One of my favorite stories is David and Goliath – the tale of the epic battle between David, a shepherd boy who confronts Goliath, a terrifying giant. Against all odds the unthinkable happens – David defeats Goliath.
The “giants” or powerful opponents in our world do have advantages. But these giants also have weaknesses, and can be defeated by an unexpected counter-attack.
This is how I – one renter who is not a lawyer – won my battle against my Goliath management company – in just eight days.
Be Prepared: Know your lease
Every DC renter – whether you are renting a rent-controlled or non-rent-controlled apartment, condo, co-op or room(s) in a house – must become familiar with your lease terms. The lease is a contract between you and the landlord. Whether it is month-to-month or annual, the lease outlines the services and facilities covered by your monthly rent payment. Keep your lease in a safe and accessible place, ready to refer to “when stuff happens.” My lease dates back to 1979 and it is still as valid as the day my husband and I signed it.
(See the DC Renter’s Survival Handbook section below for more information on leases.)
The Attack: New fees
We have used our apartment building’s storage cages without cost since we signed our lease 40 years ago. But on September 20th, we received a letter telling us we would soon have to sign a storage cage agreement and pay a new $50 monthly fee.
I checked my lease and found this new fee was contrary to its terms. I was not going to pay this fee without a fight.
Your Weapon: The letter
I immediately wrote a letter to the president of my management company – not my resident manager, who has no financial decision-making authority. My letter was one page, professional and unemotional including:
- Why I was writing
- Quoted my written lease terms regarding storage
- Made a specific request with a deadline for a written response
- Concluded with actions I would take if my request was not fulfilled
Here is a sample of the letter (slightly fictionalized) I sent to the management company.
Maneuvers: Tell everyone
To give my letter added weight, I included the names of DC government officials who would receive copies of my letter, such as the DC Council member representing my ward, and the DC attorney general. My letter would also go to the management companies’ professional associations, whose names I found on their website.
Maneuvers: Send by both certified mail and email
Take your original letter to the post office and send by certified mail.
By paying a certified fee (mine was $3.50) you will get a written receipt which establishes proof of delivery – eliminating the “I did not receive your letter” excuse from your management company.
Once you have mailed your letter, it is time to get those emails out. Send a second copy of your scanned letter to the management company president along with copies to all of your named DC government officials and professional associations.
By September 27th, I, along with all of my neighbors, received another letter withdrawing the $50 fee and stating our storage cages would continue to be free of charge.
Anyone who hopes to be a David in a Goliath rental world must keep current with their DC renter rights. Here are some tools to not only keep you in the game – but help you win your battles.
The DC Renter’s Survival Guide
My “go-to” resource is the Washington DC Tenant Survival Guide, written by the Harrison Institute for Housing and Community Development at Georgetown University Law Center.
The guide is easy to read providing thorough explanations of renter legal rights- outlining the processes on how to both protect and enforce your legal rights. The guide covers a variety of topics, including leases, repairs, evictions, security deposits and renter petitions and mediation.
Go to the Coalition for Non-Profit Housing website’s online copy of the 2013 Washington DC Tenant Survival Guide, Eighth Edition (visit cnhed.org/policy-advocacy/research, scroll down to “Additional Research Information”).
This High-Rise Life column – written by real high-risers – in Forest Hills Connection
Keep current with our column.
Office of the Tenant Advocate (OTA)
OTA (ota.dc.gov) is DC’s renter’s agency. OTA’s first legal duty is to educate DC renters about their rights.
OTA also has case workers – available by appointment or walk-in – who can review your lease for free and answer your renter questions.
We welcome your stories about your experiences and comments about life in DC’s renter’s world.