By Debbie Cenziper
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 23, 2008
D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty is pressing for widespread changes that would give the city more power to punish landlords of neglected buildings, including the authority to quickly impose civil and criminal penalties when owners refuse to make repairs.
Fenty (D) also wants to allow the city to conduct quicker housing inspections, make immediate repairs at poorly maintained properties and provide more aid to tenants displaced from unsafe buildings. The proposed changes to District law, submitted to the D.C. Council this week by interim Attorney General Peter J. Nickles, are the latest in a series of recent efforts by council members and the Fenty administration to crack down on abusive landlords.
"We're not going to let loose," Nickles said. "This would broaden the ability of the city to deal in a comprehensive way with slumlords. . . . It permits the city council to get on board here -- not just make speeches, but rather do something that would be effective."
The city filed a lawsuit this month in D.C. Superior Court against 23 landlords and asked to have 13 problem properties put under the control of an independent officer, or "receiver," with broad authority to seek fines and penalties against the owners. Nickles amended the lawsuit this week, removing the names of several landlords who made repairs and adding others. He also named the D.C. Housing Authority as the receiver.
Nickles said the proposal submitted to the council would give the city even more muscle to take on troubled buildings. He said he expects the council to discuss the amendments next month.
Several council members said they support the latest proposal.
"We have to take every step that is constitutionally available to us," said Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2).
Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) agreed, saying, "We have a slice of property owners who have just flouted the law repeatedly. . . . What you need is a deeper set of tools to go after them, and that's what this is all about."
In a series of articles published last month, The Washington Post reported that dozens of landlords eager to convert rental apartments to condominiums had allowed their buildings to fall into disrepair to force tenants to move. The Post found thousands of housing code violations, including a lack of heat or electricity, cracked walls, and bug infestations at newly emptied buildings.
The city often failed to enforce housing codes, The Post found. Almost half of the 1,000 completed housing code cases that the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs took to court in the past three years were dismissed, often because of agency mishaps.
The changes that Fenty and Nickles propose would extend the city's authority to make immediate repairs at poorly maintained buildings. Currently that is allowed only at buildings with documented housing code violations. The proposals would also make it easier for the city to place buildings under receivership if a judge agrees to court oversight.
At the same time, DCRA would have more leeway to inspect buildings when landlords or tenants refuse to cooperate. The proposal would provide for some relocation and storage assistance to tenants forced to move from buildings the city is in the process of condemning; the city now can provide aid only after a building has been condemned, which can take months.
The changes would give the city the right to impose both civil and criminal fines against unresponsive landlords. DCRA often has to choose between civil and criminal sanctions, and Nickles said the process is "unwieldy and unworkable."
Nickles said he is planning to suggest more changes to protect the District's tenants, such as requiring DCRA to conduct regular inspections at apartment buildings. Now, the city inspects after complaints are lodged.
"The legislation would eliminate the major loopholes these recalcitrant landlords have been using for decades to dodge our efforts to force them to repair the horrible conditions in their buildings," DCRA Director Linda Argo said.