An investigation into a fatal house fire on Kennedy Street in Northwest found that D.C. Fire and the Department of Regulatory and Consumer Affairs (DCRA) failed to address safety concerns about the affected building in the five months leading up to the Aug. 18 blaze.
That row house, occupied by several Ethiopian immigrant families, had narrow halls, broken smoke detectors, and chains on the front door. It also lacked a sprinkler system. The conditions of the building bore a strong similarity to what Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Reneé Bowser said she encountered on her visits to at least two other apartment buildings in the past few years.
“City officials need to eyeball some of these buildings,” said Bowser, chair of ANC 4D which includes Petworth in Northwest.
On Sept. 18, she and her 4D colleagues passed a resolution that holds DCRA more accountable in quickly responding to housing investigation requests from the Metropolitan Police Department and other agencies, completing investigations, and better engaging advisory neighborhood commissions.
Commission 4D also voted in support of the Department of Buildings Establishment Act. In January, all D.C. Council members, except Brandon Todd (D-Ward 4), introduced that legislation. If approved, it would break DCRA into two departments, one of which enforces regulations and codes for building construction, rental housing conditions, and building maintenance and safety.
“There are apartments with no certificate of occupancy that permits them to use the building for rentals,” Bowser said. “Where apartments above stores along mixed use corridors such as Kennedy Street are clearly visible, DCRA should check to make sure that the owners have certificates of occupancy and that the buildings are in habitable condition.”
Shortly after the August 18 fire, DCRA launched a public outreach campaign focused on informing tenants of the obligations their landlords have to meet when it comes to building safety. The agency also launched a training program that certifies residents as inspectors.
In response to an inquiry about DCRA protocol, DCRA Director Ernest Chrappah highlighted other reforms he said had been underway before the row house fire, including the obtainment of an administrative search warrant for properties believed to be out of compliance and a thorough case review by DCRA’s head of the Consumer Protection Unit before wrapping up cases.
Such changes could be of great benefit for tenants occupying older buildings along the Kennedy Street corridor and its surrounding areas. For some of them, checking for certificate of occupancy, much less addressing cumulative structural deficiencies has been an uphill battle.
There has been speculation about whether landlords neglect these properties in the hopes that occupancy dwindles and developers buy them. For instance, an investigation of dismal conditions at Rainbow Market, located several feet from the scene of the August row house fire, led to the discovery of unlicensed rentals above the store.
Another situation involved 220 Hamilton Street NW, a property that DCRA cited for more than 170 housing violations last year. Bowser recalled several unsuccessful attempts to hold the landlord accountable in the decade leading up to action by the Office of the Attorney General. Late last year, the Office of the Attorney General General filed a lawsuit against the property management company, alleging a pattern of building neglect and seeking a receiver to collect the rents and fix the property.
One block over, on the 200 block of Jefferson Street, Bowser said she engaged DCRA officials over a seven-month period two years ago in response to complaints from neighbors that a home illegally operated as a rooming house and posed a fire threat. She said a DCRA, instead of inspecting the property, spoke to an occupant who said all was well. Recently, upon Bowser’s request to reinvestigate the property, DCRA reported learning that the owner used someone else’s certificate of occupancy permit.
On the 5200 block of 3rd Street, not far from Washington Latin Public Charter School, tenants of an apartment said they’ve struggled to get repairs to the front door of the building and to their individual apartments, even as the surrounding area has improved over the years.
One tenant, Carolina Slaughter, said she and her fiance took matters into their own hands, cleaning the front yard and fixing their space. However it hasn’t sufficed, especially amid a mouse and lice infestation.
“We need a new door, anything that has a lock on it. I’m not only looking out for me and my partner, but the other people who live in this building,” said Slaughter, who has recently embarked on a mission to pressure her landlord to make the repairs to her apartment that she requested since first moving to 3rd Street.
“My apartment needs a paint job. I need a new screen and window,” Slaughter said. “There’s a hole in the ceiling of my bathroom and my bathtub is totally corroded. It’s been going on for years and my landlord hasn’t fixed it. I appreciate what I got, but it’s still a health hazard.”