Frequently Asked Questions By Tenants
Authored By: DC Bar Pro Bono Center
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Table of Contents
Is it legal for my landlord to evict me without bringing me to Court first?
In D.C., your landlord cannot evict you without bringing you to Court and receiving a "judgment for possession." If your landlord evicts you without a judgment for possession, s/he may be responsible for paying you for your property damage plus money damages for breaking the law.
If your landlord has threatened to evict you without bringing you to Court and receiving a judgment for possession, click here for a letter you can send to your landlord advising him or her that the eviction is illegal.
You can also speak with one of the following agencies to get help with an illegal eviction:
Office of the Tenant Advocate
2000 14th Street, NW
Washington, DC 20009
D.C. Law Students In Court
4340 Connecticut Ave, N.W., Suite 100
Washington, DC 20008
Call for hours:(202) 638-4798
Landlord Tenant Resource Center
Landlord Tenant Court Building (Building B)
510 4th Street, N.W., Room #115
9:15 AM - 12:00 Noon
Please note that due to a high demand for services, it may be necessary for the resource center to limit the number of customers it sees each day and close intake before 12 p.m. Even if intake is closed early, all customers who have court dates that day or emergency matters (for example, a live writ, lock-out, or no heat) will be seen if they sign in before 12 p.m.
For a list, go to the "Find Legal Help" tab above.
Do U.S. Marshals have to be present during an eviction?
Yes. U.S. Marshals MUST be present during an eviction. Otherwise, it is illegal and your landlord may be responsible for paying you for your property damage plus money damages for breaking the law.
My landlord doesn't like me. Does he need a legal reason to evict me?
Yes. In D.C., your landlord cannot evict you just because s/he wants to or because s/he doesn't like you. Your landlord must have at least one legal reason in order to lawfully evict you. The most common legal reasons include not paying your rent and violating another part of your lease (for example, keeping a dog when the lease forbids it).
What are the legal reasons my landlord can use to evict me?
For your landlord to legally evict, s/he must prove to the Court that at least one (1) of the following reasons is true:
Can my landlord evict me when my lease period ends?
No. In D.C., once your lease period ends, the lease automatically goes month-to-month. All the other parts of your lease remain the same (including the rent amount, unless you receive written notice).
For example, if you signed a one (1) year lease on January 1, 2016 and the lease period ends on December 31, 2016, your lease term will go month-to-month beginning January 1, 2017 - EVEN if your landlord doesn't agree to renew your lease. In other words, your landlord cannot evict you when your lease period ends unless s/he has another reason.
Can my landlord raise my rent?
Your landlord cannot raise your rent if you both have agreed, usually in a written lease, on a certain amount. Usually you and your landlord agree on a certain amount for a specific period of time. Once that time period ends, your landlord is able to raise your rent with 30 (thirty) days written notice. If you and your landlord never agreed on a specific period of time, your landlord is able to raise your rent at any time with 30 (thirty) days written notice.
If your landlord is allowed to raise the rent, then how much and how often the rent can be raised depends on whether the unit is subject to rent control. If the unit is exempt from rent control, then the landlord can raise the rent by any amount any time, as long as the landlord is not raising the rent for an illegal reason, such as to retaliate against a tenant for taking some lawful action like reporting housing code violations or requesting repairs. The landlord must give the tenant at least 30 days written notice before the date on which the rent increase is to take effect.
If the unit is subject to rent control, then the landlord can raise the rent if:
In general, the landlord can only raise the rent in a rent-controlled unit by a certain percentage each year. That percentage cannot be more than 10% and the exact amount that the landlord can raise the rent each year is determined by the Rental Housing Commission and is based on the Consumer Price Index. You should contact the Rental Housing Commission at (202) 442-8949 to find out how much the landlord can raise the rent.
If the rental property is not returning at least a 12% rate of return for the landlord, the landlord can ask the Rent Administrator to allow a larger rent increase than would normally be allowed. To do this, the landlord must file a "Hardship Petition." If your landlord files a Hardship Petition, you may want to talk to a lawyer to see if the petition is valid.
Finally, if the landlord is making certain types of capital improvements to the building, the landlord can apply for permission to raise the rent to help pay for the improvements. The landlord needs permission from the Rent Administrator to raise the rent for this reason. If you get a notice that your landlord is raising the rent to pay for capital improvements, you may want to talk to a lawyer to see if the notice is valid.
Should I receive any notices before my landlord evicts me?
Yes. You should receive 2, possibly 4, notices before your landlord evicts you.
