Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia; (Hon. John F. Doyle, Trial Judge)
Before Farrell and Sullivan, Associate Judges, and Mack, Senior Judge. Opinion for the court by Associate Judge Farrell. Concurring opinion by Associate Judge Sulllivan. Concurring statement by Senior Judge Mack.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Farrell
FARRELL, Associate Judge: Three public housing tenants (the tenants) appeal from a decision of the trial court dismissing their civil actions for injunctive and declaratory relief. In their suits, the tenants sought to prevent the District of Columbia Department of Public and Assisted Housing (DPAH) from filing actions for possession against them based partly upon rent owed under leases with DPAH for housing units from which the tenants had been transferred to permit renovation of those units. The dismissal was without prejudice to the tenants' right to raise appropriate claims as defenses to future possessory actions filed against them in the Landlord and Tenant Branch.
On appeal, the tenants argue principally that the District of Columbia may not sue for possession of their current units in the Landlord and Tenant Branch on the basis of rent arrearages under leases no longer in effect. As we rejected a similar argument in District of Columbia v. Suydam, 591 A.2d 856 (D.C. 1991), we do so here as well.
The tenants occupy public housing units under a program administered by the District of Columbia government. We summarized aspects of this program of assisted public housing in Suydam, supra. Each tenant transferred to her current housing unit to permit renovation of the unit she had previously occupied. In each case the transfer required that a new dwelling lease be issued between the tenant and the Housing Management Administration. 14 DCMR § 6205.8 (b) (1991). DPAH later claimed that, by the time of the transfers in question, each tenant was seriously delinquent in rental payments owed under the previous lease. DPAH therefore sued two of the tenants in the Landlord and Tenant Branch seeking possession of the housing units based on nonpayment of rent. *fn1
The dwelling leases under which the tenants occupy their current units contain the following provision:
If this lease is an extension of occupancy by the Tenant under prior lease or leases with the Administration, any such amount due under the prior lease or leases may be charged and collected as if the same had occurred hereunder. *fn2
Moreover, title 14 of the District's public housing regulations related to dwelling leases provides in part:
6205.13 Tenants who execute a new dwelling lease as a result of transfer from one (1) unit to another, or as a result of any other requirement for a new lease, shall remain liable for any delinquent rent or other charges relating to the prior lease.
6205.14 The HMA [Housing Management Administration] may unilaterally execute a special supplement to the new lease which assesses the amount due under the old lease against the new lease. [Emphasis added.]
Despite this contractual and regulatory language which appears to treat arrearages under a former lease as the equivalent of rent due under the present lease ("assessed against the new lease"), the tenants contended in their suit that the District lacks authority to sue them for possession of their units based on claims for back rent "unrelated to any claim for possession of a current tenancy" (emphasis added). Rather, the tenants argued, while DPAH was free to pursue all monetary claims against them in an action for debt in the Civil Division of the Superior Court, it could base an action for possession only on the tenants' failure to pay rent on the unit currently occupied. In refusing to order injunctive and declaratory relief, the trial Judge implicitly rejected this argument.
This is not the first time we have considered the claim that when the District, as landlord administering the public housing program, executes a new lease with a tenant, the earlier tenancy is extinguished under traditional landlord and tenant principles and an action for possession cannot be based on failure to pay rent under the former lease. That was the very issue we considered in Suydam with respect to a "new dwelling lease" that was executed - as required by 14 DCMR § 6205.8 (a) -- after the status of the head of household had changed by separation, i.e., the tenant-husband had left the dwelling. The new lease, which was for the same dwelling, was signed only by the wife as tenant. We rejected the argument that "the District . . . forfeited its right as landlord to seek dispossession of the tenant for nonpayment of rent merely by issuing her a new lease," as required by § 6205.8 (a). 591 A.2d at 860. We said that "both the lease itself" -- specifically the provision quoted above treating any arrearage under a ...