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Advocates for better housing conditions in the District are calling on the D.C. Council to pass a bill that will overhaul a D.C. regulatory agency in the wake of an August fire in a rental unit that left two tenants dead, including a 9-year-old boy.
The Council will hear today from several housing advocates on the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs’ (DCRA) response to the fire on Kennedy Street NW.
Also testifying will be DCRA’s Director Ernest Chrappah, Deputy Mayor for Public Safety and Justice Kevin Donahue, ANC3D01 Commissioner Chuck Elkins, and Vice President of the International Association of Firefighters Local 36 Joseph Papariello.
Two of those housing advocates, Beth Harrison, director of housing law unit with the Legal Aid Society of D.C., and Kathy Zeisel, senior supervising attorney with the Children’s Law Center, will be calling for parts of DCRA itself to be replaced with a tenant-focused agency.
On Aug. 18, a fire ripped through the unlicensed basement rental unit of a building at 708 Kennedy St. NW killing two tenants: 9-year-old Yafet Solomon and 40-year-old Fitsum Kebede. It sparked intense scrutiny of the actions of DCRA, the Metropolitan Police Department, and the Fire and Emergency Medical Services (FEMS) leading up to the fire.
According to a report released on Oct. 25 by an independent consulting firm hired by the city, the property had no working smoke detectors, no lighted exit signs or fire exits, only one untagged fire extinguisher, and padlocked doors that prevented occupants from exiting in the case of an emergency.
But more damning was what the Washington Post first reported in September and the report confirms: DCRA had failed to follow-up or respond appropriately to a police complaint of unsafe conditions within the home in the five months leading up to the fire. Meanwhile, FEMS failed to follow-up on the original MPD complaint.
The report outlines how an MPD officer reported code violations at the home in March to DCRA and FEMS via email and then continued to follow-up multiple times within a five month-span. It wasn’t until May that a DCRA inspector went to the property, but failed to enter it or document observations three separate times.
In July, when the inspector was reassigned, the case was suspended and then closed on Aug. 16, with no word from the original investigator to MPD on the findings.
That was two days before the fatal fire.
According to the report, DCRA, MPD and FEMS have all updated their response systems to code violation complaints and have trained and re-trained staff on logging those complaints.
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However, the report calls on all District agencies to go further by training staff on how to properly forward complaints and creating central inboxes to receive these complaints. It calls on FEMS to create a tracking system of complaints to ensure nothing falls through the cracks.
The report calls on DCRA to require better use of its complaint database by circulating and tracking all complaints and all observations by inspectors within it. It also says DCRA inspectors should receive approval from both a manager and program analyst before closing or suspending a case.
Harrison and Zeisel say the report illuminates failings of DCRA that they’ve been attuned to for years.
“Even though the result was awful, all of the missteps on DCRA’s part was something we do see every day,” Harrison says. “These are low-income individuals, people of color, immigrants, all living in low-rent, terrible conditions.”
Harrison wants to see the agency completely transformed.
“We can’t just add inspectors, change technology, we need to do something more fundamental and that is breaking up the agency,” she says.
Both Harrison and Zeisel support a bill introduced in January by Chairman Phil Mendelson, as well as Councilmembers Elissa Silverman, Brianne Nadeau, Mary Cheh, Charles Allen, Trayon White, Anita Bonds, Robert White, Jack Evans, Kenyan McDuffie, Vince Gray, and David Grosso that would do just that.
The bill, called the Department of Buildings Establishment Act of 2019, would transfer several functions of DCRA to the newly-established Department of Buildings. This department would promote “the health, safety, and quality of life of residents and visitors,” by inspecting all rental units within the District to ensure they are up to code. The department would also be required to submit annual data on housing complaints related to code violations and any action that was taken.
The rest of DCRA would be redesignated at the Department of Licensing and Consumer Protection. The first public hearing on the bill will be on Dec. 10.
Zeisel’s main concern is the lack of trained inspectors. According to a report by the Children’s Law Center, D.C. only has 1 inspector for every 12,000 rental units. There are 187,000 rental units in the city.
And Zeisel says this disparity becomes clear in DCRA’s own data on inspections.
According to that data, DCRA conducted 448 fewer housing inspections in fiscal year 2019 than in fiscal year 2018. Additionally, Zeisel says, the training required to be an inspector is minimal and calls for inspectors to also be cross-trained in mold and lead inspection or electrical systems.
Nadeau, Bonds, and Cheh introduced a bill in July to update the certification requirements of inspectors, the frequency of inspections, and to require at least one inspector for every 2,000 rental units, which Zeisel supports.
More than anything, Zeisel says, DCRA needs to look at strategic enforcement, particularly in areas where health concerns might be linked to housing, like in Ward 8 where kids are 10 times more likely than in other areas of the city to be hospitalized for asthma.
City Paper reported in May that doctors blame poor housing conditions, including pests and mold, for these health disparities.
“We can do proactive inspections. There’s a lot of housing conditions that attribute to health concerns,” Zeisel says. Nadeau, Bonds, and Cheh’s bill would establish an appointed official to gather this data and report on health concerns related to housing.
Meanwhile, since the fire, Zeisel says DCRA hasn’t done enough. “They’ve put some bandaids in place,” she says. “They’ve done some revamps to their website, they’ve posted a request for proposals for a wholesale culture change, they’ve trained their inspectors using e-learning. That’s just not enough.”
According to DCRA’s testimony, obtained by City Paper, Chrappah will be discussing the changes made in DCRA since the deadly fire. Many of these reflect the recommendations made in the report, including: changing the agency’s Standard Operating Procedures to create stricter timelines to responding to housing code violations as well as issuing additional guidance to investigators on what to document. Additionally, the agency says it’s making better use of its complaint database to log complaints made through the database, by phone, or by email, and employees have been briefed since September on the appropriate use of the database.
Additionally, Chrappah’s testimony says the manager of the Consumer Protection Unit must now sign off before closing any open cases and the agency plans to work with other governmental agencies to obtain warrants to enter homes where complaints have been filed before closing the cases.
According to Chrappah’s testimony, investigators have received five trainings since August on the new protocols.
He will also say that DCRA has, in fact, been doing outreach to communities that may be living in unsafe or illegal rental buildings since September.
“We ran radio ads, web ads, and print ads in English and Spanish. These advertisements were in addition to the multi-language materials, including Amharic, posted on our website and distributed at community meetings and on social media,” Chrappah’s testimony reads. He says these ads led to a spike in reports of unlicensed rental properties and says the agency has now reopened 20 cases on housing complaints.
“In addition to the latest reforms we have made and are continuing to make in the wake of the fire, DCRA is undergoing a complete transformation,” Chrappah’s testimony also reads, before adding that the agency has shrunk the timeline for issuing infractions from the time a complaint is made.
Chuck Elkins doesn’t agree with the bill to split DCRA’s functions.
The ANC Commissioner will tell the council that DCRA should refocus on preventing rental units from code violations, rather than trying to fix them when they occur.
“That bill doesn’t solve the problem,” Elkins says. “Re-organizations are very disruptive.”
According to Elkins’ proposal to reform DCRA, tenants should be empowered to know their rights and who to contact with concerns. Additionally, he says property owners should submit records to DCRA about their maintenance of their property and receive assistance on code compliance. He also proposes stricter sanctions for non-compliant properties.
He says DCRA needs to conduct more surveillance on rental units in D.C. that are out of complaints but are not yet known unless a complaint is filed.
“Where’s the system to find all the [rental units] police haven’t found yet?” Elkins asks. “All they’re doing is waiting for people to complain and then going out and enforcing.”
This post has been updated to include DCRA’s testimony.