1. Notice to Quit
The first notice is called either a "Notice to Quit," "Notice to Quit or Vacate," "Notice to Cure or Vacate" or "Notice to Correct or Vacate." Your landlord MUST send you this notice before s/he can legally evict you for any reason other than nonpayment of rent or because you are maintaining a drug haven.
If you are being evicted because your landlord believes that you are maintaining a drug-haven, your landlord does not need to send you this notice.
If you are being evicted because you didn't pay your rent, your landlord may not need to send you this notice. Read your lease to see whether you have agreed to give up your right to receive this notice before being sued for eviction. Your lease may have some language like, "This lease will act as Tenant's notice to quit or vacate thereby waiving any requirement that Landlord serve Tenant with further notice before eviction."
If your lease has this language, your landlord is not required to send you the notice to quit.
If your lease does not have similar language, then you have not agreed to give up your right to receive this notice and your landlord must send you the notice to quit. You can only agree to give up your right to receive this notice in a nonpayment of rent case. Your landlord MUST send you a notice for all other reasons for eviction.
* Remember, even though this notice tells you that you have to leave your home, your landlord cannot force you to leave until s/he has received a judgment for possession from the Court.
The second notice is called a "Complaint." Your landlord MUST send you a Complaint which notifies you of the official Court case, why you are being sued for eviction and the first date and time you must appear in Court.
3. Notice to Tenant of Payment Required to Avoid Eviction
If you are being evicted because you didn't pay your rent AND you were not in Court when a judgment was entered against you, your landlord is required to file a form with the Court explaining how much rent and other costs you owe. The Court is required to send a copy of this form to you.
4. Writ of Restitution
The final notice is called a "Writ of Restitution." This is the official eviction notice that you should receive after your landlord has a "judgment for possession" issued by the Court. If this is the first notice you receive, you should try to speak with an attorney as soon as possible.
Must my landlord serve me the "Notice to Quit," "Notice to Quit or Vacate" or "Notice to Cure or Vacate" in a certain way?
Yes. Your landlord can give or send the notice to you him or herself. You can be served either by:
Except in nonpayment of rent cases, the notice also must be sent to the Rent Administrator within five (5) days after it is given to you
Are there certain requirements for a "Notice to Quit," "Notice to Quit or Vacate" or "Notice to Cure or Vacate" for lease violation(s)?
Yes. The requirements for these notices are very strict. Your landlord must send you a proper notice to be able to go forward with an eviction proceeding. Otherwise, the case should be dismissed in Court. The requirements include:
Are there certain requirements for a "Complaint?"
Yes. Landlords use a standard Court form that must be properly completed for the case to go forward. The landlord must:
Must my landlord serve me the "Complaint" in a certain way?
Yes. Your landlord cannot give or send you a copy of the Complaint directly. Another person (the "process server") who is at least 18 years old must "serve" you. You can be served either by:
What happens if I can't appear in Court on my scheduled day?
What happens on my first day in Court?
For more information about your first day in court, click here.
What is an "Answer?"
An Answer puts in writing the defenses you intend to raise at trial. If you want to countersue your landlord, your answer can include a "Counterclaim," "Recoupment" and/or "Set-Off." If you want to request a jury trial (instead of a "bench trial" before a judge) your answer must include a "jury demand."
Do I have to file an Answer?
Filing an Answer is not required in Landlord Tenant Court unless you want to file a "Counterclaim," "Recoupment" and/or "Set-Off," or if you want to request a jury trial (instead of a "bench trial" before a judge).
What is a "Counterclaim?"
If you are being sued for eviction because you didn't pay your rent, you can file a "Counterclaim" claiming that you have paid your landlord too much in rent because of major housing code violations and you want a refund. You can claim a refund either for the period you have lived in the rental unit or 3 (three) years, whichever is shorter. Usually, tenants file Counterclaims only when housing conditions of the rental unit have been really bad for a long period of time. It costs $10 to file a Counterclaim unless the Court excuses you from paying the fee.
IMPORTANT: If you were not personally served with a copy of the Complaint, filing a Counterclaim may not be the right decision for you. Your landlord may be able to get a money judgment against you (in addition to judgment for possession) if you lose. You should speak to a lawyer before deciding whether to file a Counterclaim.
What is a "Recoupment?"
If you are being sued for eviction because you didn't pay your rent, you can file a "Recoupment" claiming that you have paid your landlord too much in rent because of major housing code violations. A Recoupment asks that the amount of this "overpayment" be deducted from what you owe the landlord. You can claim this deduction for the entire period you have lived in the rental unit, even if you have lived in the rental unit for more than three (3) years. Usually, tenants file a Recoupment only when housing conditions of the rental unit have been really bad for a long period of time. There is no charge to file a Recoupment.
