DC Rental laws - Should we pay rent during emergency repairs?
July 29, 2013 6:46 AM   Subscribe

We're living in an apartment in Washington DC. There was a leak in the building's water system that caused damage to several units in the building including ours. It took about a month to get it all fixed - drying everything out, replacing the drywall, tearing out and replacing the wood floors. Its all done now. It was a big mess for a while, with fans and dehumidifiers and torn up floors and walls. We thought about moving out but decided it would be more of a hassle than it was worth so just didn't use the kitchen while this was going on. The building's insurance paid for the repairs and the landlord has been very responsive and done what he could to get it done quickly. We agreed that we wouldn't pay rent until all this was settled. The landlord proposes to pro-rate the rent so that we don't pay anything for the days that the kitchen was unusable and we had to put up with the construction. I've tried to figure out what DC rental law says about this ("OS expects to have a complete, authoritative version of Title 14 available for viewing by mid-October 2009") but can't find anything definitive. My question: Does pro-rated rent abatement seem like a legally and ethically reasonable approach?
posted by RandlePatrickMcMurphy to Law & Government (10 answers total)
Yes, absolutely. You and your landlord can come to an agreement on a rent abatement. That's fair.

You got the use of most of the apartment during the repairs, so there's value in that. You owe SOMETHING.

What do you think would be fair?
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:49 AM on July 29, 2013

What is legal and what is ethical are sometimes two different things, so I wouldn't focus on that.

Regarding coming to an agreement between you and your landlord: you are free to negotiate with him, and he is free to either accept, reject, or negotiate alternative terms with you.

Perhaps retaining the services of an attorney familiar with landlord-tenant law in Washington DC would be helpful.
posted by dfriedman at 7:03 AM on July 29, 2013

Sounds like you've got a great landlord. I'll take the ethical nice guy over saving a little bit more money any day!
posted by matty at 7:22 AM on July 29, 2013 [2 favorites]

I can't quote the law, but it sounds like your landlord will not charge you rent for the days that the kitchen was unusable and had construction work going on. That means you won't pay rent for those days, but will pay rent for the days before and after the construction mess. Sounds like a win-win to me. Are you not in agreement with how many days the kitchen was unusable? If this is an agreement between you and the landlord (of course get it in writing once the terms are agreed upon), what exactly is concerning you about the legality of it?
posted by MultiFaceted at 7:24 AM on July 29, 2013 [2 favorites]

Also...I am interpreting "pro-rate the rent" as meaning you divide the monthly rent by 30 (or 31) days to get a daily rent rate. Then you only pay that daily rent for the days the kitchen was useable, therefore not paying rent on the days it wasn't. Example: monthly rent is $300. daily rent is $300\30=$10 a day. The kitchen was unusable for 10 days, so you only pay rent for 20 days that month, which equals $200.

Are you interpreting that differently?
posted by MultiFaceted at 7:28 AM on July 29, 2013

My experience with DC landlord/tenant court is that you cannot expect a judge to adhere to the letter of the law. Rather, he will strongly urge you to seek a compromise outside of court, then strongly urge you to seek a compromise via mediation, then strongly urge you to seek a compromise in court, then strongly advise you to accept his own compromise solution, then impose his own compromise solution.

That is--forget the law and work with your landlord to find a compromise solution, unless something really egregious is happening.
posted by MrMoonPie at 7:47 AM on July 29, 2013

That sounds like a completely equitable solution to me.
posted by gjc at 7:54 AM on July 29, 2013

In most places that allow rent withholding (which is entirely tenant-initiated, not requiring involvement or agreement with the landlord), the general principle seems to be that a tenant can withhold a portion of the rent based on what portion of the unit was uninhabitable (failed to meet regulatory standards in that jurisdiction). In places where tenants aren't allowed to withhold rent, but must be awarded a rent abatement by a court or something, this is still the case (with the portion of rent awarded as an abatement varying quite a bit depending on the sympathies of the judge or tenancies officer reviewing the application). There's some variation between jurisdictions on whether both withholding and abatements apply in chunks of one month, or are pro-rated (eg., one room out of four unusable for half a month = (1/4)*(1/2)*(month's rent) = (1/8)*(month's rent) that you don't have to pay; taking into account the functions of the rooms, eg. bathrooms are pretty important, and you incurr extra dining expenses if your kitchen is unusable, may alter that formula, but it seems to be conmonly takwn as a starting point). I believe DC allows rent withholding, but if I recall correctly, Virginia right next door does not, so perhaps not. The month versus pro-rated portion convention most likely depends on case law in your jurisdiction rather than being specified in the written law.

Since the exact amount to withhold is not specified in law (anywhere I've seen), it may (or may not, depending on how the "you can't sign away your rights under this law" clause is written) be the case that a written agreement that you come to with your landlord would take precedence. (Quebec has a clause in their residential tenancies act that specifies what needs to happen if major repairs need to be made, including provisions for when the landlord is required to relocate a tenant for the duration of the repairs. That sort of clause would likely supercede your agreement with your landlord. But as far as I know, Quebec is the only place in North America with such a clause.)

In short: if you want a definitive legal opinion, ask a lawyer or seek out a tenent or legal aid clinic.

Of course, a lot of what happens between landlords and tenants in the real world depends on what gets negotiated, not what the law is, which is where your question about ethics comes in. I have no comment at this time on the ethics of the situation. But convention seems to support proportional and pro-rated withholding/abatements.
posted by eviemath at 7:54 AM on July 29, 2013

Response by poster: This is very helpful. We're planning to agree to those terms. I just wanted to check that the cloud agrees. Thanks.
posted by RandlePatrickMcMurphy at 8:07 AM on July 29, 2013

It took about a month to get it all fixed...The landlord proposes to pro-rate the rent so that we don't pay anything for the days that the kitchen was unusable

Are they offering to prorate for that entire "about a month" period? There's no way you would be able to argue for getting more than that. If you feel it's unethical to not have to pay anything for days when you were still using the rest of the apartment but not the kitchen, I'm sure your landlord will be happy to accept extra money.
posted by yohko at 2:05 PM on July 29, 2013

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