Post Opinion: D.C.'s landlords are powerless to address the Wild West atmosphere in their properties
D.C.’s moratorium exceeds the protections of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention moratorium, which applies only to “qualified tenants” in cases of nonpayment of rent.
Many residents, including those working remotely and parents who lack child-care options or are taking care of their children engaged in distance learning, are subjected to excessive noise day and night, open drug use and heavy smoke permeating their walls and exposing them and their children to the effects of marijuana. Others endure the stress of a constant stream of intimidating “visitors” in the hallways on their way to visit another resident or even residents and guests refusing to wear the mandatory face coverings.
Under normal circumstances, housing providers issue offending residents a 30-day Notice to Correct or Vacate that details the offending conduct and states how the transgression can be cured. If the violation continues, housing providers may initiate proceedings in the Landlord and Tenant Branch of the D.C. Courts to recover possession of the apartment and restore the peace and tranquility the residents of the wider apartment community deserve.
Thanks to the various laws enacted by the D.C. Council to stop the spread of the coronavirus, housing providers are denied their one remedy; they are legally prevented from issuing and enforcing 30-day correct-or-vacate notices. With nowhere to turn in the face of skyrocketing complaints from angry residents, housing providers must beg residents to be courteous and mindful to their neighbors. Some have hired private security guards to patrol the hallways. Others have simply allowed residents who can’t tolerate the lawlessness to break their leases and move out, including many long-term residents.
Under pressure from residents and housing providers alike, in May and July the D.C. Council created “carve-outs” to the moratorium known as the “public safety exception,” or PSE. The PSE pertains only to threats or acts of violence, instances of assault, unlawful possession of firearms by the leaseholder and significant damage to the apartment or apartment community caused by a resident’s wanton and willful conduct.
Housing providers and residents are grateful for the PSE; however, its scope is too limited. For example, when attempting to recover possession of an apartment in which a resident operated a strip club, one housing provider learned the PSE was inapplicable. When the housing provider called the police, the resident and his “guests” were told only to turn down the music. If a resident and her guests smoke marijuana in their apartment in violation of the community’s no-smoking and no-drug rules, the housing provider is unable to use the PSE to recover possession of the apartment.
The PSE allows dangerous situations to go on far too long. Even in the limited and extreme circumstances recognized by the PSE, the time to recover possession of the apartment is not remotely tied to the exigency of the situation. After waiting for the 30-day cure period, the housing provider must file a lawsuit and wait nearly two months before seeing a judge. It could be an additional 30 to 60 days until trial (longer by several months if the resident requests a jury) and, assuming the housing provider prevails at trial, another two to four months until the U.S. Marshals Service supervises the removal of the resident. All the while, the bad conduct continues, and good residents are forced to suffer as prisoners in their own homes.
As a result of these restrictions, many apartment communities in D.C. more closely resemble the lawless Wild West than modern society. Shirley Thompson intimately understands the effect this environment is having on D.C. renters. Thompson, the president of her apartment building’s tenant association and a resident there since 1998, says bad actors have become the property’s de facto “bosses.” Her neighbors routinely tell her they are scared for their safety. “We enter our homes and don’t know what is going to happen. We’re living in chaos.”
As for the PSE, Thompson says it has changed nothing: “It is still a mess.” The current situation raises the question: Whom are these laws protecting?