The D.C. Superior Court has made a much-needed change to rules that apply in eviction actions. Effective November 21, 2017, tenants are no longer subject to money judgments just because they raise the defenses of recoupment and set-off based on housing code violations, or because they ask the Court to order their landlords to make repairs.
When a landlord sues a tenant for nonpayment of rent, a tenant may raise a defense that, because serious housing code violations exist and have existed in her home, (1) the landlord owes her a refund of rent for months she paid in full that is equal to the amount outstanding; and (2) the landlord owes her money because she paid for repairs the landlord was required to, but did not, make. A tenant may also raise a counterclaim for injunctive relief, and ask the Court to order her landlord to repair the housing code violations that exist in her home.
Under the Court’s old rule, if a tenant raised these defenses or a counterclaim for injunctive relief she would be opening herself up to a money judgment, an extra penalty that most tenants otherwise would not face. This means that if her landlord were to win the case, the landlord not only would be able to evict the tenant, but also could get a judgment for the tenant to have to pay any money still outstanding. For many tenants, asking for repairs or a rent credit for the time they had to live with serious housing code violations was not worth this risk because, with a money judgment, landlords could garnish their future wages.
Now that the Court has changed this rule, tenants can enforce their rights to safe and habitable homes that comply with D.C. Housing Code without risking their paychecks. We hope this will encourage more tenants to hold their landlords accountable.