Lapses in the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs’ (DCRA) building inspection process discovered in the aftermath of a deadly row house blaze have raised the question of how the agency can better hold local landlords accountable to their tenants’ safety.
Director Ernest Chrappah has rejected calls to split DCRA into smaller offices, as outlined in legislation introduced by a large cohort of D.C. council members earlier this year. Instead, he highlighted internal changes he said had been underway long before the events of August 18.
“One of the key challenges we’ve been focused on over the last several months has been breaking down silos within the agency to ensure that divisions are collaborating and sharing information, with the goal of delivering a more holistic approach to the residents we serve,” Chrappah recently told The Informer.
Meeting that goal, Chapprah said, requires the removal of spending restrictions on special revenue sources. Doing so would improve a new inspection process, implemented shortly after the blaze at 708 Kennedy Street NW that killed a man and an elementary school student.
This process requires administrative search warrant amid suspicion of a building safety threat. The head of DCRA’s Consumer Protection Unit would also thoroughly review each case and actions taken before allowing its closure.
“When one of our Consumer Protection Unit investigators discovers unsafe conditions in a rental property, they immediately schedule one of our building inspectors to come out to inspect the property,” Chapprah said.
“This would likely result in a series of infractions, and if necessary, shuttering the property. This is just one example of how different divisions within DCRA should be working closely together; something that I don’t see how splitting the agency up will help.”
D.C. law requires landlords to provide safe, habitable apartments, and maintain their buildings in accordance with Housing Code Standards. Common building violations include major plumbing leaks, exposed electrical wiring, defective or inoperable smoke detector, and major rodent infestation. Landlords may also be penalized for infractions related to the outside appearance of the apartment building in question.
Shortly after the August 18 fire, Metropolitan Police Department Chief Peter Newsham released an executive order requiring that officials on the scene of a building appearing to pose a serious threat to report their findings to a supervisor. In turn, the supervisor would notify DCRA and D.C. Fire. In the weeks following that announcement, several parties have called on DCRA to concede to a proposal that splits the agency and places building inspection responsibilities into the hands of a smaller administrative body.
During the latter part of last month, Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) 4D, which represents the Petworth community, unanimously passed a resolution espousing support for the Department of Buildings Establishment Act, introduced by 12 out of 13 D.C. council members at the beginning of the year.
If approved and signed by D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D), this legislation would break DCRA into two departments: one of which will be charged with enforcing regulations and codes for building construction, rental housing conditions, and building maintenance and safety.
Since its January 22 introduction, the bill has laid dormant in the council’s Committee of the Whole. Meanwhile, DCRA officials and D.C. council members have gone toe to toe about the agency’s future outlook.
In March, around the time a D.C. police officer filed a report on 708 Kennedy Street NW, some D.C. council members pushed back against Chapprah’s proposal to recruit and train District residents as on-the-ground housing inspectors. In the past, DCRA’ s use of third-party inspectors for construction projects received some criticism from organizations alleging that financial incentives clouded judgment on whether projects are up to code.
Additionally, during a council hearing earlier this year, D.C. Council Chairperson Phil Mendelson and D.C. Council member Brianne Nadeau (D-Ward 1) expressed concern that allocations toward tenant training and recruitment would cause a DCRA staffing shortage.
Council member Nadeau’s office didn’t return The Informer’s request for comment. On the other hand, a representative of Mendelson’s office remained steadfast in the belief that a smaller agency could better handle building inspections.
“Spinning-off the construction and property inspection functions from DCRA to the new Department of Buildings, the District can have an agency that will be less distracted by a long list of vaguely interconnected responsibilities and finally have the capacity to focus on one mission: to ensure the safety and habitability of buildings in the District,” Lindsey Walton, Mendelson’s communications director, told The Informer.