Guest Host: Sasha-Ann Simons

Acting Director Ernest Chrappah, has led D.C.’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs since November 2018.

DCRA enforces building and housing codes and issues business-related licenses and permits. Over the years, it has drawn criticism for its inefficient and inadequate enforcement. Last year several of its top staffers departed or were fired. Now, nearly six months into his role, Chrappah is promising a tech-enabled clean slate for the department.

We’ll talk to Chrappah about his ideas, including a proposal for “Uber for housing inspections”, and how he plans to bring about “digital transformation” at DCRA.

Produced by Margaret Barthel


  • Ernest Chrappah Acting Director, D.C. Department of Regulatory and Consumer Affairs


  • 12:32:12

    SASHA-ANN SIMONSWelcome back. I'm Sasha-Ann Simons, in for Kojo Nnamdi. The DC Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, known as DCRA, has a big job: it enforces building and housing codes. And it issues licenses and permits for everything from home renovations to new businesses. And it's often been criticized for inefficient and inadequate enforcement and poor customer service. But acting director Ernest Chrappah has big ideas for how to fix the department. He's proposing a digital transformation for DCRA, complete with a bigger IT budget, and maybe even an app where residents can request housing inspections on demand.

  • 12:32:48

    SASHA-ANN SIMONSCan tech solve DCRA's challenges? We'll ask. Ernest Chrappah, the acting director of the DC Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, is here with us in studio. Thanks for joining us, Ernest.

  • 12:32:59

    ERNEST CHRAPPAHThank you for having me, Sasha.

  • 12:33:01

    SIMONSErnest, you became acting director at the DC Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs in November of last year. So, that's a little less than six months ago. And now, it's not a job that many people would want. The agency has been plagued with problems that no one seems to be able to fix. So, why did you decide to tackle the job?

  • 12:33:22

    CHRAPPAHWhen Mayor Bowser gave me the opportunity to lead DCRA, it was an honor. I've been serving in the District government for ten years, and I've seen different opportunities and different responsibilities. When it comes to DCRA, DCRA touches on so many residents and business in interesting ways. And when people think about city services, it's very important for them to feel that city services are being delivered in the way that they expect.

  • 12:33:56

    CHRAPPAHIn an environment where you can push a button on a smartphone and watch your car driver come to you, if you need somebody to walk your pet, you can do so. And even if you're looking for a doctor, you can get that on demand. So, our customers have this expectation that city services will be delivered on demand. And DCRA has an incredible opportunity to lead that charge.

  • 12:34:18

    SIMONSWe'll get more to those on-demand services in just a moment. I want to know, what have you learned so far in this six months leading the department?

  • 12:34:25

    CHRAPPAHIt's been an incredible learning opportunity, and also an incredible opportunity to lead over 450 men and women who are committed to the District and our residents. A few things that I've learned is that DCRA's size is not the problem. In fact, having 450 people and contributing over 12 billion in terms of the District's economy is an asset. I've also learned that we have to invest in our people so that they can be part of the future of the workforce. I've also learned that we have to continue listening to our stakeholders, including our critics, to figure out the best idea that can help us accelerate the transformation.

  • 12:35:07

    SIMONSTell us a little bit about you. What's your background? Where did you come from, before this post?

  • 12:35:13

    CHRAPPAHI'm Guinean. I came to Washington, DC in 1996, American University. And I've since been here professionally working in both the private and the public sector. And in terms of the public sector, the last ten years has been with the city government transforming and turning around multiple government agencies. So, transformation is something that is in my DNA, and I like the opportunity to work with residents and businesses in helping make the city better.

  • 12:35:45

    SIMONSYou hosted a number of listening sessions with councilmembers, advisory neighborhood commissioners and residents about their frustrations with DCRA when you first took on the role. What did you hear in those sessions?

  • 12:35:56

    CHRAPPAHThere are a number of things. One, inspections have got to be streamlined. Permitting, got to go faster. Permitting has to be affordable. We have to look out for vulnerable residents. We also have to make an investment in our IT infrastructure. But more importantly, we have to approach the need to improve customer experience with a level of urgency. And I also received an incredible amount of encouragement from my different stakeholders. Some ANC commissioners provided valuable feedback. Residents now walk up to me and give me ideas. And our employees are very excited about what we have ahead of us.

