Kathy Zeisel, the senior supervising attorney for the Children’s Law Center, said a system needs to be put in place to “actually unmask slumlords.” She said the tragedy of the Kennedy Street fire is that the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs “is too broken to repair itself.”
Similar critiques came from other housing and legal advocates who testified about reforms contemplated after the Aug. 18 fire at 708 Kennedy Street NW that killed Fitsum Kebede, 40, and Yafet Solomon, 9, and investigations that uncovered mistakes and miscommunication that allowed the house and its owner to escape regulatory oversight.
A D.C. police officer flagged the property as unsafe five months before the fire but his complaint was never seriously acted upon by inspectors at DCRA and the fire department. The renters of the Brightwood Park rowhouse, all Ethiopian immigrants, lived in tiny rooms, some no bigger than a queen-size bed, and shared kitchens and bathrooms.
District officials have concluded that code violations and other conditions, such as gates and locked doors that cut off exits, contributed to the deaths, and a criminal investigation is underway. The cause of the fire has not been determined, but court documents say investigators tested a computer and a cord plugged into an overloaded circuit.
“Collectively, our government failed,” said Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), who chairs the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety. He said 11 fire and DCRA employees knew of the concerns about the house “without acting or intervening in any significant or impactful way.”
Kevin Donahue, the deputy mayor for public safety, and Ernest Chrappah, the director of the DCRA, admitted shortcomings and testified about changes that have been made or are being implemented to ensure that fire and housing inspectors better coordinate to properly investigate complaints and take more aggressive action against problem properties.
“We’ve been on a path for reform for several years,” Chrappah said, noting that in the past year his employees have increased compliance checks and inspections. He called what happened on Kennedy Street a tragedy, but also “a source of inspiration for us to prove to District residents that safety is a top priority.”
The afternoon hearing was the first time District lawmakers have called on officials to account for failing to examine the officer’s complaint. An independent investigation recommended a long list of fixes and noted that no one at DCRA even opened an official file into the case.
Winta Teferi, who works at the Ethiopian Community Center, testified that the five tenants displaced from the house continue to battle District bureaucracy, and three months after the fire they are still living at city expense in a hotel because agencies have been unable to place them in temporary housing.
She said they have been told repeatedly that residences were available, only to quickly learn they were not, in part because the building owner and the District could not agree on logistics or terms. Teferi said District officials have tried to get the tenants, several of whom speak only Amharic, to sign documents they do not understand.
“Their hopes have been raised and shattered so many times,” Teferi said. “They are desperate and have no trust in the process.”
Selamawit Yehualashet, a 41-year-old home health aide, lived at 708 Kennedy Street for four years in a $550-a-month windowless room without air conditioning. She came to Monday’s hearing and buried her head in her hands and wept as Teferi spoke.
Yehualashet and others returned to the house over the weekend to search for clothes and documents, but they fear that much was lost in the fire or the renovation now underway. “I feel like I’m homeless,” she said in the hallway outside the chambers, adding that she fears she will have no place to live. She sat down on a bench and, to herself, said, “Thank God. Thank God. God protected me. I’m not dead.”
Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) told Chrappah that his staff identified “scores if not hundreds” of potential illegal rooming houses by comparing a master address list that shows multiple tenants in buildings that do not have business rental licenses. “Is your office doing a search like that?” Mendelson asked.
Chrappah at first said no, but later in his testimony said he is trying to identify problem properties before complaints are filed. He said the address database doesn’t always provide an accurate picture of how many people live at a property.
When questioned about whether upgrades in technology might help, Chrappah, who began leading the agency a year ago, said in this case “it’s a failure of culture. This is not a failure of technology.”
The DCRA director said the best way to identify illegal rooming houses is “to be vigilant on every complaint and taking action,” something officials acknowledge failing to do at 708 Kennedy Street.