The tenant's obligation to pay rent is dependent upon the landlord's performance of his obligations, including his warranty to maintain the premises in habitable condition. In order to determine whether any rent is owed to the landlord, the tenants must be given an opportunity to prove the housing code violations alleged as breach of the landlord's warranty. A warranty of habitability, measured by the standards set out in the Housing Regulations for the District of Columbia, is implied by operation of law into leases of urban dwelling units covered by those regulations and that breach of this warranty gives rise to the usual remedies for breach of contract.
By separate written leases, each of the appellants rented an apartment in a three-building apartment complex in Northwest Washington known as Clifton Terrace. The landlord, First National Realty Corporation, filed separate actions in the Landlord and Tenant Branch of the Court of General Sessions on April 8, 1966, seeking possession on the ground that each of the appellants had defaulted in the payment of rent due for the month of April. The tenants, appellants here, admitted that they had not paid the landlord any rent for April. However, they alleged numerous violations of the Housing Regulations as "an equitable defense or [a] claim by way of recoupment or set-off in an amount equal to the rent claim," as provided in the rules of the Court of General Sessions. The lower court allowed the evictions, finding proof of housing code violations was inadmissible when proffered as a defense to an eviction action for nonpayment of rent.
Can violations of the Housing Regulations, which arise during the term of a lease, permit tenants to not comply with their obligation to pay rent?
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit disagreed with the lower court because leases should have been viewed as contracts, and modern contract law implied warranties of quality to meet expectations of buyers. In addition, the comprehensive regulatory scheme of the housing code displaced the common law no-repair rule and is to be abandoned in favor of an implied warranty of habitability. The common law "no-repair" rule, which placed the burden of repair on tenant, was no longer valid because modern urban tenants' interest in property had nothing to do with the land itself, but was an interest in having suitable living quarters. If housing code violations existed, but part of back rent was owed and the tenants agreed to pay, a judgment of possession could not have been entered. As such, the Court reversed and remanded the case.