March 30, 2011

DC should fully fund housing inspections

Several years ago, a multi-part Washington Post investigation looked at the conditions of DC's housing stock and discovered a set of "serious breakdowns" in the enforcement of housing codes by the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA). The series quoted Bread for the City's Housing Practice Supervisor, Rebecca Lindhurst, among other affordable housing advocates, in explaining the negative ramifications of lapses in oversight activities. For instance, without enough inspectors to actively assess the state of rental properties, the city was allowing many landlords to neglect the maintenance of their buildings. In the wake of the Post investigation, the DCRA made considerable progress towards more robust oversight. But in recent months, momentum has stalled in the face of staffing cutbacks and hiring freezes, which have once again left the city's housing inspection program with minimal capacity.

On March 9th, Rebecca testified at the D.C. City Council’s oversight hearing. What follows are portions of Rebecca’s testimony.

I come before the council today to testify about the importance of a robust housing code inspection system in the District of Columbia. Advocates have been working on this issue for several years and we’d like to applaud DCRA in implementing many of the suggestions made by the tenant advocacy community. Through our ongoing meetings with the Director of DCRA we have worked to improve the inspection system so that all District of Columbia renters live in housing free of health and safety violations.

The last time I testified before this committee I was testifying in support of the implementation of a pro-active inspection program. Since that testimony, DCRA has implemented such a system and continues to work toward a goal of inspecting every rental building in the district by 2013. Traditionally, inspections in the district were only done at the request of a tenant who called in a complaint against his/her landlord. We believe that a tenant initiated inspection system, while necessary, is insufficient and contend that a pro-active inspection system is the most efficient and effective way to ensure that the Housing Code is enforced.

In order to make a pro-active inspection system work the district must increase the number of inspectors. If done properly the long-term results of a pro-active inspection system will be significant. During the initial phase the city will be able to assess the entire housing stock and establish the baseline for each rental building in the District.

In 2008 the city brought suit against several slumlords. However, the suit brought against these negligent owners was filed way too late to save several of the buildings. In fact, in 3 of the buildings the city had to take the drastic measure of closing the building because of the severe health and safety conditions. The owners of these 3 buildings had been allowed to operate rental housing with significant housing code violations for many years. By the time the District stepped in the buildings were too far gone. The landlords refused or were unable to repair the buildings and the District was unwilling to use city funds to make the repairs. In the end, the buildings were closed and the tenants were displaced. The displacement resulted in the city spending thousands of dollars to put the tenants up in hotels and eventually relocate them to permanent housing.

A robust inspection system will ensure that buildings like these do not slip through the cracks. The system is designed to catch buildings before they fall into such significant disrepair that the only option is to displace residents. Not only is it a tool to identify buildings in jeopardy it can also be used as a tool to reclaim neighborhoods. In some jurisdictions the inspection system has resulted in reinvestment by private landlords thereby improving the overall housing stock.

In reality, the proactive inspection system is a mandatory minimum maintenance program. Instead of focusing on catching bad landlords the program focuses on getting to a point where each landlord in the District is maintaining a minimum standard of maintenance. When we get there landlords will no longer take the risk of not fixing their properties because they know that with the periodic inspection they will be caught. There is no longer any reason to take the risk that the District won’t find out and won’t pay attention to buildings in disrepair.

In November 2010 DCRA reduced its inspection staffing by 10 inspectors. Soon after this, a hiring freeze was instituted. DCRA has not been able to replace the inspectors lost. As a result, the scheduling of complaint-based inspections has been effected causing tenants longer wait times for inspections. Currently there are only 25 inspectors employed by DCRA. These inspectors are not only responsible for enforcing the housing code but they also perform permit inspections, inspect elevators in residential and commercial buildings, perform plumbing, electrical and HVAC inspections and monitor vacant properties and illegal construction. There simply are not enough inspectors.

For example, if a landlord is found to not be in compliance with the housing code and fails to abate the violation DCRA has the ability to fine the landlord. In FY10 DCRA issued fines in the amount of $3,502,601. However, only $1,377,745 of this amount has been collected. DCRA needs to do a better job of collecting fines so that it can support its inspection program. Without a fully operational inspection system landlords will not be held accountable for housing code violations and district residents could be forced to live in hazardous conditions. It is DCRA’s responsibility to ensure that all tenants live in housing free of health and safety violations. However, without the proper staffing the district will fall short in protecting its residents.

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