Erin Palmer’s Safe Housing Action Plan

Housing is a human right, and all DC residents are entitled to safe, stable, and secure housing.

Erin celebrates the opening of a project she worked to support — the restoration and preservation of permanently affordable transit-accessible apartments in Takoma.

Yet many families live in dangerous or unhealthy housing while our housing regulation agency fails to inspect and enforce housing code violations. Property owners of these buildings neglect dangerous and unhealthy living conditions — because they can — or use unsafe housing as a tool to displace families and sell properties. These dangerous and unhealthy housing conditions more heavily impact neighbors east of the Anacostia River, low-income residents, and Black and immigrant neighbors. District residents deserve safe housing and a government that proactively protects tenants through a public health and racial equity lens. The proposals I outline below will strengthen our regulation of safe housing by detecting, fixing, and preventing housing code violations, as well as preventing the degradation of buildings that results in demolition or sale and displacement of neighbors.

The District’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA), which inspects and enforces housing code violations, has been plagued for decades with challenges ensuring safe, stable, and secure housing for DC residents. For years, tenants and advocates knew of housing code violations at Sanford Capital properties, including ​​broken front doors, rat infestations, dangerous mold, malfunctioning heat, and sewage backups. It took the Mayor and Attorney General’s intervention for action from DCRA. In August 2019, two residents, including a 9-year-old child, died following a fatal house fire in my neighborhood at 708 Kennedy Street, NW, after housing inspectors failed to follow up on reports indicating the house posed a fire hazard. Advocates noted DCRA has too few building inspectors and rather than hire DC residents for long-term, stable jobs, DCRA has resorted to gig economy contract workers to fill gaps. The Office of the Attorney General for the District of Columbia had to step in with a lawsuit in 2018 against property owners and managers of the Forest Ridge and The Vista Apartments in ward 8 following chronic housing code violations, including repeated flooding, severe rodent infestations, and a lack of working smoke detectors. Residents at Woodberry Village in Southeast DC have been raising issues of no heat, mice infestations, mold and mildew, and caved in ceilings for the last two years. These are just a handful of examples of a systemic enforcement problem that has put our residents — particularly our Black and poor neighbors — in danger and at risk of accelerated displacement.

The DC Council’s Committee of the Whole has oversight of DCRA, which means that the current Council Chair is primarily responsible for the agency’s oversight. Yet, despite decades of complaints, unsafe living conditions, and even deaths, he has changed little to require more and better from DCRA’s enforcement procedures and practices. While legislative action has split the agency into a Department of Buildings and a Department of Licensing and Consumer Protection, the current Council Chair has failed to address DCRA’s many underlying challenges, including lack of inspections and enforcement. In fact, some important proposals to add inspectors and improve enforcement have not moved forward and a proposal that the Council has approved to enable DCRA to inspect for mold has not been funded. While the effort to split up DCRA could have a positive impact, it does not resolve the core issues that the current Council Chair has been complaining about, but not changing, since at least the 1990s.

Splitting DCRA into two departments alone cannot fix decades of problems and an agency culture that fails to protect tenants and ensure safe, stable, and secure housing. The following key challenges to ensuring regulation of safe housing remain and require the Council’s continued attention and action:

  1. Tenants are at risk of unsafe housing because not enough inspections are taking place. We’ve known for some time that there are not enough inspectors to conduct necessary inspections, that the quality of inspections varies greatly (in part because of reliance on contracted “resident inspectors” with less training and experience), and that a robust proactive inspection program is both a nationwide best practice and could protect our most vulnerable communities and prevent properties from falling into disrepair.
  2. The procedures for property owners to repair violations are discretionary and lax, resulting in longstanding unsafe housing conditions. Our primary objective should be safe, stable, and secure housing. This requires creating a robust structure that forces repairs for housing code violations, both as a mechanism to improve safety and to prevent the continued neglect and decline of specific properties that ultimately results in them being uninhabitable.
  3. Enforcement is absent and property owners either consider fines part of the cost of doing business or simply don’t pay them. We’ve also known for some time that DCRA has problems collecting fines, having collected only about $70,000 of $10 million in fines levied in FY 2020. Fines are needed to both deter housing code violations and hold violators accountable. And DCRA must be equipped and required to collect fines imposed, otherwise the enforcement process becomes meaningless. While much attention has been paid to DC’s inability to collect photo enforcement fines from out-of-state drivers, DCRA actually collects a lower percentage of levied fines than our photo-enforcement program without any legal obstacles prohibiting more aggressive collection.

Ultimately, the new Department of Buildings must aggressively cite housing code violations; be staffed with inspectors who are trained and licensed to inspect and cite for lead, mold, and asbestos; fine property owners who fail to make repairs within prescribed time periods; ensure that any repairs performed by property owners actually solve the underlying issues in their buildings and are not just cosmetic or temporary; and proactively repair housing code violations if property owners don’t take action.

