Managing Attorney Rebecca Lindhurst Calls for Stand-Alone Agency Focused on Rental Housing Inspections and Enforcement of Housing Code Violations at Recent DC Council Hearing

BFC Managing Attorney Rebecca Lindhurst testified on Thursday, April 19th to the DC City Council regarding the proposal to sever functions of the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs and create a new Department of Buildings. Part of the function that will move is the division managing tenant inspections. Advocates are concerned that (even with the severing of the agency) tenants will still face the same problems with getting inspections and having the agency follow through and properly enforce the housing code. Lindhurst’s testimony focuses on a specific Tenant Protection Division.

Testimony of Rebecca Lindhurst
Bread for the City Legal Clinic

Council of the District of Columbia
Committee of the Whole

Bill 22-669 “Department of Buildings Establishment Act of 2018”

April 19, 2018

Good Afternoon. My name is Rebecca Lindhurst and I am a managing attorney at Bread for the City and a resident of Ward 6. Bread for the City is a private, non-profit organization that provides residents of Washington, DC with comprehensive services including food, clothing, medical care, legal and social services. The mission of Bread for the City is to help Washington, DC residents living with low income to develop the power to determine the future of their own communities. We provide food, clothing, medical care, and legal and social services to reduce the burden of poverty. We seek justice through community organizing and public advocacy. We work to uproot racism, a major cause of poverty. We are committed to treating our clients with the dignity and respect that all people deserve. Last year Bread for the City served just over 34,000 District residents in our programs. Our legal clinic met with over 5,000 economically disadvantaged DC residents and provided extended representation to over 1,500 of those residents.

Our city is divided. The District’s severely cost burdened, extremely low-income renters are overwhelmingly people of color[1], and as the city becomes wealthier and younger, longtime Black residents continue to be pushed out. Where people of color remain in our city, is in DC’s poorest wards. Today, Wards 4, 5, 7 and 8 house the majority of black residents in our city.[2] And it is in these wards where we see the worst of the city’s housing stock. Economically disadvantaged residents are more likely to be living in units that are infested with mice, covered in mold, without heat or working appliances.[3] In a few minutes you’ll hear from my colleagues from the Children’s Law Center, about the devastating effects of substandard housing on the most vulnerable of our residents, the children living in these apartments. It’s not a secret that living with mold, mice feces and other environmental factors contributes to the high rates of asthma seen in our city.

While all of this may seem a little dramatic and off topic, I frame the problem this way because it is the residents who make up these statistics who are most harmed by the failure of DCRA to provide comprehensive inspection and enforcement.

  1. Where We Were:

It was almost 10 years ago that a group of advocates got together to work on the Omnibus Tenant Protection Act. At the time, the Washington Post had just published the Goldsmith Award winning series Forced Out.[4]  The articles took a close look at gaps in the inspection and enforcement of housing code violations in the District and shortly after the articles were published the Mayor and DCRA reacted by filing suits against known “slumlords” and promising that changes would be made so that tenants were no longer forced to live with housing code violations.

While we applauded the efforts of the District in reaction to the article, we proposed at the time an overhaul of the system so that the future response to severe housing code violations was not reactionary but instead is systematic and consistent. The Omnibus Tenant Protection Act proposed several radical changes.

First, it would have granted tenants the right to sue landlords in the Landlord Tenant Division of the Superior Court. Next, it would have legislated a pro-active inspections regime, requiring the city to inspect every rental housing building on systematic rotation, some every 5 years and others in poor condition on a cycle of every 2 years. And finally, it would have set out considerations and prioritizations on how to use the Nuisance Abatement Fund to make emergency repairs after a landlord fails multiple inspections.

The bill was withdrawn because of promises by city officials and the Superior Court to make changes. The city promised to enact a pro-active inspections program and the court worked to create a Housing Conditions Calendar. These measures were put in place to ensure that tenants in the District had opportunities to have housing code violations in their units addressed.

  1. Where We Are:

Sadly, I’m here again all these years later to say that nothing has changed for tenants. They continue to live with conditions that go unaddressed by the District. And when they reach out for help, the agency that is supposed to help them doesn’t do their job. For example, one of the buildings that was included in the Forced Out series was owned by one of the most notorious slumlords the city has seen in decades. And yet that same landlord has continued to be in the news for operating the some of the worst buildings in the city. DCRA failed the tenants of these properties year after year. They’ve failed to do inspections, and when they’ve done inspections they fail to follow up. And even if they did follow up, there was no enforcement once the landlord failed to make necessary repairs. This landlord was not punished in any discernable way. Now, 10 years later, the Office of the Attorney General has finally brought that landlord to court and because of the pressure from the city, this landlord is currently in the process of disposing many of their buildings. Tenants were forced to live in horrible conditions for a decade before the city took any steps to hold the landlord accountable.

Inspections and enforcement at DCRA is broken at every step of the process. From the call center that is the first point of contact for the public requesting an inspection, to the issuance of Notices (or failure to do so), to re-inspections and enforcement there continues to be a complete breakdown in the system and no transparency in the process. One council staffer rightly referred to the current system as inspection purgatory.

For too long tenants have turned to DCRA and been met by inept customer service representatives, dismissive inspectors and little follow up and enforcement. Take Mr. S, who came to our clinic because he was having trouble getting an inspection. Despite calls to DCRA, he was unable to get someone to come out because he was a participant in a Department of Behavioral Health subsidy program. The call center representative at DCRA told him that he could not get an inspection because he had a subsidy. This was in direct contravention of a policy made clear by the Director at multiple advocacy meetings. It took an email from an attorney directly to the Director to get that tenant an inspection. This is just one example of an agency that fails to function to protect tenants.

