Melinda Bolling
Melinda Bolling Credit: Darrow Montgomery/file

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Between a probing public roundtable on rental housing conditions and a critical report on illegal construction, the District agency responsible for policing those two areas has had a tough week.

Both the roundtable and the report—the former held by the D.C. Council and the latter released by the independent Office of the Inspector General—suggested major gaps in the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs’ ability to enforce laws that are designed to shield residents from various building deficiencies. The public airings also underscored concerns that DCRA doesn’t respond expeditiously to complaints and service requests across a growing city.

But the sprawling agency, headed by Melinda Bolling, whom Mayor Muriel Bowser appointed in 2015, says it’s working to turn itself around with greater investments and new staff after years of mismanagement. DCRA boasts around 400 employees and an operating budget of about $60 million this fiscal year, which began on Oct. 1. Bowser herself oversaw a wide-ranging weeklong review of the agency in August 2016, hoping to learn strategies for making DCRA more efficient.

The stakes surpass mere good governance. To many business owners and residents, DCRA is the face of local bureaucracy and a reliable source of frustration. To others, it is a vital path of recourse for entrenched quality-of-life issues at their homes.

In recent months, the council has been looking over the agency’s shoulder more than usual. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson is conducting a series of oversight hearings on DCRA that are separate from the annual performance and budget hearings for city agencies administered during the first third of a calendar year. Mendelson ran the second of these supplemental sessions on Monday.

It drew fewer than a dozen public witnesses, Bolling, and other DCRA leaders. Kevin Cummins, a Northeast resident who reported intimidation tactics by a developer working on the rowhouse next to his, theorized that meager attendance at council hearings on DCRA was due to the agency’s poor record.

“District residents who have faced DCRA abuses and failures firsthand may have simply given up,” he posited. “Or maybe they no longer have any confidence in the council’s ability to clean up a city agency that has been running amok for years.” (Cummins also spoke at Mendelson’s first hearing in July, which had a similar number of attendees.)

Anne Cunningham of the Children’s Law Center and Evan Henley of the Legal Aid Society of D.C. each discussed struggles with obtaining DCRA inspection reports on behalf of clients. Rob Wohl, a tenant organizer at the Latino Economic Development Center, went further, diagnosing DCRA’s purported weakness in cracking down on neglectful landlords as a structural challenge.

“DCRA simply isn’t creating an incentive for landlords to comply with the law,” Wohl contended. “There’s a cycle of inspection, superficial correction, but then re-appearance” of problems due to more-deeply rooted issues like untreated leaks and damaged roofs. He added that conditions at low-income rental properties are “tied to [the District’s] affordable housing crisis” because many landlords do not want to bear the cost of significant repairs after years of deferred maintenance. 

Besides, Wohl noted, tenants may lose interest in the welfare of their buildings, especially run-down ones, over time. This complicates organizing residents to press for change: “They’re just looking to get out.”

Nonetheless, Bolling is bullish on the agency’s future. “DCRA works hard each day to improve its processes and the customer experience,” she says in a statement. “We’ll continue to take steps to drive improvement.” Among such steps are “new enforcement protocols” for problematic landlords and a new chief building official.

At Monday’s hearing, Bolling spoke about nearly a dozen new positions at DCRA, most of which have been filled, and successes at the Housing Conditions Calendar, a part of D.C. Superior Court where tenants can sue landlords over alleged housing code violations. When asked, she could not give Mendelson a “cure rate” based on the number of violations DCRA records during initial inspections and then re-records during follow-up inspections, after which point the agency can levy fines on landlords.

Bolling and her staff also testified about improvements to DCRA’s tracking of inspection data, as well as new “algorithms” the department plans on rolling out over the next two months that could help it target problematic landlords. The software will make it easier for DCRA to trace “common ownership” across troubled properties that are registered under different corporations, they said.

But as the hearing elucidated, even if DCRA properly cites housing code violations at a property, a landlord can appeal fines in administrative court. “How long can I drag this out before I have to pay?” the chairman inquired, as if he were a landlord. 

Bluntly, Bolling replied: “It could be years.”

Within the past week, D.C. Inspector General Daniel Lucas also criticized DCRA. His office outlined shortcomings in the agency’s illegal-construction enforcement program in a new report. The report covers the three fiscal years between October 2013 and September 2016, and is based on more than 6,600 case files, nine interviews with staffers, and other agency documents.

Lucas’ team found that DCRA’s electronic system for illegal-construction cases was “insufficient” for monitoring “inspectors’ performance, responsiveness, and workflow;” that DCRA didn’t have “adequately documented policies and procedures” for handling allegations of illegal activity; and that DCRA didn’t “consistently” enforce germane laws overnight and on weekends and holidays.

According to the report, DCRA’s “Illegal Construction Unit” consists of fewer than 10 employees. The unit issued approximately 1,500 citations for unpermitted construction work over this period, including stop-work orders and notices of infraction. Program fines start at $2,000 per infraction.

“Overall, [OIG] found it difficult to evaluate how effectively the ICU was deterring and combating illegal construction,” the office states.

Partly due to “deficient documentation,” per the report, “[OIG] was unable to assess thoroughly DCRA’s ability to identify and address illegal construction proactively or determine whether DCRA has the ability to deter illegal construction before it begins.” 

Moreover, the inspector general’s office says it was not always clear from the department’s data when a violator paid a fine, what steps an inspector took to make a final determination in a case, and when inspections were performed. Although DCRA told OIG it inspects “80 to 90 percent of illegal construction complaints on the same day it receives the complaint,” OIG found that about half of the case files studied “had inspection dates more than 48 hours after their request dates.”

The office recommended that DCRA streamline its main data system and bolster ICU staff levels outside of normal business hours, among other measures. In a Sept. 18 letter to Lucas, DCRA’s Bolling wrote that the agency had already upgraded its “long ignored and unfunded” IT systems, and would soon finalize standardized procedures for inspectors. She added that the recruitment hurdles identified in OIG’s report persist in part because ICU roles “are extremely difficult to fill.”

Then, in a late-September letter to Bolling, Lucas wrote that his office was “encouraged” by the agency’s “current and planned actions” to enhance illegal-construction enforcement. “[We] will follow up with DCRA during fiscal year 2018 to monitor implementation,” he said.

The office may have to iron out a few things with DCRA first though. In a statement, Bolling says the agency is working with OIG to ensure the report “accurately captures the feedback the agency provided.”