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If D.C. had a vigorous program of enforcement against nuisance properties, it might be credible to chalk up to an “understandable mistake” the enforcement action taken against Dorothy Brizill and Gary Imhoff that Loose Lips chronicled (“Broken Window Theories,” 6/14). However, regular readers of your paper know that no such program exists. See, for example “The Florida Mile,” your cover story from last year (8/31/01).
If Loose Lips had done a little more background research on the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA), she would have found some troubling details about this story. LL writes that “an anonymous tipster had called in to the agency, landing the property on the abandoned list.” For half a decade, the council has been giving money to the DCRA every year to do a census of abandoned properties. The agency is supposed to use tax rolls, utility records, and physical inspections to identify uninhabited properties. Anonymous tips are not supposed to be the basis of the process. However, in all these years, the DCRA has never actually produced a census, and there is no evidence that one actually exists. If Brizill and Imhoff’s property was on a list, most likely it was a list with only one entry.
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The second troubling aspect of the story is the nature of the enforcement action. Under D.C. law, the DCRA is given broad authority to address issues that affect the public health and safety. It is curious that it would choose to focus on a purely cosmetic aspect, uncut grass, which is outside of its mandate, while elsewhere in the city there are literally thousands of buildings that are an immediate hazard to their neighbors that receive no attention from the DCRA at all. It’s hard to believe that there was any motive other than harassing the owner of the property.
Of course, Brizill misses the mark with her conspiracy-theory ramblings about developers being behind this harassment. The DCRA has a history of playing a game called “You want enforcement? We’ll give you enforcement” when pressed to do something about nuisance properties. The way the game is played: In the face of pressure to perform, the agency sends inspectors out to write harassing tickets to people who are likely to complain and attract attention. Their complaints overwhelm the council and the mayor’s office, until everyone agrees that the enforcement has gone too far and the program is canceled. Since he was elected, Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham has been a tireless force pushing for greater enforcement against nuisance properties, and the result has been a long string of harassing DCRA actions in his ward. Imhoff and Brizill were the perfect foil for this game—retired, homeowners, famous critics of the city, publishers of an online newsletter, and constituents of Graham to boot.
For years, the DCRA has used enforcement for two purposes—to prevent the spread of gentrification and to punish its critics. Actual nuisances have gotten a free ride. It appears that three-and-a-half years of Anthony Williams as mayor have done nothing to change this agency.