A number of D.C. agencies had been aware of safety violations at a Northwest building months before a fire ripped through the property this summer and killed two tenants, including a 9-year-old boy.
On Monday, the D.C. Council held a public hearing to probe those agencies on their failure to properly inspect and enforce building code standards at the residence.
“Collectively, our government failed,” said Council member Charles Allen, Ward 6 Democrat. “The outcome of the fire at 708 Kennedy St. represents multiple failures of multiple individuals, of multiple agencies within the District government.”
Ernest Chrappah has been the director of the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA), which conducts building inspections and enforces safety codes, since February. In his testimony before the council Monday, Mr. Chrappah said the lapses that allowed the Kennedy Street fire are inexcusable and he has implemented measures to improve processes in the agency.
But lawmakers and public witnesses sought more reforms in the aftermath of the Aug. 18 fire that killed Yafet Solomon, 9, and Fitsum Kebede, 40.
About five months before the blaze, a Metropolitan Police officer responding to a noise complaint at the building reported several safety concerns, including a lack of exit signs and working smoke detectors, untagged fire extinguishers and too many makeshift doors that would make it difficult for anyone to escape during a fire.
Officer Ernie Davis tried to initiate a number of bureaucratic processes that would have protected the tenants if they had been carried out properly. He notified DCRA and Fire and Emergency Medical Service (FEMS). Two months later, a DCRA business license regulator visited the building but did not go inside.
Ultimately, no investigator from DCRA or FEMS inspected the building for safety.
The public incident report said the property was licensed to be a pharmacy and an office space, but was not permitted to be used as a rental property.
Mr. Chrappah said Monday that his agency already has implemented more training and has strengthened standards of operating procedures, specifically for closing cases and responding to complaints. DCRA also has reopened a number of cases for reexamination, he said.
Housing activists and council members called for the agency to be more proactive in its enforcement.
DCRA “relies primarily only complaints which by definition comes after something bad has already happened,”said Chuck Elkins, an Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner for 3D01.
Mr. Elkins suggested that DCRA put placards in every rental unit to inform tenants of their rights and to create an escrow account for immediate maintenance in a unit.
Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, at-large Democrat, suggested the agency take advantage of other government databases like voter rolls or business licenses to look for discrepancies in the number of units listed at a property.
Elizabeth Falcon, executive director of DC Jobs with Justice, called this a racial and immigrant issue, as more people in vulnerable populations are more likely to be living in unsafe properties.
DCRA currently has 23 certified housing code inspectors and 60 residence inspectors for 120,000 rental units, Mr. Chrappah said.
Advocates at the hearing called for more inspections, one every four years per rental unit and one every two years for at-risk units.
Since the fire, two DCRA and two FEMS employees have been put on administrative leave, and the city administrator hired the Alvarez & Marsal law firm to review of the agencies’ role in preventing the fire.
The D.C. Council will hold a Dec. 10 hearing on the Department of Buildings Establishment Act of 2019, which will allot the responsibilities of DCRA with another agency.
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