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Anderson v. District of Columbia Housing Authority

May 3, 2007


Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (LT-34994-01) (Hon. Melvin R. Wright, Trial Judge).

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Blackburne-rigsby, Associate Judge

Argued November 28, 2006

Before FARRELL, RUIZ, and BLACKBURNE-RIGSBY, Associate Judges.

In this appeal, the tenant, Ms. Sherron Anderson, seeks to recover 100% of a $6,210 rent abatement awarded by the trial judge due to numerous housing code violations in her rental unit, including the portion of the rent paid by the District of Columbia Housing Authority ("DCHA"), pursuant to the Section 8 Program. We conclude that because the total abatement exceeds the sum of the rental payments Ms. Anderson made, her award must be limited to $234, her contribution of the total rent paid for her unit during the course of her tenancy. To conclude otherwise would turn over to the tenant public funds earmarked to provide rental assistance to low income tenants. Accordingly, we affirm.

I. Factual and Procedural Background

Ms. Anderson signed a lease, which commenced on December 12, 2000, for a house located on 2nd Street, N.E., in Washington, D.C. She leased the house pursuant to the federal government's Department of Housing and Urban Development ("HUD") Housing Choice Voucher Program ("HCVP"), most commonly referred to as the "Section 8" Program. The Section 8 Program distributes federal funds to local public housing agencies for the purpose of providing rental assistance on behalf of low income families. DCHA is the local agency responsible for administering Section 8 funds to low income tenants in the District of Columbia.

In order to receive Section 8 funds for the rental of his house, Mr. Olaremi Abidoye, the landlord, entered into a Housing Assistance Payment Contract ("HAP contract") with DCHA. According to the terms and conditions of the HAP contract, the monthly rent Mr. Abidoye was to receive for his house, which Ms. Anderson rented, was $1,350.*fn1 Of this total rent amount, Ms. Anderson was responsible for paying $78 per month to Mr. Abidoye, and DCHA was responsible for paying the remaining portion of the rent, $1,272, to Mr. Abidoye. According to the HAP contract, the Section 8 funds were required to be paid by DCHA directly to the landlord and not to the tenant.

Ms. Anderson paid her portion of the rent*fn2 to Mr. Abidoye for January, February, and March 2001, but withheld her portion of the rent after March 2001 because she alleged the existence of numerous housing code violations. Although Ms. Anderson stopped paying her portion of the rent after March 2001, DCHA continued to pay its share of the rent to Mr. Abidoye until June 2001. However, after two inspections by DCHA, Mr. Abidoye was notified on June 21, 2001 that the HAP contract and the rent subsidy paid to him by DCHA pursuant to the HAP contract, would be terminated on August 31, 2001 because of the poor condition of the premises, specifically Housing Quality Standard ("HQS") repairs that had not been completed. Although no rent was paid to Mr. Abidoye by DCHA or Ms. Anderson after June 2001, she continued to occupy the premises until November 11, 2001.*fn3

On August 20, 2001, the landlord, Mr. Abidoye, filed a complaint for possession of the premises against Ms. Anderson in the Landlord and Tenant Branch of the Superior Court, seeking possession of her unit, as well as a money judgment for her failure to pay rent from March 2001 through November 2001.*fn4 Ms. Anderson counterclaimed,*fn5 alleging a breach of the implied warranty of habitability due to numerous housing code violations,*fn6 the existence of which she argued rendered her lease void from its inception. She also sought an abatement and return of all rent, including the Section 8 subsidy paid on her behalf by DCHA to the landlord.*fn7

The trial court concluded that based on the poor condition of the home from the inception of the lease until November 11, 2001, the rent should have been substantially less than the lease amount charged by the landlord. As such, the trial judge conducted a month-by-month analysis to calculate a reasonable rebate and the corresponding abatement of the rent because of the uninhabitability of the premises. The trial judge calculated a total abatement of $6,210, but limited the portion of the abatement Ms. Anderson received to $234.

Ms. Anderson filed her first appeal in this case on April 24, 2002, claiming that she was entitled to the full amount of the rental abatement, $6,210, which included DCHA's portion of the rental payment. See Anderson v. Abidoye, 824 A.2d 42 (D.C. 2003) (hereinafter "Abidoye I"). In Abidoye I, we held that remand was required to determine whether HUD or DCHA sought repayment of the Section 8 funds paid toward Ms. Anderson's rent.*fn8 On remand, DCHA sought, and was granted, the right to intervene. DCHA filed an Amended Complaint for Declaratory Judgment, and moved for Summary Judgment with respect to $5,976 of the rental abatement.*fn9 In an Order dated March 1, 2005, the trial court granted DCHA's Motion for Summary Judgment and awarded DCHA the sum of $5,976. This amount, the trial court concluded, represented DCHA's contribution towards Ms. Anderson's rent pursuant to the Section 8 Program.*fn10 Ms. Anderson filed a timely appeal from the grant of summary judgment.

