In landlord-tenant law, there are specific duties that a landlord owes to the tenant that include making the rental unit habitable and affecting necessary repairs in a timely manner. The renter also has obligations, including the payment of rent.
When a renter vacates the premises without notice, refuses to pay the rent and then later pursues legal action against the landlord, it is important to understand the procedures involved, the deadlines to be observed, as well as under what circumstances these actions are legal.
Because landlord-tenant laws are complex in the Washington D.C. area, it can help to first consult with experienced counsel before initiating action in order to discover all options, including out-of-court solutions, available for resolving the conflict.
When a renter vacates a unit or refuses to pay the rent because of poorly maintained units, delays in needed repairs or communication challenges with landlords, he is applying the theory of constructive eviction.
There are three elements to constructive eviction:
- The landlord substantially interferes with the tenant’s use and enjoyment of the premises that he is renting, and does not resolve the problem
- The tenant gives notice that there is a problem, and the landlord does not respond
- The tenant vacates the premises within a certain time period
Renters who do not follow certain procedures when initiating constructive eviction may face countersuits from the landlord. In the District of Columbia, breaking a lease is justifiable if:
- the tenant is beginning active military duty, in which case once the renter delivers notice of termination, the lease will terminate 30 days after the date that rent is next due
- the rental unit is not habitable under local and state housing codes, with requirements that must be met before moving out as outlined by common law
- there is an intrafamily domestic violence case for which a tenant has filed a police report
- the landlord harasses the tenant or violates their right to privacy
Apartment dwellers are often under the impression that termination of the lease is the only remedy, without realizing that there are other negotiable options, such as rent adjustment or a request for reimbursement for damages.
Constructive evictions can sometimes be difficult to justify, and for the landlord, a preemptive eviction that does not follow legal procedures can end up in a court battle. The mutual obligation that the tenant and landlord enter into make many issues easier to resolve when both sides maintain good communication from the beginning.