Ceilings Sag as Inspections Lag

By Debbie Cenziper
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 23, 2008

District inspectors have failed to respond to reports chronicling hazards including collapsed ceilings, water leaks and no heat at almost a dozen apartment complexes, despite requests from the city agency charged with protecting tenants.

The backlog at the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs comes four months after the agency slashed its inspection force, firing more than 20 inspectors and hiring just five replacements. At the same time, a D.C. Superior Court judge ordered the agency to conduct repeated inspections at a series of run-down properties the city wants placed under court supervision.

Then came a new challenge: inspecting the city's hotels before the presidential inauguration.

"I was told they have all these hotel requirements to meet, at least for the month of November," said Johanna Shreve, who, as the city-appointed chief tenant advocate, reported the troubled complexes to DCRA. "There are guests coming in . . . and they do not want to find themselves in places where there could be problems."

Since late last month, DCRA inspectors have visited 61 hotels, canvassing 1,500 rooms for possible code violations, agency officials say. Thirty more hotels are to be inspected in coming weeks.

By comparison, DCRA has conducted building-wide inspections at 17 apartment complexes over the past five months, and most were those the city is pushing to place under court supervision.

During that time, Shreve's Office of the Tenant Advocate submitted detailed reports about hazardous conditions at 11 other complexes with an estimated 400 apartments.

At a building on 13th Street NW, the heat often does not work and the ceiling is partially collapsed, exposing rotting wood and soggy insulation. One tenant has used a plastic tarp to cover a four-foot hole above his bed.

"If it keeps going like this," said Donald Green, 53, pointing to a crumbling hallway ceiling, "you're going to be able to look up and see the sky."

Advocates from Shreve's office documented the problems in August during a preliminary inspection meant to be the first step leading to an official investigation by DCRA. Once an inspection is complete, DCRA can seek fines from unresponsive landlords or use a multimillion-dollar repair fund to make immediate fixes.

Advocates visited 10 other buildings, in one case calling 911 after smelling gas from a broken stove.

DCRA, however, has not scheduled building-wide inspections at any of the properties. Seven of the reports were produced in July and August.

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