Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich joins the show to explain his pushback to the county's affordable housing goals. Plus, Montgomery County residents are getting heated about a comprehensive review of school boundaries.
Tragedy struck in Brightwood Park last week when an apartment fire blazed through an apartment complex on Kennedy Street.
Two people died – one a nine-year-old boy – and five other people were displaced due to the fire. As it turned out, the property was not appropriately licensed to be a rental and had a number of safety issues, like broken smoke detectors and barred windows and doors. The three-story row house was populated by 12 Ethiopian immigrants, some of whom lived in rooms roughly the size of a large mattress and paid their rent in cash to landlord James Walker. Walker, now facing criminal charges, owns at least two other residences in the area.
In light of these events, we’ll sit down with experts in the topic to break down exactly what a landlord’s obligations are, and how the law ensures those obligations are met.
Produced by Maura Currie
- Victoria Gonçalves Bilingual Tenant Organizer, Latino Economic Development Center
- Karl Racine Attorney General, District of Columbia; @AGKarlRacine
- Ernest Chrappah Director, Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs
KOJO NNAMDITwo people were killed after a house fire swept through rental properties in Brightwood last week. One was an adult man, the other a nine-year-old boy. The building on Kennedy Street was not permitted for renters, most of whom were Ethiopian immigrants. The landlord of this property is probably facing criminal charges, and records show he owns at least two other properties in the area. So, what obligations do landlords have to their tenants in the District, and vice versa? And what happens when one side doesn't fulfill those obligations? What should happen? Joining me in studio is Victoria Concalves. She is the Bilingual Tenant Organizer for the Latino Economic Development Center. Victoria, thank you for joining us.
VICTORIA CONCALVESThank you for having me.
NNAMDIAlso in studio with us is Ernest Chrappah. He is the director of the District's Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, DCRA. Thank you for joining us.
ERNEST CHRAPPAHThank you for having me on your show, Kojo.
NNAMDIBut first, joining us by phone is Karl Racine, attorney general for the District of Columbia. Karl Racine, thank you so much for joining us.
KARL RACINEPleasure to be here, Kojo.
NNAMDII know you can't comment on an ongoing investigation, and Mayor Bowser has asked that both District and federal attorneys look into this, but it there anything you can share about your investigation of this Kennedy Street fire, so far? What will you be focusing on, as you move forward?
RACINESure. Let me briefly touch on that. First, let me start by expressing my deepest sympathies to the victims' families, and to all who have been displaced by this tragic and horrific fire. First, Kojo, as you publically, you know, reported and just repeated, the matter has, in fact, been referred to the Office of Attorney General.
RACINEWe, in fact, do have authority to review the conducted issue. Several paragraphs in the D.C. municipal regulations give us misdemeanor authority, as well as the authority to fine. And we'll be working together with our partner at DCRA, as well as the fire department, on that.
NNAMDIThis is an issue of special interest to you. What role does your office play in making sure that these residences are safe for tenants?
RACINEIt's incredibly important. As we know, Kojo, there's a housing shortage in the District of Columbia. And we've got to make sure, to the extent possible, that no one, including unscrupulous landlords, are using this shortage to squeeze desperate residents. What we've also seen is that the residents who are impacted tend to be immigrants. And they tend to be immigrants because they are oftentimes new to this country, don't have a lot of financial resources, the language is new, the culture is new. And there's a general lack of familiarity with their rights.
RACINEWhat we're asking folks to do -- and I'm so happy that you have someone from the Latin American community here, at issue with the property in question seem to be immigrants from Africa -- is to let people know that there is a Tenant Bill of Rights that is applicable. The way to get that information is to go to the Office of the Tenant Advocacy. They have a website that clearly delineates those bill of rights.
RACINEAnd those bill of rights do touch on the issue of safety, as well as the landlord's obligation to test and have equipment that is working and functioning in order to suppress a potential fire. The last thing I want to emphasize, Kojo, is that all places of dwelling must have a valid certificate of occupancy in order to validate that that place is safe for humans to dwell.
