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Brown v. Southall Realty Co

    Brief Fact Summary. Appellee, landlord, brought an action for possession against the Appellant, Brown, for rent in arrears of $230. Brown contended that no rent was due under the lease because the lease was an illegal contract, where landlord, with knowledge of housing regulations violations, entered into the lease with Brown stating that the premises were habitable in spite of the violations.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. A contract which is knowingly entered into concerning premises which are known to violate the housing regulations will not be enforceable and the contract will be void.

    Facts. Appellee, landlord, brought an action for possession against the Appellant, Brown, for rent in arrears of $230. Brown contended that no rent was due under the lease because the lease was an illegal contract, where landlord, with knowledge of housing regulations violations, entered into the lease with Brown stating that the premises were habitable in spite of the violations. Prior to the signing of the lease, landlord was on notice that housing code violations existed on the property in question which were found by an inspector to be an obstructed commode, a broken railing, and an insufficient height in the basement, such that the entire basement was unsuitable as a dwelling place. Mr. Penn, owner of the premises in question, testified adversely to landlord and stated at trial that “he had submitted a sworn statement to the Housing Division on December 8, 1964 to the effect that the basement was unoccupied at that time and would continue to be kept vacant until the violations w
    ere corrected.” The Appellant, Brown, contends that the lease should have been declared unenforceable because it was knowingly entered into in contravention of the housing regulations, which state that “No persons shall offer to rent any habitation, or the furnishings thereof, unless such habitation and its furnishings are in a clean, safe and sanitary condition, in repair, and free from rodents and vermin.” [Section 2304 of District of Columbia Housing Regulations]. After the landlord prevailed in the trial court, the Appellant, Brown, appealed.

    Issue. Was the lease agreement void and unenforceable as an illegal contract?

    Held. Yes. Judgment reversed.
    The Court notes that the lease was entered into by the landlord with knowledge of the housing code violations and that the premises had not been maintained such that the premises were healthy and safe.
    The general rule is that an illegal contract, made in violation of a statutory prohibition designed for regulatory purposes, is void and confers no right on the wrongdoer. The Court finds that the housing regulations contain a statutory prohibition against the lease of premises which violate the housing code.
    The Court held that where, as here, the conditions of violations of the housing code on a leasehold exist prior to an agreement to lease, there is a violation of the housing regulations and that the housing regulations are “implied prohibitions” which render the prohibited act void. The lease agreement will be treated as any other contract for this purpose.

    Discussion. This case illustrates the court’s desire to protect the tenant from overreaching by the landlord in cases where the landlord has knowingly placed the tenant in an unsafe habitation. This case, although based in statute, is essentially a public policy holding.


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