D.C. Battling Boom in Illegal Work on Homes

By Yolanda Woodlee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 27, 2005

The District's skyrocketing real estate prices have fueled an increase in illegal construction as property owners across the city are building and renovating homes without obtaining the required permits, according to D.C. officials and a review of city records.

Using tips largely supplied by neighbors turning in neighbors, the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs issued more than 1,400 stop-work orders for illegal construction during a recent 17-month period and has fined the violators nearly $1 million.

By comparison, Montgomery and Fairfax counties each issue fewer than 50 stop-work orders a year, officials said. Prince George's County officials said they issued about 135 such orders last year.

Many of the District's violators are homeowners building additions because they cannot afford to move to more spacious homes, while others are investors renovating properties in the hopes of selling them at a substantial profit, city officials and community activists say. The number of stop-work orders also reflects an aggressive crackdown by the D.C. regulatory agency, which once had a reputation for slipshod enforcement of building codes.

Patrick Canavan, the agency's new director, noted that the permit process is critical because it triggers inspections that show whether buildings meet safety standards and because improvements filed on the permits help determine property tax assessments.

Canavan said the city will not tolerate property owners and contractors who flagrantly violate building codes. "When we catch you . . . we're going to nail you," he said.

A review of 300 stop-work orders citywide showed such violations as hanging drywall before the city has inspected electrical and plumbing work, and renovating kitchens and bathrooms without building permits. Officials said other cases involve property owners who obtain permits for small projects such as decks but instead build additions, and contractors constructing houses without proper approvals.

The inspectors rely mostly on complaints from residents about neighbors violating building or zoning laws. For most construction projects, permits must be posted at the site, and inspectors place the bright red stop-work orders on properties where approvals have not been obtained.

Deanwood, a working-class neighborhood in the far eastern corner of the city, has become a hotbed for property owners and builders working without permits. D.C. Council member Vincent C. Gray (D-Ward 7), who represents Deanwood, said he is concerned that cheap properties east of the Anacostia River, including some that are vacant or abandoned, foster illegal construction because the profit margin is greater, even when the work is shoddy.

John Frye, a community activist, frequently cruises Deanwood, looking for illegal construction. "They're disrespecting the law," Frye said of some builders. "They're working with the stop-work orders posted where you can see them."

Frye calls the city from his cell phone when he runs across oddities, such as the giant hole he spotted in the 1000 block of 45th Street NE. Someone had demolished a house, leaving a two-story-high deck on stilts. Delores Jones, who lives a couple of doors from the property, said a backhoe had been "digging evenings and nights."

City building records show inspectors issued four stop-work orders to the property owner, Duane McKinney, and fined him $3,000. McKinney, head of the McKinney Construction Co., declined to discuss the citations.

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