By Debbie Cenziper
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 25, 2008
D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty vowed yesterday to overhaul the way the District deals with negligent landlords by launching regular inspections of the city's 11,000 rental buildings to expose dangerous and illegal conditions.
At a news conference in front of a run-down apartment complex in Southeast Washington, Fenty (D) said that the first-ever push to inspect all buildings was "imperative." Until now, the city inspected only when complaints were lodged, providing haphazard enforcement of the housing codes.
"It was not enough just for us to be called in . . . about a property in decay," Fenty said.
The Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, charged with protecting tenants, will begin inspecting the city's most troubled buildings this fall. By the end of the year, DCRA will have an inspection schedule in place for every building with three or more rental units.
Buildings probably will be inspected at least once every four years, with inspectors visiting problem properties repeatedly until dangerous conditions are corrected, said DCRA Director Linda Argo.
For years, tenants and housing advocates have criticized DCRA for failing to enforce the city's housing codes, penalize landlords and repair decrepit buildings. Argo acknowledged that the current system "does not work for a handful of property owners who scoff at the law and take advantage of the enforcement system that we set up."
She said DCRA is studying inspection practices in other cities, including Los Angeles and New York, and providing more training to the agency's 75 inspectors.
The changes are the latest in the city's crackdown on abusive landlords. In a series of articles published earlier this year, The Washington Post found that dozens of landlords eager to convert rent-controlled apartments into condominiums had allowed their buildings to fall apart in an effort to force tenants to move. The buildings were riddled with thousands of housing code violations, such as lacking heat and electricity, but DCRA had routinely failed to intervene.
On Tuesday, D.C. Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) endorsed the mayor's plan, saying some landlords have a "special kind of greed" and indifference to the law.
"We are united in making this a major effort of the city to rid the city of these dilapidated slums," she said.
D.C. interim Attorney General Peter Nickles also announced yesterday that he is preparing a second lawsuit targeting problem properties.
In April, the District asked the D.C. Superior Court to place 13 properties with a history of extensive housing-code violations under the supervision of an independent officer, or receiver, with authority to seek fines and penalties against the owners. A hearing is scheduled for August.
Nickles said more properties and landlords will be named in the new complaint, but he would not identify buildings or say when the complaint would be filed. Nickles is also pushing the D.C. Council to allow the city to conduct quicker inspections, make immediate repairs at poorly maintained properties and impose civil and criminal penalties when landlords refuse to make repairs.
"Our ultimate punishment will be to put these people in jail," Nickles said.