  • 12:36:41

    SIMONSWe've also heard many complaints on this show about DCRA, you know, businesses and homeowners waiting a year for a permit or a license, poor conditions at DC-owned housing, and not enough inspectors. The problems have been so bad at DCRA, that in the summer of 2016, Mayor Bowser spent a week at the agency. She wanted to see the problems for herself. But no overhaul followed that. So, is this the overhaul that many have been waiting for?

  • 12:37:07

    CHRAPPAHWhat we have ahead of us is a continuation of the leadership and investments that Mayor Bower has made in improving service delivery at DCRA. For a chief executive for our city to spend a week at an agency speaks volumes about how she cares and how much she wants to see improvement. In her second term, she has also asked everyone -- especially the leadership team -- to not be afraid to fail. What would a city look like if we can be bold? What would a city look like if we deliver our services and exceed customer expectations?

  • 12:37:48

    CHRAPPAHWhen you look at DCRA, some of the things that I find interesting is that while there are opportunities for improvement, the agency is absolutely on the right track. If you go to our website, we've launched our dashboard that shows our performance against key performance indicators. Last fiscal year, we met or exceeded over 80 percent of those key performance indicators, including the review times for permitting. Our service level is to complete a first-run review of a permit in less than 30 days. We are able to achieve that.

  • 12:38:27

    CHRAPPAHHowever, permitting goes beyond just DCRA. It involves sister agencies like Department of Health, DC Water, DOH and several other government agencies. So, while customers may feel permitting is taking too long, it doesn't automatically mean that it's being held up by DCRA. So, we thought part of the opportunity we had is to provide transparency into where a permit is at any given point in time. People can find out on our website. And also hold ourselves to a higher standard, because customers expect more, and we think we can achieve that.

  • 12:38:59

    SIMONSLet's talk more about that higher standard. Let's go to Tom. He's on the phones from Washington. Hi, Tom. Your turn.

  • 12:39:05

    TOMHello. Good afternoon, Director. It's a pleasure to speak to you. I actually spoke to your predecessor. One of my concerns is -- and I don't see that this is being addressed at all. I have been a victim, personally, of DCRA inspectors that have lied. For example, said that they inspected a property, when they didn't. Have made declarations on forms which say they have a pain of perjury. And they have -- in subsequent depositions, we've demonstrated that they never inspected the properties.

  • 12:39:38

    TOMThey maliciously prosecuted us. They stopped our project completely for three years. And these inspectors are still working at DCRA. DCRA hires council to protect them. And, basically, instead of DCRA sitting down with people and saying, let's solve a problem, DCRA goes straight to litigation. So, my question to you is, one, what system of accountability are you going to put, where citizens that have proof that inspectors are committing -- what I believe is crimes, right, perjuring themselves on forms -- that there will be accountability for that? Two, what will happen when cases are maliciously prosecuted?

  • 12:40:23

    SIMONSThanks, Tom.

  • 12:40:23

    TOMThat kind of accountability will there be? And three, if you are serious about this, I would welcome the opportunity to sit down with you and review these documentations so that, you know, the only solution is not litigation.

  • 12:40:38

    SIMONSLet's give him a chance to respond. Go ahead, Ernest.

  • 12:40:41

    CHRAPPAHThank you, Tom, for sharing your concerns and feedback. When it comes to any allegation of fraud or misconduct, the District of Columbia government has a robust process in place. You are free to contact the office of the inspector general. That's one option. You can also send an email or request a private meeting with agency leadership to discuss the issues you face. But at the larger level, unsubstantiated allegations is something that we have to be careful about, as society, in general. Throwing things out there that may not necessarily be true convolutes and dilutes the public's trust in their government.

  • 12:41:30

    CHRAPPAHSo, the first step, if you have any substantive matter or allegation, I strongly encourage you to contact the office of the Inspector General, in addition to other options you have, and bringing that information up. Accountability is very important, and there are steps that we've taken, and there are steps that are available, as part of the District government, to get those concerns addressed.

  • 12:41:56

    SIMONSNow, you became the head of DCRA in the midst of a lot of leadership changes in the upper management of the department. How's morale these days?

  • 12:42:04

    CHRAPPAHFrom what I see from staff and the feedback that I receive, they are very optimistic and excited about the transformation that is underway. Based on the feedback from staff, their listening sessions with our council members and members of the community, we formulated a shared vision, a vision where the agency is responsive, nimble and adaptive to different conditions. That is what we are calling our Vision 2020.