DC Council action and oversight is essential to ensure safe housing. We know from decades of challenges that asking for “timely reinspections” without providing deadlines; collection of fines “if, and when, fines are levied” without assuring robust action that results in fines; and vague references to “consistent enforcement procedures” and “consistent application of abatement standards” without any parameters will not provide meaningful fixes. Similarly, proposing laws and letting them lapse and failing to fund proposed laws that address these issues are lost opportunities to fix underlying problems.

Every lawsuit by the Office of the Attorney General for the District of Columbia — while necessary — is a failure of government agency action and a failure of DC Council action and oversight. Lawsuits can take several years to work their way through the court system, leaving tenants without relief for longstanding unsafe housing. By the time these lawsuits are filed, it means that tenants have been living in unsafe and unhealthy conditions for years. And, even after the Attorney General files these lawsuits, tenants will continue to live in poor conditions for a period of time because the court process is often slow. We should always strive to address safe housing in a way that makes lawsuits unnecessary.

The problems are not new. They require clear, dedicated, values-based leadership. Every DC resident is entitled to safe, stable, and secure housing, and I will continue to fight for that from day one as DC Council Chairwoman.

The DC Council’s Committee of the Whole has oversight of DCRA, which means that the current Council Chair is primarily responsible for the agency’s oversight. Yet, despite decades of complaints, unsafe living conditions, and even deaths, he has changed little to require more and better from DCRA’s enforcement procedures and practices.

Expand inspections for housing code violations with a targeted racial equity and public health lens

DCRA does not employ enough inspectors for vigorous enforcement to ensure safe, stable, and secure housing. As of March 2021, the agency employs 25 inspectors for 161,965 rental housing units — an approximate ratio of one inspector for every 6,500 units. In addition, DCRA inspectors are not trained, certified, or licensed to inspect with regard to mold. Simply put, more well-trained employee inspectors will ensure a greater number of higher quality inspections, consistency, and follow through on enforcement. In addition, DCRA needs an expanded proactive inspection program that is more frequent and targets neighborhoods based on racial equity and public health data (e.g., exposure to lead and mold; high levels of asthma). Proactive inspections “ensur[e] that landlords are aware of poor conditions before they worsen” and “encourage[] preventative maintenance, which is more cost effective than deferred maintenance, and thereby helps landlords to maintain their properties.” DCRA itself said in 2009: “It’s quite clear that a complaint-based system is no longer sufficient if we want to maintain safe housing conditions for all residents, especially our most vulnerable — the poor, the elderly, the non-English speakers.”

The Council can empower the District Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs to conduct more inspections and proactively work to ensure safe housing by:

  • Expanding the number of required inspectors to one full-time housing inspector employed for every 2,000 residential units and requiring that inspectors be trained, certified, and licensed by DCRA to ensure higher quality inspections, consistency, and follow through on enforcement;
  • Requiring cross- training, certification, and licensing for DCRA housing inspectors to include assessments for lead, mold, and asbestos (including by funding laws on the books like B23–0132, the Residential Housing Environmental Safety Amendment Act of 2020) to ensure prompt issuance of notices of violation and enforcement for these public health risks that disproportionately impact vulnerable communities;
  • Conducting prompt and diligent oversight to assure coordination among agencies performing housing inspections and with potential enforcement authority related to public health issues (like the District Department of Energy and Environment’s Lead-Safe and Healthy Homes Division) to make sure tenants are not deprived of inspections and enforcement due to finger pointing among agencies and to ensure a centralized, coherent, and efficient citywide effort with regard to safe housing and public health;
  • As discussed in my DC Council Accountability Plan, re-instituting and making use of a comprehensive, nonpartisan, and objective research service for the Council to conduct a 50-state survey of best practices with regard to proactive inspection programs that have the highest success in addressing housing code violations with a racial equity and public health lens; and
  • Codifying and strengthening DCRA’s proactive inspection program, including: conducting more frequent inspections (every two to four years, depending on compliance, instead of every five years); requiring inspections of a substantial percentage of units in a building (and not just individual units); prioritizing properties with known risk factors (and not just a substantial number of inspection requests from tenants), including through surveys of Advisory Neighborhood Commissioners and advocacy organizations regarding known problematic properties; and targeting neighborhoods and properties with prevalence of negative public health outcomes related to lead, mold, and asbestos, including public housing.

The problems are not new. They require clear, dedicated, values-based leadership. Every DC resident is entitled to safe, stable, and secure housing, and I will continue to fight for that from day one as DC Council Chairwoman.

Employ clear, consistent, and non-discretionary standards for repairs for housing code violations to ensure safe housing

DCRA has consistently failed to use procedures that result in property owners fixing housing code violations (abatement), with less than 42% of housing code violations in FY2021 with confirmed repairs. And it has taken longer to confirm those repairs that do take place each year. In September 2018, the Office of the District of Columbia Auditor conducted an audit of DCRA’s housing code enforcement, noting that DCRA had no timelines and lax procedures to ensure repairs for housing code violations. The Auditor’s Office recommended timelines for repairs and re-inspection to confirm repairs took place. Neither the DC Council nor DCRA have solidified procedures and timelines for repairs to correct housing code violations, and residents have suffered as a result, with buildings falling into such disrepair that they become uninhabitable. The procedures and requirements for fixing housing code violations are murky and must be clarified and strengthened. In addition, DCRA must be equipped to quickly make repairs itself if property owners fail to do so. Otherwise, buildings will continue to fall into disrepair and become uninhabitable.

