Committee investigation, public testimony reveal failings of housing code inspection process

A tall brownstone apartment building

Dahlgreen Courts, an apartment building in DC that was investigated for housing code violations in 2018. Photo courtesy of Farragetful/Wikimedia Commons

After water began leaking through the ceiling light fixtures in her apartment, with floors cracking and mold growing up the walls, Shanta Rodriguez filed a complaint with D.C.’s Department of Buildings (DOB), Rodriguez testified in a public Committee of the Whole hearing on Jan. 18. 

Rodriguez, who testified virtually about her ordeal while displaced from her apartment, reported that the DOB inspector told her there was nothing the agency could do until her ceiling collapsed. She said she felt hopeless, a feeling echoed by multiple residents who testified people in their tenant associations and buildings were frustrated with DOB’s failure to act. 

DOB’s mission statement says the agency is designed to “protect the safety of residents, businesses, and visitors” by enforcing the District’s property and housing code. The agency does so, in part, through building reinspections to ensure proper maintenance and continued compliance with housing regulations. It DOB’s responsibility to penalize property owners, including landlords, who fail to provide tenants with sanitary, structurally sound and safe housing.

Yet Rodriguez and other D.C. residents say property managers continue to ignore housing code violations, at times until their homes become uninhabitable. The Committee of the Whole, a legislative body composed of all D.C. Council members, conducted a months-long investigation into DOB’s housing inspection process, finding flaws in nearly every step of the agency’s operations. 

In its investigation summary, “Report on The District’s Housing Code Inspection Process: Broken and In Need of Repair,” the committee cited shortcomings in the DOB’s communication with both property owners and tenants, inaccessibility of DOB resources and failure to abate a majority of housing code violations promptly. The committee’s hearing focused on discussing the results of this investigation, collecting public feedback on DOB procedure and exploring possible solutions to the failures exposed by the report.

When a tenant faces an issue with their living conditions, they are first expected to notify their landlord. If the landlord fails to fix the problem, tenants may file a complaint with the DOB. Public witnesses at the Jan. 18 hearing expressed widespread concern with the DOB’s online complaint form, which they said offers no option for language translation and uses confusing, ambiguous wording. 

For instance, when asking tenants to describe their housing problem, the form lumps multiple issues that require distinct solutions into a single category, such as, “Peeling Paint, Holes, Water Damage, Unsanitary Condition.” The result, according to the investigation, is that the information collected by the DOB from complaints is both limited and inconsistent. 

Tenants attempting to reschedule or request follow-up inspections are forced to open an entirely new complaint. Additionally, Children’s Law Center policy attorney Makenna Osborn testified that for those without access to computers who have to call in their complaints, DOB’s phone line is unreliable and frequently unreachable.

Within 15 days of receiving a complaint, a DOB inspector is expected to review a housing unit for violations and document them in a notice of infraction (NOI) issued to property owners. The NOI serves as a guide for landlords on what needs to be fixed to bring the property into compliance. Through the system of “deferred enforcement,” a property owner can avoid paying a fine for their code violations if the issue is fixed within 60 days of receiving the NOI, or within 24 hours of an emergency violation. 

Keith Parsons, strategic enforcement administrator at DOB, said at the hearing that in fiscal year 2023, approximately 30,000 total violations were found through inspections. Of these, only 12,000 have been confirmed as abated.

Moreover, the committee’s report recorded that 56% of NOIs sent to landlords were mailed to an incorrect address. Since the landlords never received notification of the infraction, they are deemed not liable for the violation, contributing to DOB’s low rate of successful abatement.

Abatement may be confirmed either through an in-person reinspection by DOB or by the landlord submitting evidence the issue was addressed on DOB’s online portal. Parsons said the proof provided by property owners is “rigorously scrutinized,” yet public witness testimony called this into question. 

Residents said pervasive problems of rat infestation, mold growth, broken windows and doors, exposed wires, cracked floors, missing stair railways and failing security measures have all gone unattended, even after reports showed landlords had fixed the issue. 

After DOB completes its inspection, “Tenants are left in the dark,” Osborn said. She reported clients of the law center frequently do not know what, if any, action was taken by DOB since noting the violations in their homes. When a landlord confirms abatement with DOB, there is no notice provided to the tenant or outreach about opportunities to dispute the property owner’s claim. While a public dashboard provides the status of housing code violations, Osborn explained “Right now all the onus is on the tenants” to locate information and contact DOB. 

Without required, in-person verification of abatement, supervising attorney at Legal Aid DC Eleni Christidis testified that photographic evidence submitted by landlords can be misleading and has left enforcement of the housing code to “the honor system.” The committee’s investigation found that several DOB inspectors reported instances where property owners had sent false proof of abatement. Further, no framework currently exists to catch sophisticated methods some landlords are using to game the system. 

If there is no confirmation of abatement provided within the timeframe allowed to landlords, the violation is sent to the Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH) for litigation. Over 9,000 NOIs are pending at OAH, a number that continues to grow, according to Parsons. While these disputes await resolution, nothing prevents property owners with outstanding fines or unabated violations from buying more buildings.

Even when the landlord is successfully prosecuted in a case that makes it to trial, a judge’s ruling is no guarantee of improved living conditions for the tenant. 

Tanisha Gordon shared with the committee that after 14 housing code violations were found in the building in which she lives, the property manager paid over $10,000 in fines last year. Yet the violations have not been fixed. 

“There’s still water in the ground floor, there’s still the beeping sound that was reported in the summer, and the wall of black mold was just painted over,” Gordon said at the hearing.

Following the committee’s report, both DOB and advocates offered suggestions for how to improve the housing inspection process. 

Parsons announced, awaiting tenant feedback, that a revised complaint form will go live on the DOB site “very, very soon.” The updated form will feature banners to access language translation assistance and improved wording. To address the inaccurate service of NOIs to landlords, DOB is developing a housing complaint clearinghouse, which will include a comprehensive database of property owner contact information. 

The committee’s report includes several recommendations for DOB, including more intensive and interactive training of inspectors, increased in-person reinspections of units to confirm abatement and a practice of “nudging” landlords with courtesy letters to address alleged violations. 

Public testimony pointed to a need for DOB to improve engagement and communication with residents. Witnesses suggested DOB contact tenants regularly with updates on their complaint status, provide clearer notice of when inspections will occur and automatically follow up even after a landlord verifies abatement. Some called for more proactive measures, such as routine inspections of properties with regular violations, rather than waiting for conditions to worsen and tenants to file complaints. 

Public housing advocate Rhonda Hamilton said that although the committee’s investigation into DOB practices is a welcome effort to begin fixing a broken system, this was only a first step. Given the negative physical and mental health consequences of poor housing, Hamilton stressed the urgency for the report’s findings to lead to real change for tenants.

“These are just words for them. They are living through egregious conditions,” Hamilton told councilmembers. “And the reality is it’s leaving them vulnerable. They don’t have the luxury of waiting for you to figure it out.” 

Issues |Housing|Tenants

Region |Washington DC

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