Over the years advocates have asked for information regarding the enforcement process without any success. We have no idea how many cases were referred to enforcement, whether those cases were prosecuted or the outcomes of any prosecutions. Even when asked by the Council, the agency was unable to provide the requested information. Meanwhile, landlords continue to allow tenants to live in substandard housing without any fear of consequences.

However, none of this information is new to you. Councilmembers have been quoted about the problem in multiple news sources.[5] You hear about it from your constituents when they call your offices. Advocates have testified time and time again at oversight and roundtable hearings. We all know that something has to be done. Tenants in the District deserve better.

  • Where We Should Go:

The legislation before the Council takes a radical approach in creating a new agency focused entirely on buildings. While we support the effort as a way to dismantle the broken system, we want to ensure that the same problems plaguing DCRA do not continue in the new agency. Today, we propose an even more radical approach, a stand-alone agency specifically focused on rental housing inspections and enforcement.

In order to be effective the agency must have the following:

  • Staffing: There are over 180,000 rental units in the District of Columbia. DCRA has just 15 inspectors to inspect all of these units. Compared to other jurisdictions, the number of inspectors in the District is woefully inadequate. An agency must be fully staffed with a sufficient number of inspectors comparable to the number of units in the District.
  • Training: Currently, inspectors only inspect on the housing code. They do not cite for environmental factors such as mold, lead and asbestos. All inspectors should be trained to cite for all violations.
  • Technology: Currently, inspectors take hand written notes and someone back at the agency transcribes them to create notices. Technology solutions allowing inspectors to create reports in real time is not only more efficient, it eliminates any human error in transcribing the inspectors notes and ensures that notices are sent at or near the time of the inspection.
  • Accountability: In whatever form the new agency takes, it must have the capacity to collect and report data.
  • Proscribed timelines: Currently no regulations exist regarding the inspection, re-inspection and enforcement process. We propose that for example, re-inspections must occur within 30-45 days after the initial inspection. Similarly, once a landlord fails a re-inspection, cases should be forwarded to enforcement within a specified short timeframe.
  • Enforcement: Currently, cases that go to enforcement seem to fall into a black hole. There must be an enforcement process that holds landlords accountable.
  • Strategic Targeting: The agency should target bad actor landlords to ensure that situations like Sanford Capital do not continue to happen.
  • Pro-active Inspection Process: All residential buildings should be inspected every 4 years. Buildings with risk factors (multiple failures) should be prioritized and inspected more often. A greater number of units should be inspected during the pro-active inspection and all tenants should be able to “opt-in” to the inspection.
  • Nuisance Abatement Fund: The fund should be increased and used more frequently to fix violations that are not addressed by landlords. The agency could then assess the fees against the property.
  • Leadership: An agency with a smaller mission focus provides the opportunity to find a leader who can effectively run and build up new systems and programs without competing with other priorities.

Tenants in the District deserve an agency that enforces the housing code. While we are hopeful that the new Department of Buildings will undertake that function with renewed vigor, we would like to ensure that a specific portion of the agency’s function is dedicated to meaningful action against bad landlords and protection of tenants. By creating a stand-alone agency or specific Rental Housing Protection Division, the agency can devote the resources and time necessary to protect tenants living in poor conditions. Enforcement of the Housing Code needs to be a priority of the agency and we look forward to working with the Council to put in place the necessary staffing and protocols to properly ensure that bad landlords are not permitted to do business in the District.

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By prioritizing the inspection of rental housing and aggressively pursuing remedies against landlords who fail to maintain their units, we can not only preserve affordable housing but also ensure that all district residents are living in decent safe and sanitary conditions.

We urge the Council to take aggressive steps in creating an agency that works for tenants in the District.

Thank you.

 

[1] DC Fiscal Policy Institute, A Broken Foundation: Affordable Housing Crisis Threatens DC’s Lowest-Income Residents https://www.dcfpi.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/DCFPI-Broken-Foundation-Housing-Report-12-8-16.pdf

[2] Urban Institute, A Vision for an Equitable DC https://www.urban.org/features/vision-equitable-dc

[3] Environmental Health Perspectives, Dwelling Disparities: How Poor Housing Leads to Poor Health https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1257572/

[4] Debbie Cenziper & Sarah Cohen, A Failure in Enforcement, Washington Post, Mar. 11, 2008, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/03/10/AR2008031003193.html.

[5] https://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/news/housing-complex/article/20852368/what-can-elected-officials-do-about-dc-slumlords

 

 

2 New comments

Dennis | Reply

Bread for the City is doing amazing work. You’re not letting the marginalized become forgotten. For longtime residents of D.C., it is difficult to get a mortgage with rising housing prices and gentrification. Sanitary house conditions and safety shouldn’t be debatable.

William H Taft | Reply

This is great! This new agency should also include the DBH Housing Inspection unit as well, for many of the District’s challenged residents are being abused by housing providers, with little to no enforcement of the consumer law component of DBH client services human rights violations, associated with the DBH Housing Provider’s direct service delivery process! I am currently in such a case that maybe landmark in changing the law! Let’s talk soon! 202 xxx-xxxx William H Taft, CAC Senior Rep.

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