  • 12:42:32

    CHRAPPAHVision 2020 goes beyond just boosting employee morale. It is a six-part strategic plan to ensure that, in the second term of Mayor Bowser's administration, we not only elevate DCRA, but we provide dramatic operational improvement. It touches on budget reform. It touches on regulatory reform. It touches on process improvements. It touches on people improvement. It touches on telecommunications. It touches on technology, and also touches on communications. The cumulative effect of these initiatives is what I think will put us in the position where we are leading by example.

  • 12:43:14

    SIMONSAnd let's touch more on that vision in a little while. You're listening to the Kojo Nnamdi Show. I'm Sasha-Ann Simons, WAMU's race and identify reporter, sitting in for Kojo. We'll continue our conversation about the DC Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs in a moment. Stay with us.

  • 12:43:59

    SIMONSI'm Sasha-Ann Simons, sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. I'm talking with Ernest Chrappah, the acting director of the DC Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs about a digital transformation of the department. Ernest, first, I wanted to say, you know, and sort of we've kind of come to this consensus already, that you're leading a department that's getting sustained criticism, you know, and has been for years for not doing, essentially, its job enforcing housing, building and business-related codes. But you've promised this digital transformation. Tell us what that means, in its totality.

  • 12:44:31

    CHRAPPAHDigital transformation means a fundamental change in our processes, our activities, and how we create value for our customers. Our customers fall into two groups. You have 700,000 residents, and you have over 50,000 businesses. We look at them as customers, and our responsibility is to manage a relationship to a point where they are completely satisfied. To achieve that in an environment where there's been criticism about the agency, we are approaching this as a strategic plan that rolls from November all the way to the year 2020. That's we are calling it Vision 2020.

  • 12:45:15

    CHRAPPAHIt has six core elements. One around budget. DCRA's operating budget has been somewhere in the neighborhood of 60 million.

  • 12:45:25

    SIMONSSixty-million, yeah.

  • 12:45:26

    CHRAPPAHAnd to deliver on the services that residents expect from the agency, we are excited about the fiscal year 20 budget that Mayor Bowser has proposed, which is an increase of about 11 percent, and will put us around the 67 million mark. That is a significant investment, and what I call it is it's a down payment on our future.

  • 12:45:49

    SIMONSAbsolutely. So, technology, though, that can certainly make something smoother and easier, but it isn't a silver bullet. So, particularly in those customer service situations, I'm thinking of those situations where people just want to talk to a real person. In addition to updating the tech, I'm curious how you think that you can create a positive culture of customer service.

  • 12:46:09

    CHRAPPAHCreating a positive culture for customer service is something that also is part of the Vision 2020 agenda. We baked that into a number of areas. One, the investments we are making in people, so that they can deescalate situations, they can be more informed, they can be more professional, and they can drive to positive outcomes. The second is putting in place a customer relationship management model, where our customers are not buildings. Our customers are humans, and we strategically manage a relationship from their first interaction with us, to their last interaction, and any subsequent interaction that we have with them.

  • 12:46:53

    CHRAPPAHIn the private sector or in other city agencies, they call that a CRA. A CRA is not just technology. It's a process that you have to take that customer through, so that we are delivering at the highest levels possible. And I'm proud to say that in just the short time that I've been at the agency, we've deployed an on-demand customer relationship model, where we guarantee a service level for three days, three business days, where we'll address any concern that comes through the phone, web, Twitter or any of our channels.

  • 12:47:30

    CHRAPPAHAnd we aggregate the information so that the customer service agent has all of that interaction at their fingertips, so they can assist you in the best way possible. And also seamlessly elevates issues to accounts managers or appropriate management team to address this. So, it's definitely been a good journey, so far.

  • 12:47:51

    SIMONSFarah Tweets us, here. She says: DCRA is the very worst ever. There are no clear rules written down, and there are different answers to the same questions every time. It's a black box of death for those that want to follow rules. Any response to that?

  • 12:48:08

    CHRAPPAHThat is an over-exaggeration. But the fact of the matter is there are rules. There are regulations, there are frameworks, there are people. So, if somebody has a concern and they articulate that to us, we will execute and respond to that.

