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Nicholas Majett, the newly-appointed director of the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, is pretty much a D.C. government lifer: Before coming to DCRA in 2006 as deputy director for inspections and compliance, he spent 19 years in the Attorney General’s office, litigating cases on the District’s behalf. Last week, Majett sat down with Housing Complex to talk about Twitter, pink houses, and politics.
What are some of the biggest improvements that DCRA has made in the last few years under your predecessor Linda Argo?
I think we’ve made advances in terms of customer service, in terms of our website. A lot more information is given to the public, so they don’t necessarily have to call us, they can go on the website. Michael Rupert just did wonders on the website, designing it. And also, Michael was big on Twitter, so you got a lot of information electronically. He participated in some of the blogs, I guess you would say blogs. So in real time, a person would send in an email, or send in a tweet I guess you’d call it, and say ‘hey I need a permit, how do I get it?’ and he’d say ‘this is what you need to do.’ So you didn’t have to come down and stand in a long line, only to be told ‘you didn’t copy a certificate of occupancy, so go stand in that line.’ They would come in knowing exactly what the needed.
Also during the past few years, part of which was under [former director] Patrick Canavan, vacant property. We did a block by block survey in 2007 of the entire city to survey vacant properties. And I think we went from an inventory of about 600 or 800 to 3000. So we required owners to register vacant properties, to maintain them according to law. And we thought that was a tremendous accomplishment. Because we found that a lot of police service calls, and a lot of DCRA calls are for vacant properties, which become nuisances.
Also, in terms of IT, we increased the public’s ability to apply for some building permits online, which happened under Director Argo’s leadership, but it started under Patrick Canavan. In fact, there’s a kiosk at Home Depot where you can get some building permits. That reduces the number of trips you need to make to DCRA, and it reduces the amount of staff we need.
Before taking this job, you were essentially the agency’s public face, dealing a lot with individual problems. Do you like getting yelled at?
Well, I see myself as a communicator. I’m still an attorney. And as a litigator, I’ve had to argue before judges and juries. And as deputy director for community service, I would attend hundreds of community meetings, a lot of which were on behalf of Director Argo. I think it’s just in how you approach people. What I found is that people just don’t know. And because the agency’s so complicated, you can’t just go to one person and get an answer. In most cases, I know the answer. But you can’t walk into DCRA and say ‘I want to start a business, what do I do?’ In fact, a lot of the time, you have to go to an attorney. So a lot of people get frustrated, thinking they’re going to come down here and one person’s going to be able to answer all of their questions.
Sometimes I get yelled at, but that didn’t bother me, it’s part of my job. I’m a civil servant. Some people don’t use that term anymore, but it used to be that what be called them. I work for the people. I have to treat them with respect, no matter what, and I have to try to calm them down.
Sometimes, people don’t understand. I had a guy come in yesterday, he was the owner of a condominium unit. And some condominium owners, they call themselves tenants. They say, ‘I have a housing code violation,’ and I say, ‘who’s your landlord?’ And they say ‘well, I don’t have a landlord.’ ‘Well, you have to have a landlord if you’re a tenant.’ ‘Well, it’s a condo.’ ‘Do you own the unit, or are you renting?’ ‘I own it.’ So this person is upset that the roof is leaking, he wants to blame the developer. But the condominium was built in 2006, and the burden is on the condo association to fix that roof, because they’re private homeowners. I can’t force the association to fix the roof.
We don’t get a lot of that, but we get enough to know that people just don’t understand.
I always make the comparison with our inspections and the DMV, where you get your car registered. They do a superficial inspection, and see that there are no life safety issues. That your brake lights are working, that your windshield wipers are working. They don’t check your transmission. They don’t check your engine. And that’s what we do, we make inspections for life safety issues. But people want us to do a lot of things that we can’t do, or that they need to go to court for. People don’t understand our limitations.
Sometimes we react to the public to appease the public, and we’re wrong. We get sued. In one case, neighbors didn’t want a group home. And under the Fair Housing Act, group homes can be situated as a matter of right anywhere, up to seven occupants. But people don’t want group homes. I’m amazed that people will actually say, we don’t want them in our neighborhood. We don’t want Section 8 people. We don’t want ex-offenders. We don’t want juveniles in the juvenile system.
We had a situation in the attorney general’s office where somebody wanted to paint their house pink, some loud color. People say, ‘We don’t want this pink house in our neighborhood.’ Look, the law requires that we not discriminate. They say, ‘we don’t care about that. Put it somewhere else.’
We had two fair housing cases where we lost in federal court, and in one case, the judge criticized us, the DCRA, for delaying. In Tenleytown, they criticized us for holding up the certificate of occupancy to give in to the neighbors. Peaceoholics was the exact same thing. It was like, ‘we don’t want them here, no matter what.’ And our position was, we don’t have the authority to deny somebody who, as a matter of right, can situate a building, business home or whatever, because by law, we cant discriminate.