IMPORTANT: If you were not personally served with a copy of the Complaint, filing a Recoupment may not be the right decision for you. Your landlord may be able to get a money judgment against you (in addition to judgment for possession) if you lose. You should speak to a lawyer before deciding whether to file a Recoupment.
What is a "Set-Off?"
If you are being sued for eviction because you didn't pay your rent, you can file a "Set-Off" claiming that you have made repairs or purchased supplies to keep the rental unit up to "code." This may include buying a new stove or replacing the toilet after the landlord failed to do so even though you asked many times. A Set-Off asks that the amount you paid for repairs and purchases be deducted from what you owe the landlord. You can claim these expenses either for the period you have lived in the rental unit or 3 (three) years, whichever is shorter. There is no charge to file a Set-Off.
IMPORTANT: If you were not personally served with a copy of the Complaint, filing a Set-Off may not be the right decision for you. Your landlord may be able to get a money judgment against you (in addition to judgment for possession) if you lose. You should speak to a lawyer before deciding whether to file a Set-Off.
For more information about filing Answers, Recoupments, Setoffs, and Counterclaims, click here.
What is a "Protective Order?"
Either you or your landlord (or landlord's attorney) may ask that a "Protective Order" be set which requires that you deposit all future rent into the Court registry. You are not required to deposit your unpaid back rent (or the amount your landlord claims is unpaid) into the Court Registry under a Protective Order. Protective Orders can be paid with cash or money orders. You must pay your Protective Order on time or risk eviction.
How much will I be required to pay?
You are usually required to pay the full amount of your monthly rent each month until the case is over. If the protective order is entered after the beginning of the month, the judge may only make you pay for part of that month.
If there are major housing code violations in your apartment, you can ask the judge to set the protective order at a lower amount because your apartment is not worth the full rent. The judge may set a separate hearing, called a "Bell" hearing to determine how much rent you should have to pay during the case. If your case is set for a Bell hearing, you will need to be prepared to show the judge that there are problems in your apartment, by telling the judge about the problems or bringing pictures or witnesses with you to Court. You will also need to convince the judge that the landlord knows about the problems and hasn't fixed them.
You can also request a hearing if there is a disagreement about how much rent you should have to pay if you have a voucher that covers some or all of your rent. You can tell the judge if the landlord is asking for a protective order that is higher than your share of the rent.
If the judge orders you to pay less than the full amount of monthly rent, it is a good idea to save the rest of the money if you can. At the end of the case, a judge or jury will make a final decision about how much rent you should have paid during the case. If the judge or jury decides that your protective order was too low, you may have to pay the balance to avoid eviction. If the judge or jury decides that your protective order was too high, the money will be credited to your rental account or refunded to you.
Even if you pay the full amount of rent for a protective order, you may be able to get some of the money back at the end of the case if there were major housing code violations in your apartment during the case. If the judge decides that your protective order was too high, because of the housing code violations, the extra money will be credited to your rental account or refunded to you.
What if I am unable to pay my "Protective Order?"
It depends. If you believe you will have the money to pay your "Protective Order" shortly after it is due, you either can file a "Motion to Extend Time to Make Protective Order Payment" to inform the Court that you need a bit more time to pay, or you can bring the money to Court once you have it all.
If you do not believe you will ever have the money to pay your Protective Order, it may be in your best interest to keep quiet and not alert the Court or your landlord. It is likely your landlord will file a "Motion to Strike Pleadings" which could result in your eviction.
You should speak to a lawyer immediately if you think you may not have the money to pay your Protective Order on time.
For more information about protective orders, click here.
What happens if I can't afford to pay any Court fees?
Most of what you do in Landlord Tenant Court should not cost anything. For example, there is no fee to file an Answer, settle or mediate your case, or have a "bench trial" in front of a judge. However, there are some actions that you may consider which do require the payment of costs or fees: for example, filing a Counterclaim and requesting a jury trial.
If you cannot afford to pay costs or fees relating to your Landlord Tenant case, you can file an "Application to Proceed Without Prepayment of Costs, Fees, or Security" commonly referred to as an "IFP" or "In Forma Pauperis." You will be required to complete an "Affidavit" swearing to your financial affairs. Once you complete and file the Application and Affidavit, a judge will decide whether to grant your request.
What should I know about settling my case with the landlord?
