within three business days of the judgment.

Practical Tips for Tenants Facing Eviction in District of Columbia

Knowing the steps of a legal eviction process is helpful, bu tit’s also good to keep practical steps in mind when you’re dealing with an eviction.

  • Compile any evidence you’ll use to support your claim. This might be documents showing rent paid or photos or videos of the condition of the property. You might also want to schedule a municipal building inspector to review the property and provide a formal report concerning the state of the property.

  • If you can’t appear for an eviction hearing, reach out to the court and request that they delay the court hearing. If that not possible, ask if you have other options to avoid a default judgment.

  • Since you can pay back rent to avoid eviction until the writ is issued, you should check with the court to ensure that you’re paying the rent correctly. Ask if you need to go through the court or landlord. If you pay the landlord the rent, keep a record of the payment.

  • Stay in contact with the landlord. If you reach out when issues happen but before a notice of eviction is filed, you can prevent an eviction from being filed. You want to avoid an eviction filing because if one’s filed against you, it can remain on your record and make it harder to rent in the future.

  • Similarly, once an eviction is filed, you should see if your landlord or their lawyer will negotiate with you. Sometimes, if you agree to leave by a certain date, the landlord will drop the lawsuit.

Tenant Resources in the District of Columbia

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