NNAMDILet's talk a little about procedure here. After your office investigates, is that the point at which you decide whether or not this should be referred to the U.S. Attorney for criminal prosecution, or whether it should be maintained as a civil incident or case?
RACINEKojo, you asked an excellent question. And it is a shame that, in the District of Columbia, we have to ask the question as to which prosecutorial authority has principle jurisdiction, exclusive jurisdiction, or, in a case like this, has concurrent or shared jurisdiction. So, the jurisdiction that the Office of Attorney General has is specific, and it's clear as to the Office of Attorney General. And that is to ensure that the municipal regulations that relate to safety and whatnot has been, in fact, followed.
RACINEThat jurisdiction is unfortunately limited to misdemeanor and fines, although fining an entity that has violated the law every day, the fines can rack up. The U.S. Attorney's Office has principle felony jurisdiction in the District of Columbia. To the extent that they're reviewing this, that's what they would be reviewing.
NNAMDIBefore you go, what are receivers, and how are you using them to enforce safety regulations in some of these older buildings?
RACINEAn excellent point. So, where we're seeing some of these older buildings, or buildings where landlords frankly just do not want to put the energy and resource in keeping a building safe and habitable, we're going to court, increasingly, and asking the judge to replace the landlord or property manager, because they're not doing their job. And what they do -- what the court does in cases like this is the court appoints a receiver to ensure that the property is maintained in a safe and habitable way.
NNAMDIKarl Racine is the Attorney General for the District of Columbia. General Racine, thank you so much for joining us.
RACINEThank you very much, Kojo.
NNAMDIErnest Chrappah, do you know if the DCRA got any complaints on new issues at the Kennedy Street residence prior to this fire?
CHRAPPAHThe property -- and, first of all, I want to mention that on behalf of Mayor Bowser, we are saddened and heartbroken by this tragedy. Our hearts and our thoughts and our prayers go out to the families that have been impacted here, and also back on the continent. With regard to this property, it's been there for a while. There are several business licenses associated, which have expired, and we are continuing to look at the history of the property.
NNAMDICan you speak to any new information that's been gleaned since the fire and subsequent investigations?
CHRAPPAHNo. With the ongoing investigation, we'll let the process play itself out, and then when there's a discovery, would do the appropriate action necessary.
NNAMDILet's get a little more general, here. Tell us about the role the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs plays in D.C.'s rental market.
CHRAPPAHDCRA is an integral part in ensuring that residents, businesses and visitors have quality of life, economic interests are protected, and above all, health and safety is protected, as well. We achieve this through the permitting, inspections, licensing and enforcement regimes that we have in place. So, fundamentally, we play the role of protecting tenants, and also ensuring that landlords are held accountable when they break the law.
NNAMDIVictoria Concalves, tell me about the tenant advocacy work that you do with the Latino Economic Development Coalition.
CONCALVESSure. And I just want to echo what everyone else said about sending my condolences to the family. You know, we work a lot in the community, and specifically in Brightwood. And we know that the community is hurting right now. And we're looking forward to having a call to action about issues like this.
CONCALVESSo, I'm a tenant organizer. That means I help form tenant associations. I help tenants exercise their rights. We do a lot of rights education. We help tenants exercise their TOPA rights.
CONCALVESTOPA is the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act, which tenants have to have a tenant association formed in order to have a say of what happens when their building is being sold. In terms of housing conditions, you know, it's one of the most common issues that we deal with. We help tenants organize together and have a strategy to try to get the landlord to make repairs.
NNAMDISo, you actually go out to these properties and see what's going on?
CONCALVESYes. Me and my team of organizers, we are at a building almost every night of the week.
NNAMDIWhen you go to some of these rental properties, what are the most common or the more dangerous issues that you see?
CONCALVESYou know, things that are fire safety risks are actually surprisingly common. You know, things like not having smoke detectors in bedrooms, windows that don't stay open all the way. Also, environmental hazards like lead and mold are really common, as well. I think, you know, when it comes to the wintertime, lack of heat is probably the most urgent issue that we see with folks.
