District of Columbia officials said yesterday that they are winding up a three-year effort to clear out a backlog of 17,000 applications from businesses for permits to occupy the buildings in which they operate.
To meet that goal, the city has dropped some safety inspections that previously were required before the certificates of occupancy could be issued. The new policy will allow some 4,000 pending certificates to be issued immediately, according to Carol Thompson, acting director of the Department of Licenses, Investigations and Inspections.
About 20 members of the department's staff, working since April, have traced every application for a certificate of occupancy, according to Teresa Lewis, who headed the project of looking into the backlog.
Thompson said that some 10,000 applications in the backlog have been found either to be duplicates or to be obsolete because the businesses that filed them had closed or moved. Another 3,000 applications will require some additional inspections and should be processed by the end of the year, she said.
Businesses opening for the first time or moving into new locations are required to apply for certificates of occupancy before they can operate. The city previously required several safety inspections before issuing occupancy certificates. But the city's staff of inspectors was inundated with applications for certificates and thousands never were processed, some for more than a decade.
Occupancy permits are required for businesses legally to operate in the city and Thompson acknowledged that many businessmen apparently have been operating without them.
The businessmen could be subject to $300 in fines and 10 days in jail for every day they were not in compliance, but Thompson said that no penalties will be imposed on applicants who have not received certificates because of the backlog.
Mayor Barry had pledged to clear out the backlog of applications three years ago, after 10 women outpatients from St. Elizabeths Hospital were killed in a fire at a group home on Lamont Street NW. The home had a certificate of occupancy, but city officials said after the fire that it should not have been issued because the house had several violations of the city's fire code.
Under the new regulations, businesses can receive certificates without the safety inspections, provided that the basic structure and use of the building does not change. Inspections still will be required whenever the applicants have changed the use of a structure or required new construction.
Lewis said that eliminating some of the inspection requirements will not adversely affect the safety of buildings in the city.
"If anything," Lewis said, "it will make them safer."
She explained that the new system will free dozens of inspectors to concentrate on the regular inspections of health and safety standards that are required under business licensing procedures.
"One of the things this will do," she said, "is increase our enforcement capacity."
Along with the cuts in red tape, however, new applicants for certificates of occupancy will be required to pay a $20 application fee. Officials were unable to estimate how much revenue the new fee will generate for the city.
The new procedures are expected to keep applications current, Lewis said. "We should not have another backlog," she added.