D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) on Wednesday expressed confidence in the city agency that failed to act on reports of “life safety violations” at a rowhouse months before a fire tore through the building on Aug. 18 and killed two tenants, including a 9-year-old boy.
Asked whether she was satisfied with her government’s handling of the matter, she replied “no” but showed support for the official who runs the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA), which was responsible for investigating the building.
“I think Director [Ernest] Chrappah has already put in some better management practices so that the employees and communications among our agencies have backstops and checks,” Bowser told reporters after a groundbreaking for a development project.
The fire that killed Fitsum Kebede, 40, and Yafet Solomon, 9, broke out in a two-story rowhouse in Brightwood Park that appeared to be an unlicensed rooming house, where tenants described a building partitioned into a dozen tiny rooms with shared bathrooms and kitchens. Firefighters encountered bars on exterior doors and windows and an interior door and metal gate blocking a hallway. Officials said there were no working smoke detectors. Most of the tenants were Ethiopian.
City officials disclosed Tuesday that a D.C. police officer in March warned both the fire department and the DCRA that the building appeared to have numerous fire code violations and posed serious threats to life safety. Police had visited the building to resolve a dispute between the landlord and a tenant.
Bowser said the officer “did exactly what he was supposed to do, not only acknowledge a bad situation but try to track it down until it was resolved.”
But the issues were not resolved.
The fire department did not act on the report because officials there assumed it was the responsibility of the DCRA, which enforces the building code, D.C. City Administrator Rashad M. Young said this week.
After five emails from the police officer, a DCRA investigator visited the house at 708 Kennedy St. NW two months later, in May. The inspector made three visits but could not gain entry, Young said. The inspector sent a letter to the owner and left a card but took no further action, he said.
Chrappah said that in cases where investigators encounter such roadblocks, his agency can seek warrants to enter the premises.
“In light of the tragedy, we see an opportunity to improve, and that is not to close a case after three attempts but to continue working and working to better protect our residents,” Chapprah said Wednesday.
Four city employees have been placed on leave while the city retains an outside firm to examine what went wrong.
The DCRA is among the most maligned agencies in D.C. government. Its sprawling portfolio includes construction permits, business licensing and code enforcement, and the agency is a magnet for complaints from residents and business owners.
A 2017 report by D.C. Auditor Kathleen Patterson found that the DCRA did not strictly regulate unoccupied or derelict buildings, and frequently granted exemptions from those rules that did not appear to be justified. The result is that the city is losing millions of dollars in revenue from taxes and fines while buildings become structurally unsafe and “magnets for illegal activity,” the auditor’s report said.
For years, lawmakers have been discussing an overhaul of the agency.
“It’s too big with too many different functions, from permit review to calibrating weights and measures to professional licensing to housing inspections,” said D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D), who is pushing legislation to restructure the agency.
“Breaking up the agency into two components, one of which is focused solely on housing code enforcement and the other on building permits, would reduce the distractions with all the other functions,” he said.
Council member Brandon T. Todd (D-Ward 4), whose district includes the site of the deadly fire, attended the funeral Wednesday for 9-year-old Yafet, who was a student at Barnard Elementary. Teachers and staffers at the school have been raising money through GoFundMe to help his mother.
“I was at the service for the young boy, and it underscores the need for making whatever types of investments we need at DCRA,” Todd said. “I am outraged that a life was lost because we failed, the government failed, DCRA failed.”
Todd said he will take an “additional look” at the bill to break up the agency, but he also said the council should consider other options such as funding more investigators.
Bowser administration officials have opposed the pending legislation, arguing that it would not address the issues of enforcement and would create unnecessary administrative costs.
Chrappah said his agency is on track to transform itself by the end of next year and that he already restructured the division responsible for investigating illegal rentals before the fire.
“We are absolutely on the right path,” Chrappah said. “DCRA’s challenges are challenges that will be overcome.”
His agency has issued 87 citations for unlicensed rental properties this year and issued 118 citations last year.
“It’s certainly not the only illegal rooming house,” said council member Elissa Silverman (I-At Large). “We should also be reaching out to the Ethiopian Community Center and other community groups to find where there might be similar conditions and get them inspected.”
Some said the deadly fire showed the importance of aggressive code enforcement.
“I’m hopeful that this incident will have a sanguinary effect on employees who have not been serious enough about their jobs,” Mendelson said. “ ‘I went to the door, I knocked the door, nobody answered, case closed?’ That’s wholly unacceptable.”