II. Analysis

A. Ms. Anderson's Abatement was Properly Limited to the Amount of Rent She Paid to the Landlord

Ms. Anderson disputes the trial judge's apportionment of the abatement, which limited her recovery to $234, and contends that she is entitled to recover 100% of the abatement award ($6,210) on four alternative grounds. First, she contends that she is entitled to the full rental abatement award because she did not receive the benefit of her bargain. Specifically, she contends that she bargained for a housing unit worth $1,350, which was in a habitable condition. Second, she argues that DCHA never brought a cause of action adjudicating whether the landlord breached the HAP contact with DCHA and therefore DCHA never obtained a proper determination entitling it to recover a portion of the abatement. Third, she argues that she is a third party beneficiary under the HAP contract, and as such, is entitled to claim rights to the HUD subsidy paid by DCHA to her landlord. Fourth, she contends that DCHA's Section 8 subsidy payments lost their characterization as public funds once DCHA made the rental payments to the landlord on her behalf. We do not agree that Ms. Anderson is entitled to recover under any of these theories.

Whether Ms. Anderson is entitled to DCHA's portion of the rental abatement under either theory of recovery she asserts is a question of law. We review questions of law de novo. See Technical Land, Inc., v. Firemen's Ins. Co., 756 A.2d 439 (D.C. 2000); United States v. Felder, 548 A.2d 57, 61 (D.C. 1988) ("The trial court's resolution of a question of law is entitled to no deference and is reviewed 'de novo' on appeal. [We] will make an independent judgment based upon an original appraisal of the record.") (citations omitted).

1. Ms. Anderson Received the Benefit of Her Bargain

Ms. Anderson contends that the landlord's breach of the implied warranty of habitability deprived her of the benefit of her bargain. Ms. Anderson argues that what she bargained for in this lease was a decent and clean unit, free of code violations, and valued at $1,350 per month, not $234. Whether she paid all or just a portion of the rent is irrelevant, she argues. However, we reject that argument in circumstances where a public agency such as DCHA has asserted a claim to payments it has made on Ms. Anderson's behalf.

District of Columbia law implies into all residential leases a warranty of habitability, requiring the landlord to maintain the premises in compliance with the District of Columbia Housing Code. See 14 DCMR § 301.1 (1991);*fn11 see also Javins v. First Nat'l Realty Corp., 138 U.S. App. D.C. 369, 370-71, 428 F.2d 1071, 1072, cert. denied, 400 U.S. 925, 27 L.Ed. 2d 185, 91 S.Ct. 186 (1970) ("[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 breach of this warranty gives rise to the usual remedies for breach of contract."). Appellant was awarded an abatement because the trial court found that the landlord breached the implied warranty of habitability by failing to maintain the premises free of housing code violations. The trial court found that, due to housing code defects, the leased premises were valued at far less than the amount the landlord was receiving, and as a result, the rent should have been substantially less than the total amount the landlord received in rent for the unit. See, e.g., Javins, supra, 428 F.2d at 1082 ("[T]he 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."); Abidoye I, supra, 824 A.2d at 44 (finding that as between a landlord who failed to maintain the leased premises and a tenant who did not receive what she bargained for, the landlord should not profit from his breach of the implied warranty of habitability).

Appellant mistakenly relies on Multi-Family Mgmt. v. Hancock, 664 A.2d 1210 (D.C. 1995) and Cruz Mgmt Co. v. Wideman, 633 N.E.2d 384 (Mass. 1994), in support of her contentions. In Multi-Family, the landlord sued the tenant for possession of the apartment based on failure to pay rent and the tenant filed a counterclaim, alleging the existence of housing code violations. The trial court found that there were housing code violations and, acting sua sponte, ordered rent abatements and apportioned between the tenant and HUD a percentage representing the portion of the rent each paid for the unit. The court then ordered the landlord to pay these respective amounts to the tenant and to HUD, even though HUD was nevera party to the litigation. The tenant in Multi-Family appealed the trial court's decision, claiming the right to 100% of the abatement on two alternative grounds. First, the tenant claimed he was entitled to the benefit of his bargain by receiving rent abatements based on the rent called for in the lease, not on the lower amount he actually paid as a participant in the Section 8 Program. Second, the tenant claimed entitlement to the abatement as a third party beneficiary of the HAP contract between the landlord and HUD. Multi-Family, supra, 664 A.2d at 1212.

In Multi-Family,*fn12 we remanded the case to invite HUD to assert its rights, if any, to the abatement funds. Judge Ferren, in his dissent, recognized that because HUD contributed a major portion of the rent, it may have been entitled, if it sought it, to recover from the tenant the portion of the abatements attributable to HUD subsidies, based on an unjust enrichment theory. Multi-Family, supra, 664 A.2d at 1222 (Ferren, J., dissenting). However, absent a claim asserted by HUD or DCHA, as between the landlord and the tenant, Judge Ferren ...

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