NNAMDIGot an email from Sarah, who said: if that house had merely been rented, there would not have been so much danger. The house had been divided into many separate dwellings, with locked doors between, so that residents were unable to exit and even firefighters were unable to move within the house. Firefighters reported that opening one door blocked another from being opened. The house was unsafe, but not because it was rented.
NNAMDIIn the case of the Kennedy Street fire -- as our emailer just pointed out -- part of the issue that led to these fatalities was that firefighters were unable to access an apartment due to bars on the windows. Is that a common issue that you've seen?
CONCALVESYeah, it is. You know, an issue that we see is, you know, windows that are on the first floor, or they're in a bedroom, if they do have bars on them, they have to have a type of bar that is able to be opened. And most tenants and most landlords don't even know that those types of bars exist. You know, sometimes, you know, tenants will want bars on the window, so that they feel safer. And they don't know that it's actually a fire safety risk.
CONCALVESAnother one is when windows don't stay open all the way. It's also an issue if firefighters have to get in or out through the windows, because the window will close on them.
NNAMDIErnest Chrappah, what requirements does a landlord have to meet in order to be issued a rental license?
CHRAPPAHThere are robust requirements in place before a landlord can get a rental license. First, they have to pass pre-inspection related to the business that they are engaged in. So, if you take a look at 2019, as an example, only 51 percent of our applications passed the first time around. So, that speaks to how robust the inspection process that's in place. This property in question was never licensed as a rental property.
CHRAPPAHSo, if you take a step back and you look at the protections that are in place, fire safety, somebody actually going to the property to ensure that means of egress is available, windows and doors can be opened from the inside without any special knowledge, fire sprinklers got to be in place. None of that, none of these protections were in place at the property, which leads me to believe, in some way and form, contributed to the fatalities.
NNAMDIIf someone does, in fact, however, get a license, how could that license be revoked?
CHRAPPAHThere are a couple of mechanisms in place. One will be inspections, fines and the revocation of the license for them failing to maintain the property according to code. And there is an administrative process where any enforcement action we take can be appealed to the Office of Administrative Hearings. But when the violations are clearly documented, it will be pretty difficult for them to get out of it.
NNAMDIWhen do you inspect properties? Does there have to be a complaint by a resident?
CHRAPPAHComplaints are one channel that we inspect properties. Another channel is what we call the Proactive Inspection Program, where licensed properties are subject to multiple inspections, so by life cycle. And then there's also inspections based off business licensing. So, if you apply to be a rental provider, we would inspect the property, ensure that you pass these inspections before you get a certificate of occupancy.
NNAMDIAnd for people who are undocumented or worry about backlash from landlords, can those complaints be anonymous?
CHRAPPAHAbsolutely. We are very confident in our complaint system. Regardless of your immigration status, you can file a complaint, or a neighbor can file a complaint on your behalf, and we'll protect your identity. What we need is for anybody who's listening out there to feel comfortable calling 202-442-9557, or 311, and they can file a complaint anonymously. And we'll provide them with notifications as we take action on their complaint.
NNAMDIVictoria, it's your opinion, I understand, that this complaint-based system disadvantages certain groups. Can you expand on that?
CONCALVESSure. Like Attorney General Racine said, a lot of the people that are living in housing that is unsafe is folks from the immigrant community who don't know about, you know, the DCRA. They might not know about the -- they usually don't know what the housing code is, or that it exists. And then, if they do know, they're scared of going to government agencies that are distrustful of that.
CONCALVESAdditionally, another huge issue that we have is, you know, the language barrier, sometimes, with inspectors not being able to communicate with the tenants, which is also an issue that the tenants have with their landlords or management staff, sometimes.
NNAMDIHow do you proceed if you are told, Ernest, that a building has issues that could post safety risks to residents?
CHRAPPAHThere are a number of ways we proceed, starting with addressing -- I would like to address the fear of speaking up, because we have content in multiple languages, Arabic, Chinese, Korean. You go to our website, DCRA.dc.gov/firesafety, you will find the basics. There's a checklist, so that tenants know how we can help them. Secondly, we do have a diverse workforce of inspectors to help bridge the language gap, and also, we have access to what is called the Language Line that can help bridge the communication barrier.
