Credit: Morgan Baskin

Mayor Muriel Bowser continues to tweak her administration in the months after she won reelection, announcing on Tuesday that she will nominate Ernest Chrappah, the former chief of the Department of For-Hire Vehicles, as the permanent director of the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs. Chrappah has served as the department’s interim director since mid-November of last year, when former DCRA Director Melinda Bolling stepped down to take a job as the head of Prince George’s County’s Department of Permitting, Inspections and Enforcement. 

On Tuesday, Bowser met with Chrappah at DCRA headquarters in the Southwest Waterfront neighborhood to introduce him to agency customers and meet with existing staff. “We’re very excited about Ernest’s ideas and the energy he has brought to the agency in the last couple of months. We’re looking forward to him taking the helm,” she said in a joint interview with Chrappah on Tuesday afternoon. 

Chrappah faces the unenviable position of taking the helm of what might be D.C.’s most reviled agency. Auditor Kathy Patterson dinged DCRA for “failure to enforce the housing code effectively and consistently” in a report published last fall, and 11 of 18 candidates who ran for local office in 2018’s Democratic primary told City Paper that it’s the local agency “most in need of an overhaul.” The $60 million agency is also a common punching bag for Washingtonians who are renovating their homes or advocating for safer low-income housing. 

Bowser’s announcement comes as D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson renews his call for the Council to split DCRA into two agencies, one of which would handle business and professional licensing. The other would enforce D.C.’s housing code for rental properties and manage vacant and blighted properties, among other responsibilities. Bowser said Tuesday that she thinks the plan would be too cumbersome from a staffing perspective, and would force the city to duplicate IT, legal counsel, human resources, and other staff positions that are necessary to make an agency run.

Chrappah says that in the last 60 days he has held about two dozen “listening sessions” with councilmembers, advisory neighborhood commissioners, and residents to hear more about their biggest existing gripes with the agency. He speaks of his mission at DCRA with the gusto of a Silicon Valley startup president, saying that he will direct the agency to “embark on a digital transformation.”

“We have to transform the delivery of city services in a way that’s convenient, that’s affordable, and is repeatable and allows us to scale our resources efficiently,” he says. We’re in an environment where people can push a button on an app and see a car coming to them. Where they can find a handyman online.” He cites an online tool called “DCRA Agency Dashboard,” a recently launched database that shows up-to-date information about the agency’s permitting and inspection performance, as an example of this kind of “innovation.” (While the agency appears to be meeting its goals for processing business license applications and renewals, per the website, it is behind on most matters related to property inspection and infraction processing.)

Bowser, for her part, said on Tuesday that “DCRA’s customer [is] different than it has been in years past. The needs of the city are different than they have been in the past. And we know that the agency has to evolve to serve them.” 

She acknowledged that making the agency run more efficiently would mean beefing up its operating budget and staff, but declined to provide a specific figure that DCRA will present to the Council ahead of its annual budget planning season. Bowser also emphasized that improving DCRA’s inspections arm is just “one part of housing. We won’t inspect our way to a housing stock that meets our needs,” she said. “That is why we’ve been very focused on preservation in our first four years. We also need to incent [sic] landlords to make the types of investments that we need to improve the housing stock.”