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Mayor Adrian Fenty admits that the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs is one of the District’s most dysfunctional agencies, but his administration has done little to improve the toothless enforcement system against landlords who rack up hundreds of repeat housing code violations. Many tenants and their children still live in substandard housing in the District and face serious, potentially life-threatening housing conditions that violate D.C. laws and regulations. The DCRA rarely issues fines against landlords for repeat violations and usually doesn’t collect fines even when they are issued, costing the District millions of dollars in uncollected revenue. DCRA officials also frequently grant continuances that delay needed repairs, and they sometimes sign off on violations as being abated when tenants are still experiencing problems, as the case of Dahlgreen Courts illustrates. Since October, inspectors have issued more than 500 housing code violations — including at least 65 violations considered emergencies — at the 90-unit apartment complex of two red-brick buildings on 10th Street Northeast in Brookland. The violations included roach and rodent infestations, defective apartment door locks, damp and cracked ceilings and walls, defective electrical outlets, and missing smoke detectors. Other violations were filed for failure to install fire-rated doors in some common areas, failure to install proper locks on exit doors, and failure to remove trash within a week. Inspectors filed notices of “potential fines” totaling more than $100,000, but the DCRA never issued a single fine against Willis Limited Partnership, the owner of Dahlgreen Courts, or property management company CIH Properties. “They haven’t reached that level yet,” says Nick Majett, DCRA deputy director for inspections and compliance. Last week, Majett claimed that all of the hundreds of violations have been abated at Dahlgreen Courts. Try telling that to Leon Lightfoot Jr., vice president of the Dahlgreen Courts Tenants Association, who has lived in the complex since 1999. “That is a straight-up lie. I’m shocked to hear they are saying that,” Lightfoot said last week. “Some of the tenants are having the same problems.” Several D.C. Council members and legal-aid groups complain that the DCRA usually sides with landlords, even though the agency is charged with protecting the health and safety of tenants. “It is completely antithetical to their mission and what their job is supposed to be,” says Julie Becker, senior staff attorney at the D.C. Legal Aid Society. Michael Huke, chairman and CEO of CIH Properties, says all of the issued violations at Dahlgreen Courts were abated “in a timely manner,” and Willis Limited is “dedicated to making needed repairs.” “What we have here is a small group of residents who are trying to create as much controversy as possible,” Huke says. VIOLATIONS STILL EXIST A Legal Times reporter who toured Dahlgreen Courts last week with Lightfoot saw a laundry list of maintenance problems and possible housing code violations that still haven’t been addressed. That list includes broken apartment windows, burned-out exterior floodlights, security bars bent back from a ground-floor window, corroded pipes with frayed insulation, and standing water around a support column in a laundry room. A smell of sewage was evident in the basement at 2520 10th St. N.E. Lightfoot pointed to two holes scarring the lobby floor, which he said came from a shootout several years ago when one man was injured and another killed inside the building. Although drug activity has decreased, drug dealers still have access to the building because the lock on the front door uses standard keys that can be copied anywhere, Lightfoot says. The doorknob at the main entrance rattled loosely when it was shaken. Lightfoot, who works as a mover, says there has been a sewage smell in his apartment, “like someone took a bowel movement and left it there,” for the past three weeks, which he complained about to management. He says he heard similar complaints from a tenant in a different part of the building, but he was told by a maintenance worker that the smell stemmed from an unsanitary apartment above his unit. “It could be something dangerous to our health. I have a little 8-year-old son in there,” he says. “I need to know what it is.” Huke says he doesn’t know of any sewage problems in either building and also blamed the smell on the single unsanitary unit. Last November, Dahlgreen Courts was cited for unsanitary conditions caused by open sewer and drain lines that hadn’t been capped and for defective water pipes. Huke says he wasn’t aware of the maintenance problems observed by Legal Times, but he says he instructed the building manager to make any needed repairs. “This is just ordinary, run-of-the-mill stuff,” Huke says. Last October, the complex was cited for rotted floors in at least two apartments. The same problem led to a $4 million lawsuit being filed last year in D.C. Superior Court against Willis Limited by a former tenant. In the suit, Charles Smith claims he tripped on a rotted section of his apartment floor, which he had complained about to