The D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs stepped up housing inspections last week near Georgetown University after student Daniel Rigby died in a house fire caused by faulty wiring. City inspectors found code violations in nine properties, and 43 Georgetown students were forced to move. David A. Clark, the department's director, talked to staff writer Yolanda Woodlee about inspections.
QHow does DCRA pick the neighborhoods to survey and the houses to inspect?
AWhen we just go out to the community to look for housing code or building code violations, it's usually not because we're just in the neighborhood. It's because we know there's a problem. A neighbor has called in. The community can be very helpful in letting us know that there's an issue we should know about. The city is divided into 39 neighborhood clusters. We have a neighborhood stabilization officer [housing inspector] assigned to every cluster and a lead officer for each one of the eight wards. It's not done willy-nilly.
How many inspections of homes and apartments does your agency conduct a year?
Last fiscal year, we did about 70,000 housing inspections. That does not necessarily mean we did a top-to-bottom, inside and outside. We responded to a concern and looked at at least the exterior of a given property.
Can a landlord request an inspection? Is there a fee?
Yes, they can request an inspection, and there is not a fee.
With all the attention on building inspectors being out in the neighborhoods, how can a resident identify a building inspector?
They all have agency identification, and they all have badges. A lot of them have them hanging around their neck. People should not be afraid to ask them for their credentials. If you have a problem with the inspector, get their badge number.
Are inspectors met with resistance from owners or occupants of a home or apartment building?
When it is occupied, we have no legal authority to go in, so we have to get permission from the owner. The biggest concern that we have now is kids [students] being afraid, not afraid of what we're going to do, but that we come in and post the building and they're out. While it is easy enough to say that the university has been terrific in accommodating additional housing for them, it's still a huge inconvenience.
What recourse do inspectors have to gain access to a home if the residents refuse to let them in, particularly if a violation is visible?
We can go to court. Any [violation] we can see from the outside, we can cite. Those conditions may not be enough to post and close the building. We are working on putting stronger language in the building code.
How long have landlords needed to have a basic business license?
They have always had to have a license. People have tried to ignore it because it is hard to police. There are provisions that say if six people or less live in a single-family home, they are family for the purposes of zoning. But that doesn't allow landlords to operate without a license because they are charging rent. To get a license, the property has to be inspected.
What should landlords do if they realize they do not have the proper license to rent out property? Is there a fine for the failure to have a license?
A lot of people don't know or chose to ignore that they need a business license if they rent their property. They should come to DCRA and get the license. There is a $500 fine. I am going to see if I can get an additional grace period for people who are renting property and want to come into compliance with the law.