  • 12:48:28

    SIMONSLet's take a call from Paul, in Gaithersburg. Hi, Paul. You're on the air.

  • 12:48:33

    PAULYeah. Hi, there. I just want to give my feedback for DCRA from my little perspective as a plumbing and mechanical contractor. I go back to the days when the offices were in Chinatown, and then North Capitol Street, and now in Southwest. Every time I go down there, it's absolute pleasure. You can park. All the people I deal with are always friendly, always nice. And, you know, that's -- I can't see why anybody would have a problem going in the one-stop-shop, there.

  • 12:49:11

    PAULMy only suggestion to the complainers -- and, again, this is from my little perspective -- is if you don't know what you're doing, if you don't know the regulations and you don't know the codes, then perhaps you should hire a consultant to help navigate through. It's the same with any bureaucracy. You've got to know what you're doing, or it's going to just seem frustrating beyond belief. But I thank DCRA. They've been awesome, like I said, from my perspective.

  • 12:49:41

    SIMONS(overlapping) Thank you, Paul.

  • 12:49:41

    PAULAnybody who thinks building is, you know, mired down, just look at the Southwest waterfront.

  • 12:49:50

    SIMONSThanks, Paul. Appreciate your call. You did mention, Ernest, that, you know, the feedback was mixed, right, even from councilmembers themselves. You know, you do hear both sides, right? One of the ideas that you presented to the DC Council recently was a program that would be Uber for housing inspectors. I wanted to get into that a little bit. You said it was a way of recruiting and training local DC residents to inspect properties on demand. Can you explain more about how that would work?

  • 12:50:15

    CHRAPPAHYes, I'm happy to do so. It is important to actually provide a context for what we are hoping to accomplish with these on-demand inspections. Currently, we have about 68 inspectors, and their work of third-party companies who collectively produce about 90,000 inspections, annually. The ebbs and flows in the demand for inspections varies. And our service level today is somewhere from the same day to 38 business days, depending on the type of inspection. Whether it's illegal construction, construction, housing, they can build in licenses. That's the timeframe.

  • 12:51:07

    CHRAPPAHBut what is clear, based on the feedback that we receive from customers, is that they expect more. They expect faster response times. They expect transparency, accountability and visibility into the inspection process. And they want to see the inspection results almost instantly. To achieve that in an environment with finite resources, we cannot depend solely on our existing network to take on the challenge for faster inspections.

  • 12:51:41

    CHRAPPAHSo, this idea of on-demand inspections is simply to put our network of inspectors, plus an additional workforce of professional inspectors that will help train, get certified according to the international code, ICC, and make sure that we can dynamically match a professional inspector to a service request. So that if you are in Ward 3 and you see something that looks like illegal construction, and you send a request by phone, web, or some digital platform, we'll match the request to the nearest qualified professional inspector. It's that simple.

  • 12:52:25

    SIMONSSo, why try the on-demand model instead of just hiring more professional housing inspectors?

  • 12:52:31

    CHRAPPAHYou cannot hire quickly enough. That's one. And if the economy also tanks, that means you've got to get rid of all of them. We don't see that as the best option, especially when we have youth and residents who can benefit from the growth in the industry. So, this idea also provides an opportunity to train our workforce and to build career pathways into the real estate industry.

  • 12:52:57

    SIMONSBut training them will be expensive, right? Why spend money training them, training residents, when it sounds like what the city needs would be more professional inspectors? And I notice you're referring to them as professionals, as well. So, is that the idea, that once you've trained them up, then they're good to go? And...

  • 12:53:14

    CHRAPPAHYes. I mean, this idea -- training is not that expensive. I mean, for literally four months of preparation and about $250, you can get ready for the certification exam. DCRA also has a training academy to get people up to skill on the nuances of DC property maintenance code. So, we are leveraging our own resources, and also provide an opportunity for residents to earn and have pathways to the middle class. I think that is what's exciting.

  • 12:53:48

    CHRAPPAHIf you have a job, whether you're an architect or you're a resident, you want to get into the real estate industry. Now you have an additional pathway to earn while you learn, and I think that's a beautiful thing.

  • 12:54:01

    SIMONSUber for housing inspectors, very interesting. Let's take a call from Paulette, in Washington. Hi, Paulette. Your turn.

