Where a defect at a residential rental property presents a substantial and serious threat of danger to life, health, or safety of the occupants of the property, Real Property § 8-211 allows a tenant to pay rent into an escrow account with the clerk of the court, instead of to the landlord, provided that the tenant meets certain conditions. The action is aimed at inducing landlords to correct such any such dangerous conditions at the rental property. The applicable form is DC/CV 83 (Petition In Action of Rent Escrow or For Injunction).
The action of rent escrow is the only remedy available in landlord-tenant court, and it is available only for acts or omissions by a landlord that may amount to constructive eviction. Lack of heat, light, electricity or running water (except where caused by tenant’s failure to pay utility bills), lack of adequate sewage disposal, rodent infestation, and dangerous structural defects are presumed to be substantial threats to life, health or safety. Real Property § 8-211(e).
A rent escrow action does not provide a remedy for the landlord's failure to repair and eliminate minor defects or, in those locations governed by such codes, housing code violations of a non-dangerous nature. The following conditions are presumed to not present a serious and substantial threat to the life, health and safety of the occupants: (1) any defect which merely reduces the aesthetic value of the leased premises, such as the lack of fresh paint, rugs, carpets, paneling or other decorative amenities; (2) small cracks in the walls, floors or ceilings; (3) the absence of linoleum or tile upon the floors, provided that they are otherwise safe and structurally sound; or (4) the absence of air conditioning. However, a tenant may present evidence to prove otherwise.
As a condition to relief in a rent escrow action, a tenant must provide the landlord with written notice of the defect and an opportunity to cure.
b. The Complaint
Form DC/CV 83 requires the tenant to state the conditions the tenant considers to be defects that are a threat to life, health or safety, certify that the landlord was provided with proper notice of the defect, and make a demand for available remedies.
c. Court, Trial and Appeal
Upon filing of the Petition In Action of Rent Escrow, the court will usually order an inspection of the rental property, at which time the court will also require the tenant to pay all outstanding rent and any rent that becomes due during the rent escrow proceedings to the clerk of the court. If the tenant fails to make the required payments, the action may be dismissed.
The court shall make appropriate findings of fact as to whether or not a defective condition exists and make any order that the justice of the case may require, including any one or a combination of the following:
i. termination of the leased and return of the leased premises to the landlord;
ii. Dismissal of the rent escrow action;
iii. Order the amount of rent required under the lease to be abated and reduced in an amount determined by the court; or
iv. Order the landlord to make repair or correct conditions complained of by the tenant.
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