Some landlords in DC have been forcing their tenants live in horrendous conditions for years, without having to make fixes or pay fines. Part of the problem is that the DC government only employs 13 housing inspectors, and next year is only planning to add three more. That’s not enough to keep housing code violators from slipping through the cracks.
Recent investigations from the DC Attorney General have highlighted how thousands of residents across the district face ridiculous living conditions due to improper maintenance in decrepit buildings. Take, for example, Washington Post and Washington City Paper accounts from earlier this year of what tenants of Sanford Capitol, one of the worst offenders, are up against:
Entire complexes with no working locks on outside doors
Tenants defecating in buckets for six months while waiting for a toilet repair
Open sewage backing up in units
Rat infestations and broken boilers during the winter
One company, Sanford Capital, has gotten a lot of attention for its practices, and for good reason. But it is not the only problematic landlord. It took years of local organizing and public testimony to elevate Sanford’s properties to the spotlight, but other buildings and landlords are doing similar things without much public scrutiny.
For example, in April long-time tenant Kiesha Davis testified about her landlord, Winn Management:
To start with, the ceiling of the unit I just moved out of collapsed three times. The first time, some friends and I had just left my room when half of the ceiling collapsed. The ceiling stayed open for at least 24 hours before maintenance came to put a board up…
The other two times we were in the living room. The ceilings and walls throughout the apartment sometimes develop cracks and mold. This time it was a crack in the living room— it starts in one section, and gets larger and larger. Finally in the living room above the couch area, half of the ceiling collapsed. They never fixed the whole ceiling, just that spot where it fell in. The ceiling fell another time in the exact same area some years later. Maintenance has come and put putty and paint over the cracks, which doesn’t solve the problem, for about 20 plus years. Other residents’ ceilings have crashed too, and recently one man fell through the floor.
Here’s how DC handles predatory landlords
The DC Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) is charged with investigating housing code violations and enforcing penalties on negligent landlords across the city. Usually the agency responds to complaints filed by tenants, but it also performs what it calls Proactive Inspections: random inspections to ensure that over a five-year period, “all multi-unit rental properties in the District of Columbia are inspected” and “meet property maintenance and building code regulations.”
Between those two systems, you would hope that the agency would be able to identify and fine landlords whose negligence leads to deplorable living conditions. But clearly it can’t since reports of multiple feet of standing water, entire complexes with zero working locks, and mold infestations have surfaced.
How many buildings and communities out there are still flying under radar?
Part of the problem is that there aren’t enough inspectors
Currently, DCRA only employs 13 inspectors to respond to housing code violation complaints across the District. It employs an additional four or five staff for the random inspections program. In a statement, DCRA Director Melinda Bolling pointed out that the average housing inspector completes around 1,000 inspections a year.
As for the proactive program, in fiscal year 2016, DCRA completed 2,145 proactive housing inspections, but Sam Jewler, an organizer for Bread for the City, a non-profit organization that works closely with many tenants living in sub-standard apartments across the District, points out that these scheduled inspections take place all over the city and are not prioritized by neighborhood need. Some areas of the city have more predatory landlords than others, and should be getting more attention from inspectors.
Housing inspectors are not only responsible for responding to complaints, but also for follow-up inspections and paperwork. They also check into whether the issue has been resolved and levy a fine if not.
Advocates and leaders want to know why this team is so small
In an oversight hearing on April 13th of this year, DC Council Chairman Phil Mendelson specifically asked about DCRA’s lackluster response to beef up its inspection program:
This is the third hearing we’ve had this year… and I feel like we are being overwhelmed with complaints on illegal construction and housing code violations, and yet I don’t see anything in this statement that spends much time if any on these two issues.
In response, Director Bolling pointed out that this year’s budget asked for three additional housing inspectors, meaning around 3,000 more inspections in the coming year.
“I’m not feeling convinced,” said Mendelson, “But ok.”
Councilmember Elissa Silverman also had concerns:
The disconnect is that… it seems like there should be more resources put into strategic enforcement… I guess I’m surprised there are only three housing inspectors added given that that’s one of the biggest issues that we’ve been facing this year.
Silverman was responding in part to the agency's choice to bring on 14 new employees to run a new data-based initiative for its housing code investigations while only adding three employees to the inspector team.
DCRA hopes this new program will help its enforcement efforts. Director Bolling testified that tenants don’t always file complaints about their apartment conditions, and that this new program came about as a response to the Sanford Capital inquiries this year. She clarified that DCRA is a property-based entity, and that even if it was trying to look for problematic owners in the data, many times owners use different LLC names at different apartment complexes, making it difficult to track down common owners of multiple problem sites. This new data team will develop and implement strategies to address this problem.
DCRA needs to hire more inspectors
Director Bolling is satisfied with its projected budget and does not feel that it needs to hire more housing inspectors. I’m not sure the hundreds of tenants waiting in deplorable conditions would agree.
As evidenced by the high profile Sanford Capital case, there are plenty of places in DC’s enforcement system where negligent landlords have abused the rules and avoided detection and fines for years. Bread for the City and its partners have begun to organize a larger campaign around these issues, which includes ideas about database improvement, increased legal options for tenants, and redistribution of the collected fines.
One thing you can ask DCRA to do today is add more housing inspectors. Bringing more inspectors into the picture is an easy way to tighten the net, especially given the woefully inadequate numbers that exist today.
There are two ways to make this happen: the DC Council can allocate more money to DCRA to hire more inspectors, or DCRA can shift its priorities and staff to meet the need. Send a message to Chairman Mendelson and DCRA director Bolling today saying there’s no reason for such a small team of housing inspectors.