Welcome to the inaugural edition of Ask Housing Complex, in which we answer your questions about rental contracts, rotten roommates, city rules and regs, and everything else that’s on your mind. Send future complaints to email@example.com.
Over the summer, I moved into a new apartment building, and less than four months later, I discovered an inch worth of bedbugs nesting in the joints of my bedframe. I told my building’s manager about the problem and after suggesting some “home remedies,” she informed me a full fumigation would cost $250—which wasn’t even correct; later on, I ended up paying $350. Anyway, I threw myself into prepping for this fumigation: bagging up all my books, washing and dry-cleaning all my clothes and linens, cleaning my shoes, etc. I went through the entire process before realizing that it was basically futile, and I shouldn’t have paid for it in the first place: My building manager knew that multiple people on my hall had previous experiences with bedbugs, and yet my unit was the only one purged at the time. The fumigators never touched the carpeted common areas. The bedbugs were pretty much destined to come back. All told, between the cost of fumigation, throwing away my bedframe, ruining a few items of clothing and killing a pair of sneakers, I ended up spending around $950. I want out. How do I get my landlord to officially terminate the lease? And how can I recoup my $500 security deposit—oh, and all the money I uselessly spent on the fumigation?
—Bugged Out in Mount Pleasant
You may have to just eat the ruined sneakers, but there are actually two legal ways out of the lease…
In one scenario, you explain that the bedbug problem existed before you signed your contract. In that case, your lease is void due to violations that: 1) weren’t caused by you; and 2) weren’t corrected by the building manager “within a reasonable time” (District of Columbia Municipal Regulations [DCMR], 302.2). If you choose to stay, you’d immediately go month-to-month on your rent, but you’d need to provide 30 days of notice before officially vacating your apartment, in accordance with common law practice. Housing lawyer Eric Rome, of Eisen & Rome PC, explains the second, more extreme, way to leave the bedbugs behind: “The other way you could get out of the lease is to say you were ‘constructively evicted,’ that the situation in there became so intolerable and that the landlord’s actions were so negligent and deficient, that the intent of the landlord was to never fix the unit. It basically means that the landlord has so seriously interfered with the use and the enjoyment of the property that it’s tantamount to an eviction.”
Both may seem like certain misadventures, but cite one or the other explanation as the reason for your departure and that’s how you break your lease. It’s also how you explain yourself in small claims court if you’re seeking damages from the overlords of your old bug-infested quarters.
You’re correct in saying that your landlord should have covered the cost of fumigation; if an infestation occurs in two or more units, the building’s owner must pay for it (DCMR 805.5). But filing suit is a gamble. If the judge decides you weren’t “constructively evicted” and your broken lease should be intact, you could owe the landlord missed rental payments. “You always have to gauge your exposure. If it’s only your security deposit, sometimes I say, ‘It’s not worth the risk,’” says Rome. Either way, your landlord has 45 days to return your security deposit. Don’t act before that period’s up.
Image by Alex Eben Meyer