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FORCED OUT Elusive Repairs

Little to Show for the Price

D.C. Effort to Fix Empty Buildings Comes Up Short of Expectations

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By Debbie Cenziper
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 14, 2008

In the spring of 2005, the District government set out to repair a ramshackle building sitting empty on an overgrown lot near the Anacostia River.

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The city paid to rebuild the roof and repair the floors, take out trash and cut the grass and then billed the owner for the cost of repairs, plus interest. The Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs had signed off on the project, which was meant to help clean up a run-down stretch of mom-and-pop shops on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE.

Three years later, the building is crumbling, the city is out nearly $100,000, and Pat Boykins, who owns the beauty shop next door, is left with a lingering question: "Why does the building still look like this?"

The project was among hundreds of repair jobs subsidized in recent years by a $30 million fund established to rid the District of dangerous, dilapidated properties.

As tenants across the city complain of squalid conditions, the DCRA is struggling to account for the millions it has spent.

Records show the agency has repeatedly directed jobs to small home-improvement contractors without business licenses, in some cases for costly projects at empty buildings. Years later, haphazard oversight and record-keeping at the DCRA make it difficult to track what projects were ordered, whether the city paid a fair price, or how much work was done.

The fund is a crucial piece of the city's efforts to protect renters in rotting buildings. Because of a thriving real estate market, landlords in the past four years emptied hundreds of rent-controlled apartments, then made millions of dollars by converting the apartments to condominiums. Some landlords forced renters out by refusing to make repairs; city inspectors have chronicled more than 3,000 housing-code violations, including leaks, broken stoves and toilets, cracked walls and no electricity, at newly vacant buildings.

In recent months, D.C. Council members have chastised the DCRA for diverting the bulk of the repair fund to pay for a failed computer system, support staff and other expenses while thousands of tenants suffered in dangerous buildings.

Now, some council members have questioned the DCRA's dealings with repair-fund contractors and have requested an accounting of projects and payments. The members also want to know why the agency spent so much money, almost $540,000 from 2005 to 2007, on buildings without tenants.

"There has been so little done in terms of remedying problems. It's an outrage," said council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1). "Who is DCRA working with, and what have they done with the money?"

DCRA officials also said that repairs have been made only at neglected properties that pose a danger to tenants and neighborhoods.

"We want [buildings] to be safe and habitable," said Nick Majett, deputy director of the DCRA. "That is our only mission."

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