Petworth resident Tasha Harris wanted some extra cash, so the 35-year-old Freddie Mac manager decided to turn her basement into a rental unit. She hired Alex Shekhtman, a Gaithersburg contractor who agreed not to charge more than $100,000 for the work. Harris put down $4,000 for the plans and $5,000 for the deposit. After Shekhtman’s estimate increased by $28,000, Harris says, she decided to cancel the job, but the contractor kept the money. He believed she wanted to scam him by using his plans with another contractor. She believed he wanted to scam her, because he wouldn’t let go of the money. “I feel being taken advantage of,” Shekhtman says. “She probably feels the same way.”
While this sounds like a case for the watchdogs at the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, it wasn’t that simple either. After two mediation sessions failed to reach a settlement, DCRA said it couldn’t do anything more. That’s because Harris was trying to become a landlord—-i.e., trying to set up a business. That meant she isn’t a “consumer” in the DCRA’s eyes. “Consumer protection complaints in the District do not include specific review of ‘business to business’ relationships,” writes Bob Harris (no relation), manager of the office of consumer protection.
Expanding on that, agency spokesperson Karyn-Siobhan Robinson writes in an e-mail that as a landlord, Harris “is not covered under the Consumer Protection Procedures Act,” which “defines a consumer purchase as one that is for personal, family or household use.”
Tasha Harris still doesn’t have a converted basement. “I had no idea that just because you renovate your basement it just means that you don’t get any protection,” she says. She’s hired Jim Delgado, a former DCRA building inspector, to review the contract and offer advice.
“They’re treating her as a business,” Delgado says. “I don’t think, I don’t believe, that [the] city council intended for that to happen.”