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Anti-Slumlord Campaign Update

Earlier this month, Bread for the City testified at a public roundtable concerning the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA), the District agency that oversees housing code enforcement. We’ve witnessed first hand how DCRA’s unwillingness and inability to hold slumlords accountable for housing code violations has profound negative impacts on the people we serve and organize with.

Earlier this year, Bread for the City community members testified to how DCRA’s inadequate enforcement led to residents living in mold and pest-infested units; living without reliable access to heat, air, and running water; having sewage flood their bathrooms; even having their ceilings fall in and seeing their neighbors fall through rotten wood floors. In one case, the unaddressed housing code violations were so bad, DCRA condemned the building, displacing all the residents from their apartments. Unfortunately, the Office of the Tenant Advocate is only authorized to provide hotel accommodations for up to two weeks in these situations. After that time, residents have to find new rental housing on their own or they become homeless, as was the case with at least one the residents from this particular building.

Through our organizing to hold DCRA accountable to its mission of “…protect[ing] the health, safety, economic interests and quality of life of residents…”, we’ve developed some demands for council members and Mayor Bowser. Check out what we’re working on below:

  • Further auditing of DCRA by the DC Auditor. While DCRA was recently audited, questions remain about the underlying systemic issues the agency faces. Incomplete understandings of problems yield incomplete – and ultimately unhelpful – solutions. A deeper audit is needed to provide the Council, advocates, and community members with information like the number of extensions granted to landlords to rectify housing code violations; fines collected as compared to fines charged; training, data collection, and supervision practices for inspectors; and how the agency deals (or doesn’t) with repeat offenders and chronic slumlords.
  • Collection of all fines with half given to tenants. As it currently stands, the fine structure and lack of enforcement do not deter slumlords from failing to maintain their properties. The Council recently doubled fines for the most severe code violations, but this will have little impact if they continue to be collected at a 50% rate, as DCRA Director Bolling acknowledged in a recent oversight hearing – causing property owners and developers to see fines as nothing more than an occasional cost of doing business. Collecting all fines and putting liens on properties when fines are not paid, sends a clear message that corporations intentionally providing substandard housing are not welcome in the District. If there are particular DCRA staff who chronically provide extensions to landlords and/or fail to collect fines, they should be eliminated from the force. Additionally, half of the fines collected should go to the tenants, whose health and lives have been deeply impacted by the neglect.
  • Hiring of more inspectors, addition of investigators, and creation of an inspection strategy prioritizing the worst conditions. The agency has fewer than 20 full time inspectors for a city of nearly 700,000 residents, while Baltimore City (population 621,000) has 65 housing inspectors, 29 senior housing inspectors, 33 trades inspectors and 10 Special Investigations Unit inspectors. The latter are specifically assigned to investigate illegal dumping and sanitation violations. While the $2.5M the Council allocated in FY18 for DCRA to hire additional inspectors was a good start, it is not enough to enable the agency to effectively operate and investigate housing code violations. The council should allocate more money for inspectors and create a new investigator position to identify and focus on the city’s worst offenders.
  • Referral of cases to the Office of the Attorney General (OAG) for enforcement and the appointment of a receiver. Landlords who chronically and intentionally keep residents in substandard housing conditions should not be allowed to operate in the District. The District’s receivership statute allows the court to appoint a receiver if the rental housing has been cited by DCRA for violations and/or the rental housing has been operated in a manner that demonstrates a pattern of neglect for the property for 30 consecutive days and such neglect poses a serious threat to the health, safety, or security of the tenants. DCRA needs to communicate and coordinate with OAG to ensure that the properties with the worst conditions are taken out of the hands of unscrupulous landlords.

Additionally, we invited Chairman Mendelson and all council members invested in the safety and wellbeing of longtime residents living on low incomes to tour some of the buildings and homes neglected by both landlords and DCRA. The invitation still stands.

Lax housing code violation enforcement has real consequences in people’s lives. It is clear that Mayor Bowser’s and Director Bolling’s DCRA has not developed at the same pace as the city and it is critical that the Council address these concerns with urgency and intention to resolve systemic issues with the agency. If you’re interested in supporting or collaborating with Bread for the City’s organizing on this issue, leave us a message at 202-791-3997 or email us at organizers@breadforthecity.org.

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Erin’s work is made possible in part through private funds awarded by the DC Bar Foundation.

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