How Does DC Investigate Illegal Rentals?

by Lark Turner

How Does DC Investigate Illegal Rentals?: Figure 1
A legal DC basement rental.

In most instances when DC’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) catches somebody illegally renting out a part of their home — like, say, an English basement that isn’t up to code — it’s thanks to an informant, the regulatory agency told UrbanTurf this week.

We’ve been wondering whether the agency, which is charged with enforcing compliance with the city’s codes and regulating businesses, actively looks for landlords who aren’t renting out spaces legally. The answer, it turns out, is not most of the time — at least not at the moment.

“Most rental cases are initiated by neighborhood complaints,” said Matt Orlins, DCRA’s spokesman, in an email to UrbanTurf about the agency’s practices. “…The agency’s Regulatory Investigations section also initiates investigations on its own when time allows.”

When the agency does hear about an illegal rental, they investigate “and take action,” Orlins promised.

If you are illegally renting out a unit and are caught, it can be costly. For a first offense, Orlins said, the fine for an unlicensed rental can run between $2,000 and $4,000. The amount assessed depends on what kind of rental it is and what sort of licenses it requires. Specifically, whether the site needs a Certificate of Occupancy in addition to a Basic Business License. The latter is a piece of paper from the DC government that says you’re licensed to be a landlord; the Certificate of Occupancy ensures that your basement, for example, is up to code.

If a home doesn’t have a Certificate of Occupancy, it may be unsafe for renters. Hence the stiff fine.

A good way to get caught is to use Craigslist. Orlins said DCRA had in fact used the site to catch offenders in the past.

“We have initiated investigations based on ads [found on the site],” he said.

DCRA may soon start issuing more fines, Orlins suggested, and that effort would be carried out by the Regulatory Investigations arm of the agency.

“The Mayor’s proposed FY2015 budget would add three (employees) to this section, which would enable the agency to more frequently investigate at its own initiation,” he said.

See other articles related to: landlord, dcra, basements

This article originally published at https://dc.urbanturf.com/articles/blog/how_does_dcra_catch_illegal_basement_rentals/8544


  1. ghielder@gmail.com said at 6:58 pm on Thursday May 29, 2014:
    How can you tell that's a legal basement rental?
  1. Lark Turner said at 7:42 pm on Thursday May 29, 2014:
    Hi ghielder, Good question. No, I can't recognize a legal basement from a photo. We've interviewed the owner of that basement previously for an article about Airbnb (check it out <a href="http://dc.urbanturf.com/articles/blog/the_growing_airbnb_economy_and_what_it_might_mean_for_dc/8069" title="here">here</a>). The owner is a real estate agent who took pains to renovate the basement to meet DCRA standards. Best, Lark
  1. Anonymous said at 9:42 pm on Thursday May 29, 2014:
    My basement unit does not have a CofA (and as a result, I have not applied for a business licence with the City, since they require CofA first) and it's currently rented out. I cannot get a CofA because the unit does not meet the ceiling height requirement: 1) the general living area is around 6'9" (passing height is 7'0) 2) the kitchen area is around 6'7" (passing height is 6'10") Also, the unit is not separately metered. Bringing ceiling height into compliance is cost-prohibitive at this point, as the basement unit is finished. The seperate metering is less expensive to deal with, but Im not willing to undertake unless I know DCRA wont fault me for ceiling height. Does anyone out there have a recommendation of how to address with DCRA? Would they work with me on the ceiling height...since it's so close to being compliant? Another question - does DCRA have some kind of program where they will give you time to come into compliance, even with tenant is in the apartment? Finally, does DCRA require that the tenant move out if they see you do not have a CofA and have tenants in the basement apartment? thanks for any help.
  1. rogerwdc@yahoo.com said at 6:14 am on Friday May 30, 2014:
    2 helpful DC Gov Links to verify property status. 1) http://pivs.dcra.dc.gov/ 2) http://atlasplus.dcgis.dc.gov/ Due diligence should be done on any property or business that one considers to spend money on. Several blogs over the years have covered similar story with plenty of helpful comments posted by others. Google around.
  1. Emilie Fairbanks said at 8:26 pm on Monday June 2, 2014:
    A legal basement apartment by definition has a business license and rent control registration. A one unit license doesn't require a certificate of occupancy but it still requires an inspection. Not having proper ceiling height is almost always a deal breaker. Have an independent inspector check out your property to tell you what the issues are and find out if you are even zoned for rental units.
  1. JoDa said at 6:26 pm on Saturday June 7, 2014:
    Emilie, Basement units are not classed as one family rentals, and do require a COO. Same would go for something like a carriage house or over-the-garage unit. One family rentals are single family homes, townhouses, duplexes, rooms within your house (where you share spaces like a living room or kitchen with the tenant) or individual condos. Basement and other "accessory dwelling units" are *two-family* rentals, and require a COO. Having lived in one and knowing many other people who do, basement apartments are prone to problems (water penetration, mold, pests, etc.), so classing them as such and requiring the COO makes perfect sense to me.
  1. JoDa said at 6:49 pm on Saturday June 7, 2014:
    In addition, with respect to the first question and some of the other comments here, while it's hard to tell from a picture, there are several tip-offs that the unit isn't legal. The big one is ceiling height, which as mentioned needs to be 7' in most rooms. At my height, if I can touch the ceiling with more than the very tip of my fingers standing flat-footed, it's under 7' (I'm 5'5). While 6'9 might not be a big deal, the line has to be drawn somewhere. I once looked at an illegal place that had, no joke, 6' ceilings. It was oppressive (and the owner joked she was happy that someone short had come to look at the place...haha...no...I couldn't have lifted a blowdryer over my head without bashing my knuckles on the ceiling). Another is rooms without multiple exits or windows. That one is a little tricky since, as I understand it, an exit to another room (say, the bathroom, if the bathroom subsequently has a second exit, i.e., a "pass through" bathroom with doors to, say, both the living room and bedroom) may count as a second exit even if there are no windows. When in doubt you can always ask the landlord/agent to see the license. Technically they are supposed to be mounted in the property, but most people don't do that. I have mine framed and just put them on the wall for inspections. My tenants have requested I NOT leave them displayed because they don't like the look of them. Regardless, I always have them available in hard form or PDF for prospective tenants to view if they ask.
  1. tay said at 4:41 pm on Sunday October 11, 2015:
    so i have a question this is my first time living on my own and i rent a basement in leesburg. the only exit is the stairway door that leads to the living room. i dont have a second exit or windows i can reach.even if i was able to reach the windows in case of a fire they are hard to open and they are underneath the deck. there is no kitchen down here. but theres a refrigerator washer and dryer and all the equipment that maintains water and heat ect. would this be considered an illegal basement to rent?

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