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D.C. housing investigator under scrutiny after officials say another rooming house case mishandled

Yafet Solomon, 9, was killed in a fire on Aug. 18 in an apparent illegal roominghouse on Kennedy Street NW. (DC Public Schools)

The same housing investigator who failed to act after a police officer flagged a possible illegal rooming house in Northwest Washington where two tenants were killed in a fire Aug. 18 also mishandled a similar warning the same officer made about another house in March, officials said.

City officials, armed with a search warrant, rushed to that second house, at 5310 14th St. NW near Rock Creek Park, on Friday night. They found a “junky and unkempt” single-family residence that had been divided into nine rooms, some labeled with numbers, with non-working smoke detectors, a sliced power cord, and debris and personal belongings littering the floors and blocking doors in some cases, according to a report provided by the District.

It was unclear what action, if any, the investigator originally assigned to the case took when the complaint was made by the police officer six months ago.

Inspectors from the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA), which enforces building codes, and officials from the police and fire departments are now reviewing the cases that had been closed by the investigator, who is on leave after failing to follow through on an urgent email received in March about a rooming house on Kennedy Street NW.

The revelation of a second mishandled case could intensify scrutiny of the agency, which is already under attack for the approach it took with the Kennedy Street property. It also highlights questions about how many similar illegal dwellings exist in the District, where a severe lack of affordable housing has left many desperate for low-cost living options. DCRA Director Ernest Chrappah said Saturday that he did not know and would not speculate on how widespread such problems are.

Officials said the 14th Street house, which the Zillow real estate website says has seven bedrooms, is approved for a single family. Inspectors counted eight people living inside, including an elderly man with health problems and another person who slept on a living room couch, according to the report.

The owner, Chidi Anyanwutaku, confirmed in an interview that he charged rent but disputed some of the inspectors’ findings.

Chrappah said that the house was among 67 cases dating to December that had been closed but are now under review. He said additional problems could be found as the review continues.

Chrappah, who took over the sprawling agency in November, said he is committed to a “transformational change,” but he cautioned it will take time.

“That’s in no way an excuse for the failure that occurred in this instance,” he said in a statement. “If anything, these failures underscore why the fundamental changes we’re making are so critically needed.”

Mayor calls for federal investigation after fatal fire

The investigator who officials say mishandled the complaints for the Kennedy Street house that caught fire as well as the house on 14th Street has been placed on leave along with another employee at the regulatory agency and two inspectors with the fire department. Those employees have not been identified.

Chrappah said the police officer who emailed the DCRA about the rowhouse at 708 Kennedy St. NW in March also alerted the agency to the house at 5310 14th Street NW in the same communication, although he mistakenly wrote 5410 14th Street NW. That email was also sent to the fire department. The officer also emailed a police report for Kennedy Street that described life-threatening danger.

The police officer sent three emails as a follow-up on his initial request, and the DCRA investigator visited the Kennedy Street property twice but closed the case when he couldn’t get inside, Chrappah said.

It is unclear what action, if any, the investigator took regarding the house on 14th Street.

The fire on Kennedy Street killed Fitsum Kebede, 40, and Yafet Solomon, 9.

Police say conditions in the rowhouse contributed to their deaths. Tenants, mostly Ethio­pian immigrants, described a maze of hallways and rooms no bigger than a queen-size bed. Court documents say there were interior wooden doors and a metal gate that could not be opened from the inside, and an electrical system that could not handle the number of tenants.

The fire started in Kebede’s basement room, which measured 5½ feet by 8 feet, according to court documents. A laptop computer and a power cord from that room have been sent to a lab for analysis. A cause of the fire has not been determined.

Chrappah said a warrant should have been obtained to force entry into the Kennedy Street rowhouse.

It is a tactic used infrequently but was put into action Friday night, he said. Housing and fire inspectors, along with police, descended on the house in 16th Street Heights shortly before 6:30 p.m. Moments before they were about to force their way inside the front door, the back door opened, and they were let inside.

Chrappah said the conditions in the house did not appear to be life-threatening, so no one was evicted. Inspectors told the owner to immediately install working smoke detectors. They said they are documenting violations and will meet with the owner next week.

District tax records show Anyanwutaku owns the house with Caroline Uzoh. In an interview Saturday, Anyanwutaku identified Uzoh as his aunt. She could not be reached for comment. He also said his father manages the property, but he also could not be reached for comment.

Anyanwutaku said he believed that he was allowed to rent rooms in the house but then added, “We’re going to have to look more into that.” He described himself as an unemployed chemist, and he said he collects a total of $2,500 a month in rent from his tenants. He said he rents to six people, “and some of them are related.”

The District’s report says an inspector talked with Anyanwutaku on the phone the night of their entrance. He said in his interview that he visited the house after officials left.

“I kind of have to do a walk-through of the property again,” Anyanwutaku said, “to see exactly what the inspectors are saying. I don’t agree totally with everything they said.”

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