The townhouse near Dupont Circle that burned last week, killing two young tenants, was not licensed to rent rooms or apartments, according to D.C. officials.
Authorities declined to comment further, citing the ongoing investigation into an early morning fire June 3 in which Nina Brekelmans, 25, and Michael Patrick McLoughlin, 24, died. They lived in separate rooms on the third floor of the house on Riggs Place NW at 16th Street. The father of the building’s owner lived on the first and second floors, and another tenant rented the basement.
The fire began on the first floor and was accidental and “electrical in origin,” according to Thomas A. Faison, a spokesman for the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which is working for several months with District fire officials on major investigations.
Investigators found evidence of smoke detectors at the house, Faison said, but he declined to say whether they were functioning and declined to be more precise about the source of the electrical problem.
The house did not have a sprinkler system, and there was no evidence of a fire escape, said Faison, who referred questions about whether those were required to city officials.
The building’s owner, Len Salas, declined to comment Tuesday on questions about licensing or the home’s smoke detectors. Salas bought the 3,000-square-foot red-brick townhouse from his father, Max E. Salas, in 2007, according to District tax assessment records.
The basement tenant said he paid rent to Max Salas, who lived in the house and was injured in the blaze. When asked about the lack of a renter’s license in a brief interview, Max Salas said, “I don’t know about that.”
Brekelmans moved into her room just before the start of the school year; she completed graduate school at Georgetown University on May 15. McLoughlin, who worked at an insurance firm, moved in two months ago. They each paid about $1,500 a month, according to the tenant in the home’s basement apartment, who was out of town when the fire ignited.
That tenant, John Mecham, had moved from the room Brekelmans took over and described the upstairs setup as two furnished bedrooms that shared a bathroom but had separate kitchenettes with a microwave, small refrigerator and freezer. He found the rental through Craigslist, Mecham said.
Matt Orlins, the spokesman for the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, confirmed only that “the property did not have a license to do rentals.” That license requires a certificate of inspection; Orlins would not say whether the building had been inspected before the fire.
A D.C. inspection checklist for homes used as rentals includes requirements that smoke detectors be hard-wired near sleeping areas and that all sleeping rooms have adequate escape routes, according to a copy of the list provided by city officials. Orlins would not say whether the home met those requirements.
Without discussing the Riggs Place investigation, Gregory Dean, chief of the D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department, said “the reason we have these fire and building codes is to ensure that the occupants are safe should something happen.”
Mecham, a managing editor for a television channel, said the smoke detector in his unit had not worked for about six months after a leak from an upper floor flowed through the ceiling.
Mecham said he had flagged the problem to the landlord, Max Salas, and was told it would be repaired. “I reminded Max a few times that we needed to get that fixed, but it never happened,” said Mecham, 44.
Max Salas said by phone Monday that he remained hospitalized with a broken leg and back, cuts on his hands and second-degree burns. Salas said he was unable to go through a detailed interview.
Max Salas is a former member of the D.C. Alcoholic Beverage Control Board who had been active in the District’s political circles.
Len Salas said his nephew also lived in the house and was injured.
Mecham has rented in the Riggs Place house since November 2013, according to his leases — first in an upstairs bedroom and since May 2014 in the basement apartment.
As described by Mecham, the house included a two-story atrium-like opening with a small balcony overlooking it on the third-floor level.
Max Salas signed as “landlord” on Mecham’s lease for the upper room, a lease copy shows. Max Salas signed as “landlord/agent” on Mecham’s lease for the basement unit, which rented for $2,000 a month.
Mecham said he paid his rent by checks written to Max Salas. Mecham’s leases show a listing of “CLR” and “CLR Max Salas” on entries on where to make rent payments with the Riggs Place address as the payment address. Mecham said he did not know what the CLR stood for.
Mecham said he had spoken with Brekelmans on several occasions and had seen McLoughlin in passing and was “devastated by the loss of life.”
While traveling in New York, Mecham said he heard from a friend that there had been a fire on Riggs Place but didn’t immediately know it was at the home where he lived. He was able to enter his burned-out apartment Tuesday morning, crossing an entry and sidewalk where votive candles and bouquets of flowers had been left by passersby.
Mecham said he was staying with a friend while he tried to find a new apartment.
Harvey S. Jacobs, a lawyer who writes the “House Lawyer” column for The Washington Post, said that although the District has controls for homeowners who want to rent rooms in their house, many other jurisdictions do not, creating a general impression among homeowners that it may be “an unrestricted activity.”