One option you have after being sued for eviction is to settle your case with your landlord or landlord's attorney. You are not required to settle your case and you should not be pressured into doing so. You also probably don't want to agree to terms you cannot meet.
Judgment for Possession by Consent / Form 4A
Most landlords require tenants who want to settle their cases to use a form called "Judgment for Possession by Consent" or "Form 4A." This form immediately enters a judgment for possession against you once it is signed by you and approved by the "Interview & Judgment Clerk." Again, a judgment for possession means that your landlord has the right to evict you, However, the judgment is postponed or "stayed" and you will not be evicted as long as you follow the agreement. Click here for a Form 4A that you can print, complete, and file with the Court.
Usually, these agreements set payment plans that allow you to pay your back rent over a period of time. However, you MUST pay the FULL amounts listed in the agreement ON TIME. If you do not pay the full amount or if you are even a day late, the landlord can evict you. Sometimes, landlords will agree to repair housing code violations according to a certain schedule listed in the agreement. However, even if the landlord fails to fix these housing code violations in the time agreed, you are still required to pay the FULL amount listed in the agreement ON TIME or face eviction.
Click here for an attachment that you can print, complete, and file with the Court along with a Form 4A, if you choose to sign one. You can use this attachment to list the repairs your landlord is required to make.
Settlement Agreement / Form 4B
You and your landlord also can enter into a "Settlement Agreement" or "Form 4B" that sets a payment plan, but does NOT automatically enter a "judgment for possession." If you fail to follow the agreement, your landlord will need to file a "Motion for Judgment," and you both will have a chance to appear in front of the judge to explain your side.
You and your landlord can also come to some other type of agreement, either on your own or with the help of a Court-appointed mediator. The Court provides blank forms called "praecipes" (pronounced "press-uh-pees") that you can use to write up any other type of agreement you reach with your landlord. Be sure that any agreement is filed with the Court. Some types of agreements must be approved by the judge before they are filed.
For more information about settling your case, click here.
What are defenses to a nonpayment of rent case?
Sometimes tenants are unable to pay their rent because they've become unemployed or had to pay unexpected medical expenses due to an illness. The fact that you don't have the money to pay your rent is not a legal defense to an eviction action.
However, you still may be able to raise legal defenses which can help you avoid eviction, even though they are not the primary reason you initially withheld your rent. If you do not raise some defense, it is likely a judgment for possession will be entered against you.
Some legal defenses include:
What are defenses to a "Notice to Quit" case for lease violation(s)?
If you are being sued for eviction for some other reason than nonpayment of rent, you are entitled to receive a "Notice to Quit" or "Notice to Correct or Vacate." If you do not raise some defense, it is likely a judgment for possession will be entered against you.
The following are some legal defenses you may be able to raise:
Should I request a bench or jury trial?
Whether to request a bench trial in front of a judge or a jury trial (in front of 6 jurors) is a complicated issue and you may want to speak to a lawyer before deciding. However, some of the considerations include:
How do I prepare for trial?
What happens on the trial date if I request a bench trial?
Bench trials are generally held in the Landlord and Tenant Courtroom, Room 109, 510 4th Street, N.W. (Building B).
On the date of your trial, your case will be called at 10:30 for “trial status.” The judge will ask you and your landlord if you are ready for trial, and may ask you other questions including how long you think the trial will last and how many witnesses will testify for your side of the case.
Bench trial cases typically are referred to mediation on the day of trial, unless the parties already have mediated. Because mediation often occurs on the same day as trial, trials can start late in the day and can last into a second or even third day.
You need to be prepared to proceed to trial at 10:30 on the trial date. You should have all documents and pictures with you that you wish to present and all witnesses for your case should be present at that time.
Do I need a lawyer?
Although it may be best to have a lawyer defend you in Landlord Tenant Court, you may be able to get through the case on your own. However, if at any stage you do not understand your options or how you should proceed, you should talk to a lawyer. Also, if you are interested in filing a Counterclaim, Recoupment or Set-Off, or if you are interested in requesting a jury trial, you should talk to a lawyer beforehand. There are several other legal service agencies that provide free legal information, advice and/or representation. For a list, go to the "Find Legal Help" tab above.
Free legal information is available in the Landlord Tenant Court Building either through the Landlord Tenant Resource Center or D.C. Law Students in Court. The court will not delay mediation or trial because a party is in the Resource Center as of 10:30 a.m. on the trial date. If you want legal information to help you understand the trial process, you should seek help before the date of your scheduled trial or mediation.
For more information about trials, click here.
I never received notice of my case and now a judgment is entered. What should I do?