  • 12:54:08

    PAULETTEOkay. I'm calling -- I went down to DCRA last week, because I wanted to get some information because I want to do some stuff on my housing. I didn't find it very helpful. I asked about cause for permits, and I was told it's based on the job, the cost of the job -- not the job, but the cost of the job. I didn't understand that. I asked for guidance on how I can find decent contractors. I was told you all couldn't do that, because you couldn't take sides.

  • 12:54:35

    PAULETTEI said when I had a roof put on recently, the inspector came, didn't come -- stayed across the street, looked at the house, and said it was fine. I told the person I was talking to, gee, it looked fine to me, too, but I thought I should know more. And I was told, well, be sure you have a good contractor, which didn't sit well with me, either. So, I would just like to have better guidance when I go down there.

  • 12:55:00

    SIMONS(overlapping) Do you have a response?

  • 12:55:03

    CHRAPPAHYes. When it comes to getting guidance, I mean, that's what our customer relationship model is about. So, for the caller, I would ask that they contact customer service, and just log in a case by saying this is my circumstance, this is the specific guidance that I need. And that will automatically activate the process we have in place, where somebody will call her, email, or engage with her to understand the nuances of the situation. And it will be resolved in less than three business days. That's how our service level is guaranteed.

  • 12:55:34

    CHRAPPAHBut when it comes to the idea of finding qualified contractors, while the agency is not going to be in the business of picking winners and losers in contractor selection, digital transformation will allow us to be able to put the ratings of contractors on our website so that consumers can search the past projects that a particular contractor has completed, and maybe their own informed decision as to whether they want to hire that contractor or not. That is simply not possible today, and digital transformation can get us there.

  • 12:56:05

    SIMONSLet's go to Twitter for just a moment here. Travis Tweets, he says: my biggest frustration with DCRA is how geared it is toward contractors instead of homeowners. I think they should make more easy-to-read, layman cars -- layman cars (sounds like) do common have home improvement items that do and don't require permits. And let's take a call from Rob in DC. Hi, Rob. You're on the air.

  • 12:56:27

    ROBHi, thanks. So, I am a tenant organizer. I work with a group called Latino Economic Development Center. We deal with a lot of tenants who are living in really horrific housing conditions across the District of Columbia. And just to be frank, I've seen a lot of buildings get housing code inspections. I've virtually never seen a landlord fix a major issue in response to an inspection. So, the problem is not just getting an inspector to come out to look at your apartment. It's enforcement, and I think that, like, looking to technological solutions to improve enforcement is just barking up the wrong tree, completely.

  • 12:57:02

    ROBAfter housing inspectors come out, identify housing code violations and tell the landlord to remedy it, they just don't, in most cases. And they rarely suffer any consequences. So, as long as that's the situation, we're just going to continue to have a real estate market dominated by slumlords, and the city is going to be complicit in that. And so I think that, you know, rethinking what the agency does needs to go a lot further than just a technology plan. It's not -- this isn't a technical problem. It's a matter of priorities, and are we really going to hold bad actors accountable.

  • 12:57:34

    SIMONS(overlapping) Thanks, Rob. We'll get an answer now from you, Ernest. Go ahead.

  • 12:57:38

    CHRAPPAHIt's hard to figure out if there's a specific question, there. It sounds more like a commentary. And what I think I'm hearing the caller say was that housing code enforcement is important. And I agree. Housing code enforcement is important. But the idea that the District of Columbia Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs does not hold property owners accountable is simply not true. If you go to our website today, you see the fines and the citations that we've issued to property owners.

  • 12:58:13

    CHRAPPAHIn fact, a couple weeks ago, we also announced that we're going to be enhancing consumer protection by issuing notices of infraction instead of a notice of violations when we see a housing code violation issue that the landlord fails to address.

  • 12:58:32

    SIMONSThanks, Ernest Chrappah. You're the acting director of the DC Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs. Thank you for joining us. Today's conversation with Ernest Chrappah was produced by Margaret Barthel. Our show on the new archbishop of Washington was produced by Cydney Grannan. Coming up tomorrow, if you've been suffering from seasonal allergies, you aren't alone. We'll answer your questions on how the changing seasons affect your symptoms. Plus, we'll dig into indoor air quality. Join us at 12:00 Tuesday. I'm Sasha-Ann Simons, sitting in for Kojo.

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