City regulators plan to encourage all college students worried about the safety of their off-campus apartments to request inspections, following a rowhouse fire caused by faulty wiring Sunday that killed a Georgetown University student.
Officials at George Washington University already have asked the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs to examine off-campus buildings in which students live, agency Director David A. Clark said.
The city also will advise students about their legal rights if they need to break their leases because of unsafe living conditions, Clark said.
The department's outreach effort is the latest attempt by the city to bring unsafe student housing up to code after the death of Georgetown University senior Daniel Rigby, 21. He died Sunday morning after the two-story rowhouse in which he was living caught fire.
Authorities said the fire at 3318 Prospect St. NW was caused by faulty electrical wiring leading from the furnace in the basement, where Rigby's room was. Fire inspectors and officials said metal bars were welded to the basement's window frames, the basement did not have the required smoke detectors, and exit doors were blocked, among other violations.
Rigby's death has focused more scrutiny on the conditions of rental properties near the Georgetown campus and sparked a flood of city inspections that have led to the displacement of dozens of students.
After discovering housing code violations, inspectors have closed some or all units in nine rental properties. The number of students forced out of rental units because of the violations increased to 43 yesterday when five students were relocated after inspectors found they were sleeping in rooms in basement apartments that contained gas meters, a department spokeswoman said.
The students had requested that city officials inspect their apartments.
Students who live in off-campus housing said the fatal fire has added a sense of urgency to addressing the maintenance problems they said they have experienced for years in their high-priced, aging buildings. Some of the property the city has closed is managed by the Student Housing Association, according to city officials and students. The association is a private company that manages rental property near the campus and is not affiliated with the university.
Several students who live in Student Housing Association-managed buildings criticized the company for failing to properly maintain the rowhouses, which they said suffer from problems with plumbing, electrical wiring, window frames and heaters.
Records show that the rowhouse in which Rigby died is owned by a woman who lives in Florida and could not be reached.
A few doors down from where he lived, student Molly Reynolds sleeps in a bedroom with one electrical outlet dangling out of its socket, revealing exposed wires, and another outlet without a cover. Reynolds, 21, lives with seven other women in a two-story rowhouse managed by the company. Last month, a large front window in the house came loose and fell to the ground, frame and all. "Thank God nobody was walking below it," said Elise Craig, 20, a junior at Georgetown who lives with Reynolds.
The eight women together pay $6,400 a month.
Edward L. Hull, president of Student Housing Association, said the company takes upkeep and safety of its properties seriously. "We haven't had a fire in the 14 years of doing business, and we intend to work diligently to keep it that way," he said last night.
Hull said the association manages properties for absentee landlords, including about 16 properties in the vicinity of GU. He said students' interaction with the association is one of the first experiences with landlords that many of them have. Because of that, he said, the association tries to go over safety and other basic housing issues.
Hull said that the association is cooperating with the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs and that the association did not manage the building where Rigby lived.
The university does not recommend the company's properties to students seeking off-campus housing and has prohibited it from listing its buildings on a university housing Web site, a spokeswoman said.
"We received a number of complaints about the Student Housing Association, and we haven't recommended them for six years," said the spokeswoman, Laura Cavender. She said students had complained about maintenance in the properties. Students also told the university that they were charged more than was typical for a security deposit or were having trouble getting the deposit back, she said.
Cavender said that the university was disappointed that the association has advised students not to allow safety inspectors on their property. Students have said the company put up signs in its buildings months ago telling them to not let in "city officials/inspectors."
Hull said the signs were put up in the spring "to prevent tenants from being traumatized by badge-wielding, aggressive inspectors, not to obstruct the process of inspecting a property that might be in any way, shape or form deficient."
Staff writers Monte Reel and Del Quentin Wilber contributed to this report.