management. Smith, who has “physical and emotional handicaps stemming from his experiences in Vietnam,” suffered “a cervical fracture that left him a quadriplegic” from the fall in 2003, the suit claims. CIH Properties was dropped as a defendant in the suit because H.G. Smithy Co. was the property manager at Dahlgreen Courts at the time of the injury; CIH took over in 2004. Representatives of Willis Limited and an attorney defending Willis Limited and H.G. Smithy didn’t respond to requests for comment. In 2002, Willis Limited and H.G. Smithy settled another suit for $5,000 after a young boy suffered first- and second-degree burns on his face and body. Although they denied negligence, the defendants admitted that the boy “was burned by hot steam coming from a radiator” in his mother’s apartment at Dahlgreen Courts, according to the settlement agreement. �WORD OF MOUTH’ Dahlgreen Courts was the first housing code case reviewed this year by the D.C. Attorney General’s Office for possible criminal prosecution of officials from Willis Limited or CIH Properties. But that case was closed with no charges filed, based on the DCRA’s claims that the violations have been abated. “Based upon those results, we didn’t think a slumlord case was warranted,” Deputy Attorney General David Rubenstein said last week, adding that the case could be reopened if future DCRA inspections reveal more violations. Lightfoot says the Attorney General’s Office should conduct its own criminal investigation, instead of simply relying on claims made by the DCRA about the abatement of the violations. “I don’t think that’s fair at all,” he says. “You’re taking the word of mouth of someone without doing your own investigation.” After being contacted by Legal Times about the ongoing housing code violations, the DCRA and the Attorney General’s Office issued a joint statement late last week saying the case had been reopened. DCRA inspectors and attorneys from the Attorney General’s Office will be sent to “inspect Dahlgreen Courts to determine whether previous violations remain unabated” and to see if “any new violations exist.” “Though we recognize historic weaknesses in this area, we bring a new commitment to working across government to move aggressively on cases where the facts and evidence bear out illegal conduct,” the statement says. In a city with more than 100,000 apartment units, D.C. Attorney General Linda Singer hasn’t filed a single slumlord case since she was appointed by Fenty in January, even though she says housing enforcement is “a very high priority for this office.” Since 2001, the Attorney General’s Office has filed charges against only four landlords for repeat housing code violations, resulting in fines or probation but no jail time for a few landlords in Northeast or Northwest Washington. During the past six years, no criminal slumlord cases have been filed in Southeast or Southwest Washington, where many poor tenants live in substandard housing and cannot afford to move. Becker of the D.C. Legal Aid Society says landlords know they can violate housing code laws without having to fear any fines or criminal charges. “�No teeth’ is exactly the way to put it,” she says. “The work really needs to be in the enforcement section, and it’s beyond me why they can’t get that done either on the civil or criminal end.” Rubenstein says he asked the DCRA to forward other serious slumlord cases for possible criminal prosecution, but DCRA officials sent only a few minor cases where violations already had been abated, including one property that was vacant. The Attorney General’s Office is now investigating some other slumlord cases based on complaints received by the office from tenants in other buildings, rather than just waiting for more referrals from the DCRA, Rubenstein says. Huke at CIH Properties says he was never worried about the attorney general investigating Dahlgreen Courts. “I would be shocked if anything came out of that. It would be completely without merit,” he says. “We won’t lose any sleep over it.” �LIKE THE SCHOOLS WITHOUT KIDS’ Fenty has been one of the harshest critics of the DCRA, but the mayor has made some contradictory decisions, specifically with his appointment of Linda Argo as permanent director of the department. In an April 10 article in The Examiner, Fenty called the DCRA “an agency that across the board is managed, administered and structured substandard” and “really is like the [D.C.] schools without kids.” The mayor said that “in DCRA, we don’t think we can hire somebody from within” as the permanent director. Lisa Morgan, whom Fenty had appointed in January as interim director of the DCRA, resigned one day after the Examiner article was published. But Fenty then acted against his own advice and appointed Argo, the DCRA’s deputy director for the past two years, as interim director in April and as permanent director last month, apparently without conducting a nationwide search for a new director, which he had promised to do. Argo’s appointment still must be confirmed by the D.C. Council. Carrie Brooks, Fenty’s communications director, repeatedly refused requests from Legal Times for an interview with Fenty. The mayor also didn’t return calls to his cell phone seeking