A Failure in Enforcement

At a troubled Southeast apartment complex, tenants have reported no heat or gas, a falling ceiling, cracked walls, mice and a defective water heater in recent years. The owner says he's made repairs in recent months, but wants tenants to leave so that he can sell the building.
By Debbie Cenziper and Sarah Cohen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The District agency entrusted with protecting tenants has routinely overlooked decrepit and dangerous conditions at rent-controlled apartment buildings in recent years despite claims that landlords were letting buildings rot to force families out.

At the same time, the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs helped landlords profit once tenants had left -- approving more than 200 requests to begin converting newly emptied rental buildings into condominiums worth hundreds of millions of dollars. The agency regularly failed to conduct even the most cursory investigations, which in dozens of cases would have revealed filthy conditions, questionable evictions and letters urging tenants to leave.

"It's a total abdication of DCRA's responsibilities," said Julie Becker, a lawyer with the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia. "It's not just betraying tenants. It's betraying the law."

The most critical line of defense for tenants in the city's 135,000 rental units, DCRA is charged with enforcing housing codes and, until recently, a 28-year-old District law that gives tenants the right to decide whether apartment buildings convert to condominiums.

But a Washington Post investigation, which reviewed nearly 1,000 court cases, 128,000 housing code violation reports and hundreds of government records, found serious breakdowns at the agency:

¿ DCRA's goal is to investigate emergency complaints about shoddy buildings within 48 hours, but only about half are inspected that quickly. Dozens of investigations for utility outages, infestations, broken pipes and sewer backups have stalled for weeks or even months.

¿ Agency leaders acknowledge that inspectors only sporadically made return visits to ensure repairs were completed, so it is impossible to know how many infractions have gone uncorrected. Last October, 1,900 reinspections were past due for all residential properties.

¿ DCRA took nearly 1,000 housing code cases to court in the past three years, but nearly half of the completed cases were dismissed, often because of agency failures. More than 30 cases died when officials for DCRA didn't show up for hearings.

¿ Even when judges have found owners liable and levied fines, DCRA often didn't try to collect the money. Of $572,000 in fines imposed during the past three years, landlords paid less than $112,000, court records show. DCRA can place liens on properties with outstanding fines, but a review of unpaid fines from 2005 shows that it often doesn't happen.

DCRA Director Linda Argo acknowledged the problems, saying the agency is providing more training to its 44 residential housing inspectors and sharing information about troubled properties with the newly independent Office of the Tenant Advocate.

Argo said reinspections of problem properties are "falling by the wayside," but the agency is developing a comprehensive system to better track inspections and reinspections. DCRA's computer program that monitors complaints, violations and inspections crashed for months in 2006 and now requires a $100-an-hour contractor on site 20 hours a week just to keep it running.

Argo, appointed in mid-2007, also said she wants to inspect troubled buildings on a regular basis, not just when tenants complain. Already, she said, there are signs of progress: The backlog for reinspections was cut in half over the past five months .

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