D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson
D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson Credit: Darrow Montgomery

After almost a year of amplified oversight of the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson wants to fix the beleaguered agency with a legislative sword, or maybe a hammer, rather than a scalpel.

Today Mendelson introduced a bill to cleave DCRA into two reconstituted agencies: the Department of Buildings and the Department of Licensing and Consumer Protection. The former would police illegal construction, enforce D.C.’s housing code for rental units, and monitor vacant and blighted properties, among other duties. The latter, meanwhile, would issue business and professional licenses, conduct investigations into unlicensed or illegal activity, and assist small businesses.

Mendelson says DCRA is too large and mismanaged to operate effectively. The result, he argues, has been bureaucratic dysfunction to the point that residents—whether tenants, property owners, or entrepreneurs—are not getting the services they have sought. Breaking up its responsibilities would alleviate structural problems with the agency, the chairman says.

“It has become abundantly clear that DCRA is an agency in need of major change,” Mendelson explains in a statement. “DCRA needs to do a better job—for both residents and businesses. I believe breaking up and reorganizing the agency is the best way.” From the Council dais, he added that “better code enforcement” would lead to “fewer code violations.”

The move is likely to receive pushback from Mayor Muriel Bowser‘s administration, which has tried to reform the agency on its own terms. Bowser appointee Melinda Bolling, previously DCRA’s general counsel, has been director since 2015. As of last fiscal year, the department had more than 425 full-time employees, making it one of the city’s largest agencies.

The proposal also may worry developers and real estate professionals who perceive a potential risk to their bottom lines from a more aggressive buildings department. Renters and homeowners gripe about DCRA’s lackluster enforcement of construction and rental housing codes, including the quality and frequency of the current agency’s property inspections.

But a supermajority of councilmembers have preliminarily co-introduced or co-sponsored the bill, meaning Bowser and industry officials may face an uphill battle in getting them to change their minds during the rest of the legislative process.

City Paper has reached out to Bowser’s office for comment and will update this post after hearing back. In an email, DCRA Deputy Director Lori Parris says the Bowser administration “is reviewing the proposed legislation.”

A hearing on the legislation has yet to be scheduled by the Council’s Committee of the Whole, which Mendelson chairs. Given the D.C. government’s upcoming department-oversight and budget cycle, it may not happen for several months. And because of the legislation’s complexity, it wouldn’t be implemented until 2019—even if it’s enacted by the Council.

The proposal comes after months of additional oversight hearings on DCRA Mendelson held. The hearings have ranged from DCRA’s monitoring of illegal construction activity to the findings of a critical D.C. Auditor audit on vacant properties.

DCRA was last reorganized in 1983, Mendelson’s office notes, following a history of consolidations and system changes that date back to late 1930s. The first incarnation of the agency, in 1938, was the “Office of Inspector of Buildings,” while another was the “Department of Licensing, Investigations, and Inspections,” founded in 1978 by a local executive order.

In a statement, At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman, who has said she was “disheartened” by a DCRA oversight hearing in November, calls herself an “enthusiastic” supporter of Mendelson’s bill. She cites fires this month that the D.C. Fire Department has said were caused by contractors who lacked proper licenses or permits as reasons for an overhaul.

“Dividing DCRA into two agencies is not a cure-all, but it is a significant step in the right direction,” Silverman says. “It will give a greater focus to their core mission and bring more leadership. …[DCRA’s] shortfalls cause real harm to residents.”

The legislation seeks to strengthen the District’s pursuit of so-called bad actors in part through a new “Office of Strategic Code Enforcement” within the would-be Department of Buildings. This office would track repeat violators of D.C.’s codes, promote consistent enforcement standards and practices, and use data to counter problematic landlords across the city.

Moreover, both the roles of the Chief Building Officer and the newly created “Strategic Enforcement Administrator” would be insulated from political influence by the sitting mayor with “statutory employment protections.” This is now the case for D.C.’s Chief Procurement Officer, and for certain positions in jurisdictions like Montgomery and Prince Williams counties, Mendelson’s office says. The bill has reporting requirements for the executive branch about setting up the new agencies.

Although Mendelson’s proposal is the most sweeping one to take up DCRA reform in recent memory, there are others currently pending before the Council. These include measures to encourage landlords to fix up their properties, to give DCRA more subpoena power, and to inhibit slum properties.

This post has been updated with comment from Silverman and DCRA.