Updated July 24, 2015
Below is a summary of DC current and proposed policy and DCRA practice regarding living in trailers/’tiny homes’/RV’s in the District of Columbia. (DCRA is DC’s housing regulatory authority). Note there has been substantial misinformation (examples 1, 2) and wishful thinking regarding what is legally allowed and what regulatory authorities can and will do.
Current policy: Parking of tagged trailers and building of a trailer house on a trailer on private land is permitted; habitation of trailers is not permitted. DCRA will not issue a Certificate of Occupancy (CO) for any trailer in DC.
Proposed policy: No change, except a ‘camping in alleys’ prohibition has been added after sanitation issues with 2 Boneyard Studios tiny homes. The new proposed text (to be adopted fall 2015 unless further amended, per the latest zoning revision Dec 2014, Subtitle U, 600.1(c)) reads: Camping by the owner of an alley lot on the alley lot in a tent, wagon, van, automobile, truck, or trailer, subject to the following conditions:(1) The use shall be located so that it is not likely to become objectionable to adjoining and nearby property because of noise, traffic, parking, lighting, sanitation, or otherwise objectionable conditions;(2) Open fires shall not be permitted; and (3) The use shall not be for more than two (2) consecutive weeks and no more than one (1) month per calendar year.
a) Land owner lives in house, allows habitation of personal trailer on land. If a trailer is parked and inhabited in a backyard, DCRA can issue a fine to the landowner for illegal operation of a rental unit, even if the land owner does not own the rental unit/trailer. For a first offense the fine for an unlicensed rental can run between $2,000-$4,000. The amount assessed depends on what kind of rental it is and what sort of license(s) it requires. Specifically, whether the site needs a Certificate of Occupancy in addition to a Basic Business License (a piece of paper from the DC government that says you’re licensed to be a landlord). “Most rental cases are initiated by neighborhood complaints…the agency’s Regulatory Investigations section also initiates investigations on its own when time allows,” said Matt Orlins, DCRA’s spokesman. Note: Micro Showcase has direct experience on this issue with a former Boneyard Studios inhabitant (see copy of DCRA letter below). The case was brought immediately after BYS members sought publicity in DC City Paper in late Oct 2014- the DCRA inspector reported that a neighbor read the article, was concerned about reported issues (particularly sanitation) and called DCRA. The fine was avoided by negotiating with DCRA to extend the deadline and having the trailer removed as quickly as possible. In this case and others, it is not the trailer owner who is faced with DCRA citation or legal liability, it is the land owner.
If considering this situation, local DC counsel recommends the following:
- Landlord/lessor should formalize a ground lease for the parking spot on the property where the trailer will be parked. A ground lease will clarify that the trailer is not personal property of the landlord or a rental property, and provide some protection to the landlord from DCRA citation. A ground lessor may or may not be required to obtain a general business license (see DCRA). If signing as an individual, the lessor may also wish to obtain a liability policy to cover any issues arising with the ground lease.
- Trailer owner/lessee should incorporate a LLC and have the ground lease name the LLC. This may provide some additional legal and financial protection to the trailer owner in the case of citation. Note the trailer should not be named an asset of the LLC.
b) Land owner lives on their land in trailer. Technically the trailer remains a legally uninhabitable unit. Unclear at this time how enforcement could proceed.
Apart from the formal DC code and DCRA enforcement, much code is typically realized through complaint-based enforcement (i.e. neighbors, so keeping a low profile is advised). In addition, it is practically difficult to establish habitation of a trailer unless the inhabitant goes on public record as living there.