The Council can prioritize repairs to housing code violations, which both protects tenants and prevents properties from falling into disrepair due to persistent neglect, by:

  • Requiring DCRA to issue a Notice of Infraction for every housing code violation, as is their stated policy, to place all housing code violations within the enforcement process so that repairs are made and/or the property owner is fined;
  • As discussed in my DC Council Accountability Plan, re-instituting and making use of a comprehensive, nonpartisan, and objective research service for the Council to conduct a 50-state survey of best practices in regulatory enforcement to assure inspections and citations result in repairs of housing code violations;
  • Using the survey of best practices to codify enhancements to DCRA’s procedures regarding repairs for housing code violations, including: providing clear and consistent timelines for repairs that are tied to clear and consistent re-inspection requirements; mandating additional Notices of Infraction for failures to repair previous violations; and providing clear and consistent standards for repairs and mandating recordkeeping regarding the adequacy of repairs;
  • Providing additional funding for and codifying enhanced use of the Nuisance Abatement Fund to allow DCRA to aggressively fix housing code violations itself, particularly violations that affect the health and safety of tenants and repeat violations; and
  • Working strenuously in collaboration with the Office of the Attorney General for the District of Columbia to strengthen the Tenant Receivership Act and other efforts by the Attorney General to address chronic health and safety issues at rental properties.

Enforce housing code violations, including through meaningful fines, to deter violations and hold property owners accountable: Many property owners have either accepted fines as a cost of business or simply not paid them, knowing that enforcement is lacking. Most of DCRA’s fines have not increased since 2005 (except for inflation), while there is little data on when DCRA assesses the fines that have increased. Meaningful fines have the potential to deter housing code violations, but only if they are enforced. DCRA’s challenges with enforcement are well known and well documented. The District’s Office of the Inspector General issued a report in May 2019, finding that DCRA did not follow up on fines it assessed and could collect. DCRA would often refer fines to the District’s separate Central Collections Unit, which also failed to collect fines, costing the District approximately $6 million. This trend has continued, with DCRA having collected only about $70,000 of $10 million in fines levied in FY 2020.

The Council can ensure meaningful enforcement of housing code violations that deters violations and holds property owners accountable by:

  • Requesting the Office of the DC Auditor to conduct an audit regarding DCRA’s assessment of fines to determine how and when fines are assessed, including to what extent DCRA assesses more severe fines for flagrant, fraudulent, or willful violations that constitute an imminent danger to health or safety;
  • Increasing fines for housing code violations, including scaled fines for repeat violators, in consideration of nationwide best practices and to have maximum deterrent effect;
  • Requesting the Office of the DC Auditor to conduct an audit regarding DCRA’s fine enforcement and collection to best determine mechanisms to strengthen the agency so that it collects all fines possible, including: DCRA’s process and practice for dismissal and settlement of enforcement actions; DCRA’s own collection of fines; and DCRA’s practices for transferring fine collection to the District’s Central Collections Unit;
  • Using the DC Auditor’s report to strengthen DCRA’s enforcement and fine collection capabilities by: codifying practices regarding DCRA’s dismissal and settlement of enforcement actions; enhancing DCRA’s fine collection capabilities to prevent or make unnecessary the outsourcing of fine collection to DC’s Central Collections Unit; empowering the Office of the Attorney General to more frequently pursue unpaid fines through legal action; prohibiting the issuance of any permit to any entity or individual with more than $10,000 in unpaid fines; and requiring a “clean hands” certificate for government projects and funds, which makes any developer with outstanding and unresolved significant issues with DCRA ineligible for any government subsidy program, bid process, or government funding; and
  • Strengthening licensing requirements by revoking licenses from property owners who do not pay fines and requiring that property owners without a current basic business license can neither increase a tenant’s rent nor collect current rent as an additional deterrent to create a more effective enforcement structure and to ensure that property owners comply with the law.

Download the entire report as a formatted PDF.

Erin Palmer, seen here, is a Democrat running to be DC Council Chairwoman and is the first and only candidate to ever qualify for Fair Elections financing in a Council Chair race.

I’m Erin Palmer, a mom to three wonderful children, an ethics lawyer, and a dedicated public servant. I’m running to be DC Council Chairwoman to bring new energy and vision to the DC Council. I’ll bring my years of experience fighting for stronger ethics and greater transparency to the Wilson Building to ensure that our government serves all residents and makes DC stronger.

To learn more about Erin, visit www.erinfordc.com.

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Candidate for DC Council Chairwoman

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Erin Palmer

Erin Palmer

Candidate for DC Council Chairwoman

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