CHRAPPAHBut when somebody calls in an issue, or we are alerted about an issue, we survey the area. We do some research on any history of the property, and we go there to do an inspection. For occupied buildings, we require consent, or require somebody else to be present, either the tenant or the landlord. And we typically go through a list of codes to see if they are consistent from egress, accessibility, fire safety, mechanical, electrical. There's a list of things that we look out for.
CHRAPPAHBut residents don't need to worry about the details. What they have to help us with, so that we can help them, is reaching out to us when they see something. And the message also goes out to neighbors. If you see something, say something, so that we can leverage the government's resources in protecting our residents.
NNAMDIIn April of this year, DCRA put out a statement saying that of the over 30,000 inspections it did over three fiscal years, only one in 10 ended with problem abatement. If fines do not work, what other options do you have?
CHRAPPAHI like to think the human mind can be creative. There are a number of things that we've put in place. As you mentioned, back in April, we streamlined our enforcement policy so that we can provide better protections to residents. We are also working with landlords so that we can help them come into compliance. Getting to voluntary compliance is better than chasing issues all over the place, because then you feel like Whack-a-Mole.
CHRAPPAHWhen it comes to the enforcement mechanisms in place, fines, suspension of licenses, all tools, not to mention our partnership with the Office of the Attorney General, where they can use some of their tools around receivership to ensure compliance.
NNAMDIVictoria, from your organization's perspective, is the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs enforcing its rules adequately?
CONCALVESNo. We know that landlords will never voluntarily abide by the code if it's profitable for them not to, right. They know that enforcement isn't strict enough. They know that they can get away with not paying fines. They know that there might not be re-inspections. And, for the most part, you know, the majority of the properties that we work in -- if not all of the properties that we work in -- are not up to code. That wouldn't be the case if there was a strict enforcement regimen, and if landlords felt like there was going to be some consequence for their actions.
CONCALVESYou know, we try to come up with creative solutions, as well, to get tenants to hold their landlord accountable. And sometimes, that includes DCRA inspections, but for the most part, that's not the most effective way that tenants can hold their landlord accountable. You know, we look at rent strikes. We look at receiverships. And DCRA inspections usually aren't the thing that actually gets the landlord to make repairs.
NNAMDICare to respond to that?
CHRAPPAHInspections do encourage and incentivize and lead to compliance. If you'll look at the 51 percent pass rate, that is just an indication of how robust the inspection program is. More importantly, when it comes to inspections, we cannot apply 18th-century solutions to current day issues, which is why we are excited about the resident inspector program that Mayor Bowser launched last month to help us build capacity to provide on-demand inspections. So, we are excited about the opportunities that we'll bring in working with tenant organizers, working with ANCs, working with residents so that we can do more inspections.
NNAMDIVictoria, you only have about 30 seconds left. You're one of the organizers at the Unified Tenants Union that just formed in the District. Tell us a little bit about what the union's priorities are and how these safety issues tie into the work that you're undertaking, in 30 second or less.
CONCALVESSo, the Tenant Union is a group that came together with a bunch of different tenant associations across the city, are coming together to fight for tenants' rights. They will help fight slum conditions in all parts of the city, and will advocate for tenants' interests at the City Council including rent control, TOPA, and then the budget.
NNAMDIVictoria Conclaves, thank you for joining us.
CONCALVESThank you for having me.
NNAMDIErnest Chrappah, thank you for joining us.
CHRAPPAHThank you again for having me on the show.
NNAMDIThis conversation about safety regulations for rental units in D.C. was produced by Maura Currie. And our look at the rise of hate crimes in the District was produced by Margaret Barthel. Coming up tomorrow, class back in session for students in the District. We'll hear about the expansion of a safety initiative to help protect students on their way to and from school. That all starts tomorrow, at noon. Until then, thank you for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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