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Monday, May 5, 11:30 a.m. ET

Forced Out

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Debbie Cenziper
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 5, 2008; 11:30 AM

Between 2005 and 2007, the District's Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs had $16.5 million to spend on repairs at neglected properties. But only 4 percent has been spent on troubled apartment complexes even as city inspectors chronicled rampent housing code violations at buildings across the city.

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Post staff writer Debbie Cenziper was online Monday, May 5 at 11:30 a.m. to discuss her story about the District's DCRA and its management of the repair fund.

A transcript follows.

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Debbie Cenziper: Hi, and thanks for joining us to talk about the latest installment of the Post's "Forced Out" series.

The series found that dozens of District landlords had pushed tenants from rent-controlled apartments to convert to condominiums, often by allowing buildings to fall apart without repairs.

I look forward to your questions and comments...

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Washington, D.C.: Do you think there's any chance of reforming DCRA? I'm amazed at the properties they've granted certificates of occupancy for and when you try to get them reviewed or revoked, good luck to you. I'm amazed that the city has come back so far and city services are still messed up.

Debbie Cenziper: Hi Washington, D.C.:

DCRA has a new director, Linda Argo, who has made a bunch of changes. The agency, for example, has already spent several million dollars on repairs in 2008, which is a big change from years past.

But it will be interesting to see if any of this is felt in the community among housing advocates and tenants who have tried for years to tap into this fund.

City Council members Mary Cheh and Jim Graham are also trying to get from DCRA a detailed accounting of where the money has gone -- so far, they've been pretty frustrated with the agency's response. It will be interesting to see how that plays out.

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DC: I think if anything, D.C.'s tenant friendly laws have backfired. First, there is no incentive for landlords to build or market affordable units because rent control does not keep pace with inflation. Second, low-income tenants do a lot less to maintain the units and often have many transient relatives in and out therefore causing more damage. So landlords never make the money to repair building and basically you can't ever kick anyone out of housing so landlords just let the buildings rot. I think if D.C. was more market -based in their approach, and rescinded rent control (which has NEVER been shown to create affordable units for the people who need them most) then competition would force more landlords to maintain buildings and level off pricing.

Debbie Cenziper: Our series didn't tackle rent control, but I hear this argument a lot. Thanks for writing in.

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Washington, D.C.: Rather than spending city money to repair privately owned buildings, would the city be better off to go after negligent landlords and have them do it?

Debbie Cenziper: The problem is that for years, this issue hasn't generated much attention. There's been little enforcement -- few civil penalities or criminal cases against problem landlords.

The Fenty Administration, the Attorney General's Office and the City Council are now making a huge push to go after negligent landlords. So we'll see what happens, and how the city uses the repair fund in the future.

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Washington, D.C.: Does the money from the fund come from the general budget, or does it have dedicated funding?

Debbie Cenziper: It's capital money. Between 2005 and 2007, DCRA has had $16.5 million to spend. As yesterday's story noted, millions of dollars have rolled over, year after year. And much of the money that did go out was diverted to other programs or to repairs at single-family homes.

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Arlington, Va.: Did you look to see if there are other cities that make better use of similar funds?

Debbie Cenziper: Hi Arlington:

Good suggestion. We have more stories planned, including a possible look at how other cities are dealing with these issues, especially cities in our region.

Debbie Cenziper: Hi Arlington:

Good question.

We're hearing from tenants all over the region about similar problems with landlords and condo conversions. We have more stories planned so please keep reading...

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Washington, D.C.: How did so much of this fund money discussed in yesterday's story go to single-family properties instead of to rehab rundown apartment complexes? Is there a personal connection or some such thing that allows this haphazard distribution of money?

Debbie Cenziper: We studied a handful of cases and did find complaints and housing code violations at the houses mentioned in the story -- so it didn't appear like the money just turned up out of the blue, through some political or personal connection.

However, the "haphazard distribution" that you mention in your question is something that we're still very much interested in.

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Metro Center, D.C.: In my experience, tenants were given legal advice to make multiple complaints to city agencies because we knew the building landlord wanted to convert to condo. So we filed lots of complaints and the landlord raised the amount of money offering so we would move out. I didn't know about this system, but as a result, received about $1,000 more than first offer.

Debbie Cenziper: Hi Metro Center:

Thanks for your comment, and yes, landlords talk about this situation a lot. I've been to about two dozen apartment buildings, however, and if anything, conditions have been far, far worse than what has been reported to the city.

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Oviedo, Fla.: liked your work at the Miami Herald and glad you continue to focus on housing. Go Gators.

Will the inert forces at work in D.C. government just relapse without your constant checking on these stories? How can these regular folks take them to task, and who is accountable in the end?

Debbie Cenziper: Great to hear from a Floridian.

As I mentioned earlier, I think the real test will be to see what tenants, advocates and their attorneys say six months or a year from now. Can they tap the repair fund? Are housing code inspectors showing up quickly and then returning for reinspections? Are landlords being fined when repairs aren't made? Is DCRA collecting the fine money?

I also think the City Council is taking a hard look at this, along with Fenty administration, so we'll see where things go from here.

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Washington, D.C.: I have lived in DC since 1985, and I honestly thought that, with Williams and now Fenty, we were past the corruption and mismanagement of the Barry era. Well, between the long-time theft of tax money right under the nose of supervisors, the incompetent child services agency, the continuing mess in the schools, and now this, I don't think things are really much better. What do you think is the underlying cause of all this waste?

Debbie Cenziper: Wow. What a comment and question. I'm still fairly new to the Post and to D.C., so I'm not sure that I can answer that one....

From a newcomer's perspective, I can tell you that DCRA is a huge, huge agency and changing the culture and the policies there must be incredibly difficult, even for the most determined administration. Just getting basic information and data from DCRA can be near impossible, but on the upside, there seems to be a push to make things right.

We'll see what happens from here.

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Cleveland Park, DC: A series like this is simply incomplete without a discussion of whether the cause of much of the poor housing conditions is DC's rent control laws and its incredibly pro-tenant laws. While the horrible living conditions featured in the articles are truly shocking, very little mention is made of why landlords should be forced to continue renting to tenants if the landlord doesn't want to. These stories are great at eliciting outrage (as well as media-driven legislation from the city council), but there's been no real in-depth look at why the situation is the way it is.

Debbie Cenziper: We've heard this argument a lot. Thanks for your comment.

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Washington, DC: Great article! You mentioned that the monies roll over. What do they do with the money??

Debbie Cenziper: Hi Washington, D.C. -- thanks.

From the numbers, it appears the money rolled over from year to year, and then in 2008, much of it was spent down.

But there are nuances here that we are still digging into.

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Washington, D.C.: As you wrote this; what were some of the immediate solutions to this mess that came to your mind?

Debbie Cenziper: Housing advocates and City Council members say that DCRA needs a transparent process to distribute the money, with clear guidelines on when, where and how the money goes out. It's been haphazard at best...

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Debbie Cenziper: We've got more stories planned, so please keep reading. Thanks for joining us today.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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