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I’ve been living in a group house in Bloomingdale for about a year and a half. In that time, our dealings with our landlords have been – shall we say – interesting. In short: they take forever to make repairs. Beginning last Wednesday, things took a turn for the worse when we requested a contractor to turn our heat back on. One of the landlords’ brothers, who lives in the D.C. area and sometimes acts as their representative (they live in California and New York), told us that the earliest a contractor could arrive was Sunday.

Since temperatures were already dropping to freezing, we asked if we could get a contractor to come out on our own. When the contractor arrived, she found innumerable electrical and safety issues with the heating setup. Thus far, we’ve already paid over $1,000 out of our own pockets. The landlords have told us that we can deduct these costs from this month’s rent, but frankly, I don’t think that’s enough to quell this outrageous situation. We had to suffer through this past weekend – the coldest so far – huddled under blankets in front of space heaters. We’ve essentially been forced into service as our own landlords. We’re a little late on our rent, but we don’t want to pay it until this situation is resolved. What can I do here? Should I withhold the rent entirely? Should I contact DCRA? Help!

Bitter and Cold in Bloomingdale

The property owners can always sue you for withholding rent. But why would they want to do that, when they’ve broken a cardinal rule of landlording: Keeping the place habitable—-kind of a necessity. While you and your roommates probably still have the use of all your fingers and toes, a broken heater is unacceptable. In other words: an “emergency,” according to Joel Cohn, the legislative director of The Office of the Tenant Advocate.

“Lack of heat, lack of running water, lack of electricity—certain things are absolutely essential to what’s considered habitable,” says Cohn. If those things are missing, “they’re deemed to be emergency circumstances, and if they’re cited by DCRA, it would be a 24 hour abatement period.”

Not only should your landlords allow you to deduct the cost of the repairs from the rent, they should allow an abatement for the time that you spent living without heat, not to mention the hassles you endured dealing with the problems yourself.  (And if you’re looking for some legal jargon to employ while speaking to said landlords, try this: DCMR, Title 14, 301.1, “There shall be deemed to be included in the terms of any lease or rental agreement covering a habitation an implied warranty that the owner will maintain the premises in compliance with this subtitle.”)

So here’s the bottom line: Explain everything you’ve been through to your Californian and New Yorker property owners. Then, negotiate the abatement  prior to paying rent, and then pay it as quickly as possible. If your landlords refuse to listen to your pleas, to acknowledge your suffering, and if you really feel the absolute need to withhold rent (something Cohn’s office is “loathe to recommend”), then at least set up an escrow account in a bank. “Put the rent money or the portion being withheld in the escrow account, and then you’ll be able to go to court demonstrating a good faith attempt to pay any amount of rent that is legitimately owed even during the period of violation,” says Cohn.

To submit a question for ASK HOUSING COMPLEX—-and yes, we really, really need questions—-send an e-mail to rsamuelson@washingtoncitypaper.com

Image by Wonderlane, Flickr Creative Commons Attribution License.