With the pawnshop on Georgia Avenue, Councilmember Bowser amended the law for her constituents to say that ANC commissioners have to be given great weight with respect to issuing a pawnbrokers license. With licenses, our role is ministerial. You come in, you say ‘I want to open a pawnshop.’ If you meet all the requirements, we’re required by law to give you that license. There’s no deliberation involved. Alcohol licensing, the alcohol board has the discretion to issue or not issue an alcohol license. We don’t have that authority. Except now with the new law, we have to at least give ANCs great weight. And I think that’s the only license on the books where we have the authority to deliberate. In that case, the ANC opposed it, and they gave their reasons, and the business rebutted it, and we looked at both sides, and we found no compelling reason not to issue the license, and we issued the license.
The pawnshop applied for the license, and spent a lot of money renovating the property. It was only after they did all that that they got the opposition. So I think it would be grossly unfair to say, you spent $100,000 to renovate it, and after that the commission opposes it, so we’re not going to give you a license. Hands down, we would have lost in court. I’ve been a litigator for 20 years. If we did that, the pawnshop would have gotten a hefty judgment by either jury or judge.
A lot of times, people just don’t understand. And it’s incumbent on us to make them understand. In most cases, we follow the law correctly here. If someone doesn’t want a pink house in their neighborhood and somebody else does, we have no authority to say you can’t have a pink house, but somebody’s going to be upset if we don’t stop the pink house, or we don’t stop the group home. And people want to blame somebody, and it’s typically DCRA.
One of the complaints I hear about DCRA is about business regulation: There are too many fees to pay and hoops to jump through. Do you plan on cutting down at all on red tape?
We don’t enact laws. That’s done by the legislature. I can’t think of a law on the books that says ‘you must do this’ that I think is antiquated, that shouldn’t be. I think we should move more towards information technology, allowing people to apply for things online. But I think the laws are designed for safety and welfare. And I think once you start stripping requirements, then you are making it more risky for a visitor or a tenant or whatever.
Now, we also have a code coordinating board that’s revamping all of the laws. We’re going to be among the first jurisdiction to revamp all of its codes. So I think we’re on track to be a model for other jurisdictions. We have looked at the laws on the books and we’ve modified some, and some of them might be antiquated, so we’ve gotten rid of those.
What are your biggest challenges going forward?
When I started here in 2005, we had 80 inspectors, 40 commercial, 40 residential. Today we have 23 inspectors. All of whom aren’t doing inspections; there are a few supervisors. That’s a huge challenge. We’ve had to do reductions in force over the last few years. When I started, we had 400 employees, now we have 270. It’s stressful in two ways: One, the thought of having to be reduced or terminated. There are employees who are currently on board who fear, ‘am I going to be reduced because of the economy?’ That same employee is stressed out because their work load has increased. If you have more customers coming out to be serviced, that’s more stress on the customer. They have to wait longer to be serviced. Big challenge. You have less people answering the telephones. Instead of waiting a couple of minutes of waiting, now you have to wait a long time.
What directives have you gotten from Mayor Gray yet, if any?
Mayor Gray wants us to be more transparent. We had our first cabinet meeting, and one of our marching orders is to be more transparent, to engage the community. We’re changing the way we do business, to get the community’s input. And to that end, I’ve reached out to the ANC commissioners and asked if we can have a training session, and explain to them the processes. And I think if we educated the ANC commissioners, I think knowledge is power, and they can say ‘this person is building an addition to their house. You may not like it, but it’s allowed as a matter of right by law. Don’t blame DCRA for enforcing the law.’
And that’s just the way Mayor Gray is. He’s honest, he’s open, he’s deliberate, in fact he gets criticized for being deliberative, which is a good thing. You should listen to both sides. ‘This is your viewpoint, this is your viewpoint,’ and we’ll make a decision based on what’s right, and that’s the way he is. And that’s one of the reasons why I’m glad to be working in his administration, because we think alike.
Linda Argo’s departure came as a surprise to a lot of local government watchers, since it didn’t seem like anyone was publicly calling for her removal. Do you know why you were chosen to replace her?
Well, I heard that the transition team recommended me. I heard that people told the mayor that I would be a good fit for director. There’s some synergy between Mayor Gray and I. We’re both native Washingtonians, we’re products of the public school system. He’s called on me in the past when he was a councilmember and when he was chairperson, I was very responsive, he liked that in me. He liked the fact that I had the law background.
And it’s political. I have nothing bad to say about Linda Argo, but it’s partly political, and it’s part that synergy. It’s no reflection on competency of the former director. It’s more about me, going forward. As the mayor he has the prerogative to choose the people who best fir his goal and his mission, and I think that it was me.
And again, the Mayor and I go way back. When I was at Forest Haven, [when Gray was director of the Department of Human Services,] he was very demanding, to make sure those citizens were treated fairly. We knew who Vincent Gray was, because we better have done the right thing for those citizens that were under our care. Our paths have crossed for 30 years.