By Debbie Cenziper
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 16, 2008
District officials fired more than half of the city's housing-code inspectors yesterday, citing an "inexcusable neglect of duty," and pledged to quickly hire a fleet of well-trained workers to protect tenants in dangerous apartment buildings.
Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs Director Linda Argo dismissed 18 of the city's 34 residential inspectors, who are responsible for ensuring that rental properties are clean, safe and well-maintained. For months, DCRA has faced criticism for failing to address shoddy conditions, even as tenants complained that landlords were trying to force them out of rent-controlled apartments to convert them to condominiums.
The firings are the latest in a citywide crackdown on abusive landlords.
Argo, appointed in mid-2007, said last year that inspectors must become certified by the International Code Council, an organization whose residential and commercial building standards are used by cities nationwide. Argo said certification is a crucial step to making DCRA's inspection force more professional and ensuring that inspectors are trained on industry standards.
Argo imposed a one-year deadline and offered 40 hours of training, study groups, books and vouchers to cover the cost of the certification test. DCRA also promoted inspectors and gave them an annual raise of about $10,000 as a "gesture of good faith" to bring them in line with the salaries of certified inspectors, Argo said.
By the June 30 deadline, however, 18 inspectors lacked certification. Some inspectors did not pass the open-book test, but most never took it.
DCRA sent termination notices to the inspectors yesterday. Some were agency veterans, including one with a tenure of nearly 37 years. As union members, they have a right to appeal to the city. The inspectors have been placed on administrative leave for the 15-day appeals period.
"This was not the outcome we had hoped for, but the goal remains the same, and we must keep moving forward," Argo said.
DCRA will use temporary, certified inspectors until the positions are filled, likely within 90 days, Argo said. If the terminated inspectors become certified, the city will consider rehiring them, she said.
The union representing the inspectors lashed out at DCRA, saying that none of the inspectors were cited for poor job performance.
"The union is very concerned," said Eric Bunn, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, Local 2725. "We don't feel the process was done correctly," he added.
Bunn said the union discussed its concerns with DCRA in June, but the agency's response was "take it or leave it."
Argo's decision was backed by Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D), who has taken steps in recent months to penalize negligent landlords after a Washington Post investigation found that some tenants were pressured to leave apartments to make way for condominiums. Last month, Fenty announced a first-ever push to conduct regular inspections of every rental property. Until now, the city inspected only when complaints were received. DCRA will begin inspecting the most troubled buildings in the fall.
In April, the District asked D.C. Superior Court to place 13 problem properties under the supervision of an independent officer with authority to seek fines and penalties against the owners.
Fenty also wants the city to conduct quicker housing inspections and make immediate repairs at rundown properties.
"My administration has spent the past year focusing on improving the inspection of rental properties and holding landlords accountable," Fenty said in a statement. "Today's action is just one of many steps DCRA is taking to ensure rentals units in the District are safe and healthy for residents."