comment. D.C. Council Chairman Vincent Gray, other council members, and many of Fenty’s former supporters have criticized Fenty for his secrecy in making key appointments and then requesting large raises for several of them at the last minute. After apparently consulting only his close circle of advisers, Fenty made surprise appointments of Argo, Singer, Metropolitan Police Department Chief Cathy Lanier, and D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee. Argo, who earns $142,500 a year, says Fenty “thought I had the right combination of skills” to be the permanent director of the DCRA, but she doesn’t know why he changed his mind about not appointing someone from within the DCRA. After her two-year tenure as deputy director, Argo says she is familiar with DCRA operations, but she hasn’t been there so long as to be affected by the department’s “culture of unproductivity.” “We have the authority and we have the enforcement tools we need,” she says. “We just need to do a better job of employing those tools and employing them tactically and aggressively.” The DCRA still rarely issues fines for repeat housing code violations, which bothers D.C. Council member Mary Cheh, who chairs the Committee on Consumer and Regulatory Affairs that oversees the DCRA. “That seems to be where they drop the ball,” she says. “It’s like a guy who keeps getting tickets, but he never gets booted and they just pile up in the glove compartment.” Cheh says she began meeting with Argo every week while she was interim director to discuss issues at the DCRA, which needs “management and supervision and personnel dedicated to specific tasks” to help end its history of instability. The DCRA still can’t track the total amount of housing code fines. A D.C. inspector general report last August found that the DCRA is owed more than $8.8 million in uncollected fines and penalties from more than 22,000 violation cases, but the department has “no cohesive, agencywide process” to collect outstanding fines. An internal audit is under way at the DCRA to determine whether any of those fines can be collected now. Argo says a new $3.5 million computer management system will help fix that problem by consolidating 50 databases into nine connected systems to track inspections, code violations, fines, zoning, licensing, and permitting. The system will be deployed in stages beginning next year. Vaughn Bennett, president of the Dahlgreen Courts Tenants Association, testified before Cheh’s committee in March about the hundreds of housing code violations. “The conditions of our buildings did not decay overnight; it has taken years of intentional neglect by our slumlord,” he said, according to a written copy of his testimony. D.C. Council member Jim Graham — a longtime tenants’ advocate who has publicly attacked slumlords — says the DCRA is still “an agency, in many ways, that is adrift.” He says he hopes the Attorney General’s Office will step up criminal prosecutions. “Without a new sense of aggressiveness to all of this, you know, I don’t know where it’s going to lead, frankly,” he says. “These slumlords seem to know where the best lawyers are. They are very good at what they do, and our lawyers seem to be outflanked very often.” Graham, who also is a lawyer, believes D.C. Superior Court judges who heard previous criminal slumlord cases “fundamentally misunderstood the law.” “You’ve got judges who view these landlord-tenant issues as essentially economic disputes, even though they are housing code crimes,” Graham says. TENANTS’ BATTLE CONTINUES At Dahlgreen Courts, the battle between the tenants and management has spilled over into local courts. Lightfoot says he is paying his $684 monthly rent into an escrow account at D.C. Landlord Tenant Court because he is requesting a rent reduction for the housing violations, which is an aspect of D.C. tenant law. Thirty tenants filed a complaint with the DCRA last November seeking a 75 percent rent reduction because of the ongoing violations, which was referred to the D.C. Office of Administrative Hearings. With pro bono help from Hogan & Hartson, the tenants association will file an amended complaint next month before discovery starts in the appeal. Bart Aronson, a partner at Hogan & Hartson, says he doesn’t know yet how much of a rent reduction will be requested in the appeal, but he says the housing code violations must be abated because tenants have “had to pay for an environment that is not safe, not decent, and not habitable.” Timothy Cole, an attorney for CIH Properties, sent a letter to the tenants at Dahlgreen Courts threatening legal action if anyone withheld rent. He didn’t mention the tenants’ right to withhold rent for repeat housing code violations. Lightfoot says the letter “made a lot of tenants afraid,” but the tenants association isn’t backing down on its demands for rent reductions and an abatement of all of the housing code violations. “The problems are still going on with some of the tenants. Something has to be done about these people,” he says about CIH Properties and Willis Limited. “They saw we weren’t playing about getting these things done.”
Brendan Smith can be contacted at [email protected].

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