Call the Landlord Tenant Court Clerk at (202) 879-4879 between 8:30 AM and 5:00 PM to find out whether you're currently on the eviction list. Whether you're on the list or not, immediately go to Landlord Tenant Court and file the papers to stop the eviction from going forward.
If a judgment is entered against me, how much time do I have until I'm evicted?
Once a judgment for possession is entered against you, your landlord will need to complete a "Writ of Restitution" to evict you. Your landlord must wait 2 business days after the judgment is entered to complete the Writ. The Writ will become "live" or active 3 days after it is filed. Writs last for 75 days, so you can be evicted any time within that period.
How do I know if I'm on the eviction list?
Before you are legally evicted, your landlord must serve you a Complaint and get a "judgment for possession" issued by the Court. Once the judgment is entered, your landlord will need to complete a "Writ of Restitution," which is the official paper that tells the U.S. Marshals Service to schedule your eviction. Once you receive the Writ, you should call the Landlord Tenant Court Clerk every day at (202) 879-4879 between 8:30 AM and 5:00 PM to find out whether you're on the eviction list for the next day.
Is there anything I can do to stop an eviction once I receive a Writ of Restitution?
It depends. If you are being sued for nonpayment of rent and no other reason and you have not given up this right in an agreement, you have the right to stop an eviction up until the eviction actually occurs by paying all the money the landlord claims you owe. This includes all the rent and court costs. You probably will need to pay this amount either in cash or by money order. Make sure you get a receipt that clearly states "Paid In Full" with a "$0 Balance." It is advisable to come to Court and show the judge your receipt so your case file can be marked that you have paid in full.
If you are being sued for another type of lease violation (for example, keeping a dog when the lease forbids it) or for some other reason, like the owner intends to take the property back for personal use, you may not be able to stop the eviction once you receive a Writ if the landlord went through the proper Court proceedings and you had notice and a chance to participate.
What is a money judgment?
If you owe the landlord rent, the landlord can obtain a judgment against you for the amount of rent you owe. The landlord is only entitled to request a money judgment against you if the Complaint and Summons were served on you by handing it to you directly or if you filed a Counterclaim, Recoupment, or Setoff against the landlord.
A money judgment means that you are legally required to pay the landlord that amount of money plus interest. If you do not pay the landlord, the landlord can have money withheld from your wages or bank accounts to pay the debt. This is called "garnishing" your wages or bank accounts.
The landlord is required to wait ten (10) business days after a money judgment is entered before he or she can take steps to garnish your wages or bank accounts.
Even if your landlord is unable to obtain a money judgment in Landlord and Tenant Court, your landlord might be able to sue you in Small Claims Court or the Civil Actions Branch if you owe rent and do not pay it.
Is there anything I can do to stop the landlord from taking money out of my wages or bank accounts?
If you think that a money judgment should not have been entered against you, you should speak to a lawyer about how to have the judgment set aside.
In some cases, even if a money judgment is entered against you, the landlord is forbidden by law to take your money if it comes from certain sources. If you believe that your income is protected from garnishment, you should tell your landlord that immediately. You can also file a motion with the Court asking the Court to stop the landlord from taking your money. You should act as quickly as possible to file a motion with the Court. You may want to speak to an attorney about how to do this.
Protected sources of income:
* Limitations may apply.
For more information about judgments and stopping evictions, click here.
How do I get my landlord to fix problems or housing code violations in my rental unit?
Notify your landlord of the problems in writing. Keep a copy of every notice you send. Also, keep a journal of any conversations you have with your management company or landlord about housing code violations. Note the date and time and to whom you spoke. If your landlord still refuses to fix the problems you have several options:
Free legal services are available to help you enforce your rights under the housing code. Either visit the Landlord Tenant Resource Center or one of the other legal services agencies. Go to the "Find Legal Help" tab above.
How do I report housing code violations?
Request a housing inspector visit the property and make a report of all the housing code violations. To schedule an appointment, call (202) 442-4400. It is best that you are present during the inspection to point out to the inspector all the violations.
How do I get my security deposit back?
Your landlord has forty-five (45) days from when you move to either send you your security deposit in full (including any interest) or to notify you of any reason(s) s/he intends to keep part or all of your security deposit. If you receive notice that your landlord intends to keep part of your security deposit, your landlord then has thirty (30) days from the date of the notice to send you the balance. If you do not receive anything from your landlord within the forty-five (45) day period after you move, you probably will have to bring an action in Small Claims Court.
For more information, see Frequently Asked Questions About Security Deposits for Residential Rentals.