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 .
"There's a total consciousness about this," Argo said. "It is on our radar screen. It is a priority."
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But change has been slow at DCRA, which Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) has repeatedly declared one of the city's most troubled agencies. It is also one of the most crucial: 52 percent of the city's residents are renters, one of the highest rates among comparable-size cities nationwide.
The sprawling agency, which oversees everything from construction permits to business licensing, has had five directors in seven years and has been studied by consultants, staff, auditors, lawyers and other professional groups at least 10 times in the past decade.
D.C. Council members have criticized a series of DCRA employees. They include Raenelle Humbles Zapata, in charge of overseeing rental housing, accused during a hearing by council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) of "gross negligence" for erroneously approving eviction requests for three rental complexes. At the time, Zapata said she had made a mistake but "had excellent reviews" at DCRA. She left in 2005.
Graham also questioned DCRA official Linda Harried for giving landlords letters approving the sale of apartment buildings without offering them to tenants first, as District law requires. Harried and others argued that they were following the law at the time. Harried left DCRA months later.
She reported to former DCRA administrator James Aldridge, who acknowledged during a council hearing in 2005 that he did not intervene when Harried signed off on the sales. When Aldridge would not say that the agency had done anything wrong, council member Kwame R. Brown (D-At Large) fumed, "I am a little bit irate that the residents of the District of Columbia, who have been paying the salary of this employee for over twenty-some years, cannot get what I consider an accurate or honest answer."
Aldridge said in an interview that Graham was "simply grandstanding."
"DCRA interpreted the [law] as the council drafted it," he said.
Graham said DCRA for years has favored landlords, even when it was clear that tenants' rights were violated.
"Landlords are forever finding, by hook or by crook, another loophole," Graham said. "It's the profit engine that drives on and on here. A DCRA that is not very aggressive and marginally competent . . . all of that plays into the hands of those who want to make a buck off tenants."
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One of the most striking imbalances plays out in the enforcement of the city's housing codes.
A Post analysis of data from the agency's tracking system found that just half of the 2,100 urgent complaints from 2007 were handled within 48 hours, DCRA's standard. Using different data, the agency put the figure at 76 percent in reports to the mayor.
At 804 Taylor St. NW, tenants have called DCRA complaining of no heat or water, cracked walls and a rat infestation, records show. The building is owned by Warren Williams Jr., a real estate developer.
In 2006, Williams started pressing tenants to leave the building, offering $3,000 and help finding a new apartment. He noted that if the building converted to condominiums, tenants would have the right to purchase a unit before any other buyers.
Tenants say the building fell into disrepair. On an afternoon last fall, rotting trash was piled in heaps in the back yard, and inside, a ceiling had collapsed and chunks of the walls had fallen into the stairwells.
"No cleaning, sweeping, security, repairs to lighting," said tenant John Parks, 44. Parks, a graduate student, doesn't want to give up his apartment because he can walk to Howard University, his rent is $425 a month and he can take his 3-year-old son to a nearby playground.
In February 2007, DCRA found more than 25 violations, but it dropped the case in April, saying the inspector couldn't get inside the building to reinspect. The agency went back in October for a buildingwide inspection and found more than 30 violations. The case was closed in January, with DCRA saying violations had been fixed.
Tenants say that some repairs were made but that the fixes were often cosmetic. The roof is still leaking, the walls are peeling and lights are not working, they say.
"DCRA has been very lax," said tenant James Posey, a city employee who has lived in the building for seven years. "I've been trying to get this stuff resolved since July of last year, but there's no sense of urgency on DCRA's part. Absolutely none."
A DCRA official said the agency has often had trouble getting into the building for inspections.
Williams said that his property manager had been absent from the building for personal reasons but that repairs have been made. He denied that he had tried to force tenants out by refusing to maintain the building.
"That's never been any intention of mine," Williams said. "Never, never."
When landlords fail to make repairs, DCRA can take them to court at the city's Office of Administrative Hearings and pursue fines. But poor record-keeping and follow-through have allowed dozens of landlords to escape penalties.
In the past three years, DCRA regularly sent legal notices to landlords using old or inaccurate addresses or notified the wrong person or company, a problem that administrative law judges have warned the agency about for years.
When mail is returned "undeliverable," judges give the agency a second chance to get the address right. But DCRA has often opted to dismiss cases without trying a second time.
