Georgetown University officials, neighborhood activists and city regulators all agreed during meetings in April that more scrutiny of off-campus student housing units was needed, but few city building inspections were done before a fire last weekend killed a student and thrust the issue to the fore.
City officials said difficulties in determining which houses were being rented to students prevented comprehensive inspections, even though Georgetown officials said they keep records of student addresses. City officials also said that in the cases where they had positively identified student housing units, uncooperative landlords and students who refused to allow inspectors onto the properties thwarted their efforts.
"There's no legal requirement that they have to let us in," said David A. Clark, director of the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs. "It makes it virtually impossible to ensure the students' safety."
In the days since Sunday's fatal fire, concerns about the quality of off-campus student housing have proved valid. With the cooperation of landlords and students, city officials said the regulatory agency inspected 49 houses this week and removed 43 students from nine rental properties deemed unsafe. Of those nine properties, only two landlords possessed the basic business licenses required of them.
Six months before the fire that killed university senior Daniel Rigby, 21, neighborhood residents met with city and university officials to discuss how to ensure that off-campus student housing complied with city building codes, said Bill Starrels, a Georgetown advisory neighborhood commissioner.
"We always wanted to have these houses inspected," said Starrels, whose jurisdiction includes the 3300 block of Prospect Street, where the fatal fire occurred. "If you look at some of the houses from the outside, they look like they're falling, which endangers the students inside and the family that's living in the house next door."
University officials said yesterday that the residents asked them in April to require inspections for landlords who list available properties on the university's Web site. The university agreed to require the inspections and drafted a sample letter informing landlords of the requirement, which was to be distributed to them this summer, said Linda Greenan, the university's assistant vice president for external relations.
The letters, however, were not distributed because the city wanted to clarify the inspection process for landlords, school officials said.
Additionally, Starrels said that Clark told residents in the spring that the city planned this year to begin more strictly enforcing the existing city law that requires landlords to possess a basic business license.
Georgetown officials and residents are careful not to place blame on the city, saying that the regulatory agency has appeared committed to helping solve the problems. Many point to the landlords and tenants as the root of the problem, supporting the city's argument that their attempts at regulation have been circumvented.
For example, a property at 1320 35th St. NW has been the target of numerous neighborhood complaints for more than a year, according to community activists. This summer, after students had vacated the house, the city sent inspectors to the property, and they found that the landlord did not have a proper occupancy permit. The house was officially listed as two apartments and a basement, but it was being rented as a three-unit apartment, Clark said. The city told the landlord to obtain a permit, Clark said.
"The owner let [students] back in without any city approval," Clark said. "It should have been closed."
But this week, after the fire, city inspectors found that seven students were living in the house and that numerous electrical wires were exposed. The students were forced to leave.
John C. Hendricks, a lawyer and trustee for the property, said that he was not familiar with any permit problems. "There is a rental agent in charge of the house," Hendricks said. "I don't know how many students are there, and I don't know about any permits. Any permit issues would have to be taken up with the rental agent."
Starrels and others in the neighborhood said the city was handcuffed in its regulation efforts because inspectors often were barred from entering the houses by students who had been advised by landlords to turn away inspectors.
One private rental company -- Student Housing Association Ltd. -- recently posted signs in some of its 16 properties near the campus that advised students not to allow inspectors into the houses. The company's president, Edward L. Hull, said the signs were posted to "prevent tenants from being traumatized by badge-wielding, aggressive inspectors."
"It's a complicated situation because people have their rights," Starrels said. "But it wasn't from a lack of trying. [The city] has been trying to figure out ways to get into those houses."
Ray Kukulski, past president of the Citizens Association of Georgetown, said that management companies are rarely held accountable for violations. Because most students move out of the area after the academic year, few are able to testify against landlords when cases go to court, he said.
"Unless the complaint goes in on September 1, and the city moves rapidly and gets a court date before nine months pass, they've got no witnesses. The students have moved on," Kukulski said. "That's been a complaint of the inspectors."
City regulators are still responding to requests from students who want to have their apartments inspected for unsafe conditions. Officials said yesterday that they had received calls from college students at George Washington and American universities who want to know what they have to do to get inspections. The city plans to continue to inspect student housing as long as there are requests, a spokeswoman said.
Staff writers Manny Fernandez and Henri E. Cauvin and staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.