In December, parts of the bathroom floor in Richard Campbell’s Glover Park apartment collapsed, opening gaping holes that allowed a view of the unit below. The apartment has long had serious problems, Campbell says, but he swallowed most of them because of the low rent.
His landlord, Elbert Queen of Potomac, Md., had responded to earlier complaints by telling tenants he was selling the building and the new owner could deal with the problem. His thinking about repairs was, as his wife relates, “I’m old, I’m tired, I’m not gonna do it. I’m gonna sell the building instead…He doesn’t feel he owes anybody anything, because he’s doing what the government requires of him.” Queen confirmed that he is leaving repairs to a new owner, who might not take over for months.
The lack of a bathroom, though, was more than Campbell could take. “That’s going over the top of what I’m willing to do,” he says. The city’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) carries out emergency inspections in situations like Campbell’s, where a violation is of immediate concern and the landlord is taking his sweet time—or outright refusing to fix the problem.
Linda Argo, a DCRA spokesperson, says, “If it’s a true emergency—flooding or a building or floor is collapsing, that type of thing—we get people out immediately, even if it’s the middle of the night,” she says.
But “immediately” is not the word to use when it comes to the agency’s response to Campbell. He says it wasn’t until he made multiple calls to the DCRA and finally one to Ward 3 Councilmember Kathy Patterson that an inspector came out, five weeks after his first call.
“Everyone at DCRA is out to lunch,” says Campbell, who has been couch-surfing through Virginia and the District since the floor collapse. Argo says his complaint was not deemed an emergency. If it had been, she says, an inspection would have happened immediately.
The inspector took a few photos of the bathroom floor and the black mold growing up the wall, Campbell says, then said he would contact the Department of Health. Campbell hasn’t heard from him since the January visit but has spoken with a supervisor several times. The first time they spoke, Campbell says, the supervisor told him she couldn’t check on the status of his case because the computer system was down.
The supervisor, Gloria Shelby, confirms the exchange through Argo.
The computer system—known as Remote Access Property Inspection Database System (RAPIDS)—is designed to speed up the process of issuing violation notices. The system, which went up in late 2002, also produces daily schedules for inspectors and allows violations to be tracked. It is designed to allow inspectors to enter violations into the system on-site through hand-held computers. According to a manager for Optimus Corp. of McLean, Va., which leases RAPIDS to the DCRA, the agency disabled that function from the beginning; inspectors use the hand-helds on-site, but they must take them back to headquarters to enter the violations into the system.
And when the system went down in November, Optimus refused to send its employees to fix it. Patrick Canavan, the DCRA director, says he’s not sure why Optimus refused to fix the system, which he says is from a “different era of technology. It’s a system we think we need to replace.”
Optimus says it’s because the DCRA didn’t pay its bills. “We’re happy to support the product and support the users, but we can’t do so free,” says the Optimus manager. “It’s not a sustainable business model to do work for free.”
Without Optimus’ support, the DCRA sent its own workers in to fix the system. It took them two months to get it back up. Inspectors say it went down again briefly a day after it went back up in January; parts of the system remain disabled to this day.
Asked about the cause of the DCRA’s delinquency, the Optimus rep says, “Disorganization.”
If there’s anything the DCRA is known for, it’s disorganization, and problems in the housing-inspection division date back to long before Canavan’s tenure. On Oct. 23, 2003, more than a year before his arrival, 21 DCRA employees signed a letter of complaint accusing widespread managerial incompetence. The signers spoken to for this article, most of them housing inspectors, say that certain managers retaliated with increased workloads, poor performance evaluations, threats of or actual suspensions, and the withholding of equipment they need to perform inspections. Fed up, 10 inspectors filed suit in December 2004 against then-DCRA Director David A. Clark and Ward 6 Councilmember Sharon Ambrose, at the time the chair of the D.C. Council committee that oversees the agency.
Today, many DCRA employees say that despite the changes made in upper-level personnel, the age-old problems of a top-heavy bureaucracy, outdated or nonexistent equipment, and a lack of training still plague the agency. Two more inspectors have since signed on to the lawsuit.
“It’s just a ball of confusion,” says Shirley Buie, an inspector for nearly 30 years and a plaintiff in the lawsuit. “Nobody knows anything.”
Housing inspectors cite one of the agency’s most recent technological innovations: Instead of thermometers specifically designed to measure the air temperature inside living spaces, they’ve been given what seem to be meat thermometers. “We are not chefs. We’re housing inspectors,” says one.
Argo says the devices are appropriate for the job. “It looks like the kind of thermometer you’d stick in a turkey,” she says, “but that’s not what it is.”CP
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