Even when DCRA had the correct address, it often failed to follow up with a required second notice to unresponsive landlords. The agency, for example, filed more than 20 cases in 2005 against the company run by former D.C. Council member H.R. Crawford, citing uncollected trash and weeds at the company's apartment complex in Southeast. But the cases were dismissed in 2006 after Crawford failed to respond and DCRA did not send a required second notice.
Crawford said that he responded to all violations but that the complex was scheduled to be torn down and had become a dumping ground. He added that his company in late 2004 became a silent partner in the property.
DCRA officials attribute the dismissals to administrative problems.
In 11 cases, violations were dropped because the legal notices themselves were defective. In one case, DCRA attempted to fine a landlord $1,000 but didn't say why, inexplicably citing an unrelated statute that governs payments to dead firefighters and police officers.
Together, the hundreds of dismissed cases represented $664,000 in potential fines against landlords.
When judges imposed fines and landlords didn't pay, DCRA often failed to take the next step, putting liens on properties. A review of the 80 cases from 2005 with unpaid fines shows that DCRA placed liens on just 29 properties.
Argo said DCRA recently changed the way it sends legal notices to landlords to ensure that cases aren't dismissed. She also said that the agency is working out glitches with the Office of Administrative Hearings. Since January 2007, she said, the agency has issued 154 liens against properties for failure to pay delinquent fines.
"We are not just putting a fresh new coat of paint on the walls here," she said. "We are getting into the guts of DCRA and revitalizing our staff, our process and our procedures from the bottom up."
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While one arm of DCRA failed to enforce housing codes, another routinely granted landlords permission to convert newly emptied buildings to condominiums. The law requires that tenants vote to approve condominiums and that developers pay a conversion fee to help uprooted tenants: 5 percent of the sales price of every new unit. But vacant buildings are exempt.
Records show DCRA regularly approved "vacancy exemptions" without requiring inspectors to go inside newly emptied buildings to look for signs that tenants had been forced out. Of 144 case files produced by DCRA, just 35 show interior inspections. Inspectors simply signed off on dozens of applications after claiming they couldn't get inside buildings because the owners had locked the doors.
In other cases, it would have been impossible for inspectors to determine what conditions had been like for tenants because the landlords -- even before receiving exemptions -- had launched wholesale renovations to prepare for condominiums.
Lauren Pair, who has overseen vacancy exemptions since August 2006, also said she does not research building code violations before approving exemptions because the law does not give her authority to reject an application on those grounds.
She and others said the law governing exemptions is vague. On the application, landlords are required to provide an explanation of how buildings became vacant, which the city calls a "self-certifying process."
"The law does not give the authority to challenge the information that we get from a landlord," said Keith Anderson, a rental property program specialist. "Unless we have knowledge about a property, we're basically bound to take their explanation."
But a review of more than 200 vacancy exemption applications shows that some landlords provided little or no explanation. DCRA approved the exemptions with few questions.
Pair said she has rejected some applications for "technical reasons," which were often quickly resolved, but has held up only one application in recent years. It was for a building on Vernon Street NW, where every fled after a late night fire in 2006. Investigators said the fire was deliberately set but have not determined who was responsible.
DCRA has overlooked tenants in other ways, too.
The law requires the city to provide displaced families with funds collected from the condominium conversion fee. But in the past three years, the exemptions have saved landlords $16 million in fees.
DCRA has collected $2.4 million since 2004 from landlords who did not have exemptions. But even then, few tenants benefited -- less than 2 percent of the money has been spent on housing assistance. The rest has been sitting untapped, officials said, even as thousands of families search for affordable housing. The fund was recently transferred to the Office of the Tenant Advocate.
Last October, city officials transferred oversight of vacancy exemptions and rental housing from DCRA to the Department of Housing and Community Development, saying the move would put more focus on the preservation of affordable housing.
The D.C. Council has for more than a year raised questions about the exemptions. It approved a measure from Graham in 2006 to repeal the provision, but the repeal was put on an emergency hold when developers raised concerns, and council members are expected to address the issue again in the coming months. Fenty also proposed late last year that landlords with outstanding code violations be barred from converting their properties to condominiums.
But housing advocates say the mayor must also create a workable system of inspections and enforcement, including regular criminal referrals.
"The District has good laws, but it's a question of how they get enforced," said Joel Cohn, legislative director with the Office of the Tenant Advocate. "Unless you have someone who is actually paying attention, who knows the laws and is willing to prosecute, then the best laws in the world are pretty useless."
Staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.