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The D.C. area saw torrential rain douse its streets for much of May—with the city itself on the receiving end of between 5 and 7 inches—and thousands of DMV residents lost power. A small handful of homes burst into flames after being struck by lightning. Flood warnings covered the entire region, and 37 different streams and rivers had moderate or minor flooding.
In Northwest D.C., that downpour exacerbated longtime issues with the integrity of the roof of 4524 Iowa Avenue NW, a two-storybrick rental building sandwiched between 13th Street and Iowa Ave. Joe Vines, an 87-year-old man who says he’s lived in the building for 50 years, reports that the rain caused its roof to partially collapse, forcing seniors to place tubs and buckets around their apartments to catch the water. While they sleep, water drips onto their bodies.
JNM Enterprises One LLC, the management company that owned the building for nearly two decades—up until about a week ago—waited days to send a contractor out to survey the damage, according to Vines. He tells City Paper that as many as eight units in the building have ceilings that leak when it rains, but that, despite months of repeated requests for maintenance, property manager and JNM owner Joel Martin didn’t make any substantial fixes. (Martin did not return City Paper’s requests for comment.)
And when the Latino Economic Development Center’s Victoria Goncalves called DCRA to schedule an inspection and report the damage, she says the operator told her that he couldn’t help. “I was told that this was not considered an emergency,” she says. (LEDC is a housing advocacy organization for low-income residents, many of whom are Spanish speakers with little English proficiency.)
“I told them that the roof literally fell and there was water coming into the apartment when it rained yesterday,” Goncalves wrote in an email. “[The DCRA representative] said he just had someone else call for the same thing and was just told by his supervisor that roofs caving in are not emergencies.” He then told Goncalves to schedule a regular housing inspection. (DCRA Director Melinda Bolling, replying to Goncalves’ email, denied that the agency wouldn’t consider the roof collapse an emergency.)
DCRA urges residents to schedule a housing inspection if they feel their accommodations violate D.C.’s housing code. It usually takes about a week for inspectors to visit the property, but the agency says an inspector “can respond sooner in emergencies.” If the inspector finds a housing code violation, they will issue a notice to the property manager ordering abatement.
But weeks after tenants at 4524 Idaho Avenue NW first reported leaks to the property manager and days after a DCRA inspector visited the property, Vines says the ceiling is only partially patched.
Residents have complained for years about the building: the hulking grid of mailboxes that regularly falls off of the wall onto tenants while they retrieve their mail; the electricity, which frequently doesn’t work; chunks of plaster that occasionally fall from the ceiling; the water, which tends to run cold; the leaking toilets. DCRA property inspection records show that it has two outstanding inspections from 2017 scheduled, each for a different unit, and that it has told the property manager to abate about a dozen different issues over the last decade.
“The building has been neglected for a long time. And the whole system for financing affordable housing isn’t designed to work for housing like this. Nobody knows how to manage these buildings and they fall through the cracks,” says Rob Wohl, an advocate at LEDC.
Maintenance issues reached their peak just as the building switched hands. After JNM put the building up for sale, residents used the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act to make way for a third party, Affordable Housing Specialists LLC, to buy the building. Vines says the new company has been more responsive to maintenance issues during its first days of ownership, restoring electricity and patching some of the leaks. (AHS did not return City Paper’s requests for comment.)
Problems with DCRA’s inspection and enforcement arms are long and well documented. In 2016, the Legal Aid Society published a review of 78 cases sitting in the Landlord-Tenant Branch of D.C. Superior Court. Seventy percent of tenants said their landlord “never finished all the repairs required by the DCRA inspector’s report, a figure that is quite troubling in and of itself.”
Legal Aid concluded that, among other issues, DCRA is either “not using its power to force the landlord to fix [housing code] violations” or not telling tenants what enforcement actions the agency has taken against their property manager.
Pervasive issues like those prompted D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson to propose cleaving the agency in two, tasking a new Department of Buildings with enforcing the city’s housing code for rental units, among other oversight responsibilities. “It has become abundantly clear that DCRA is an agency in need of major change,” Mendelson said in January when introducing the bill.