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Time to Hold DC Officials to Account for Fire Deaths

On September 3rd, the District Links on-line blog published in it’s The DC Line daily news summaries, a report headlined “67 CASES REOPENED – Dept. of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs chief revisits 67 housing inspection cases after deadly fire at illegal rental. Continuing, it quoted NBC4’s Mark Segraves:

“Officials have said the fatal Aug. 18 blaze at a house on Kennedy Street NW could have been avoided. Four employees with D.C. Fire and the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) are on leave pending investigations into why they failed to take action after they were told by police that people were living in unsafe conditions inside the house five months before the fire.

“As part of that investigation, DCRA Director Ernest Chrappah has ordered 67 closed cases to be reopened. He said that number will likely grow. ‘We started our scope initially with 67,’ Chrappah said. ‘Based off our findings and internal review, we will likely go deeper.’ [NBC4].” Initially, as we read this our reaction was, like with so many reports over the years of DC departments and agencies messing up, “uh huh, here we go again!”

But then we decided to check out the Washington Post and see if we had missed anything of local importance during the long Labor Day weekend when we were somewhat disconnected from the news —  and we sure did!

Leading off the Post’s August 31st local bombshell story by crack reporters Peter Hermann and Peter Jamison, “D.C. housing investigator under scrutiny after officials say another rooming house case mishandled,” was this startling revelation:

“The same housing investigator who failed to act after a police officer flagged a possible illegal rooming house in Northwest Washington where two tenants were killed in a fire Aug. 18 also mishandled a similar warning the same officer made about another house in March, officials said.”

That opener truly jump-started our adrenalin; clearly, there was more to this than the usual bureaucratic sloppiness DC taxpayers long ago became inured to; this was more than incompetence – it bordered on criminal negligence – or worse. The following excerpts from that Post news story is instructive:

“Inspectors from the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA), which enforces building codes, and officials from the police and fire departments are now reviewing the cases that had been closed by the investigator, who is on leave after failing to follow through on an urgent email received in March about a rooming house on Kennedy Street NW.

“The revelation of a second mishandled case could intensify scrutiny of the agency, which is already under attack for the approach it took with the Kennedy Street property. It also highlights questions about how many similar illegal dwellings exist in the District, where a severe lack of affordable housing has left many desperate for low-cost living options. DCRA Director Ernest Chrappah said Saturday that he did not know and would not speculate on how widespread such problems are.

“Chrappah said that the house was among 67 cases dating to December that had been closed but are now under review. He said additional problems could be found as the review continues.

“Chrappah, who took over the sprawling agency in November, said he is committed to a ‘transformational change,’ but he cautioned it will take time.

“‘That’s in no way an excuse for the failure that occurred in this instance,’ he said in a statement. ‘If anything, these failures underscore why the fundamental changes we’re making are so critically needed.’

“The investigator who officials say mishandled the complaints for the Kennedy Street house that caught fire as well as the house on 14th Street has been placed on leave along with another employee at the regulatory agency and two inspectors with the fire department. Those employees have not been identified.”

Regular readers of our publication may recall that two-and-a-half years ago we published a straight-forward news story revealing serious problems with operations within DCRA. Four months later in this space we asked if that year — 2017–  would be the year that DCRA “finally shapes up?

In thinking back to what inspired our question, it seems that it was the final paragraph in the January 2017 news story in which our reporter quoted then Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development Joaquin McPeek as stating that there would be “new programs in 2017 aimed at improving DCRA and raising its level of customer service to all DC residents.” And that is why we concluded our commentary with our own promise: “We will hold Mayor Bowser to that promise.”

Unfortunately, in our view — and of so many business and property owners, ordinary residents having interaction with one of its agencies — things do not seem to have improved nearly three years later, Of course we will give the new director a chance to deliver on his, as well as the Mayor’s 2017, promise. But we are not holding our breath,

However, this time there is greater urgency than ever because now we are not confronted with simply bureaucratic annoyances; we are more than anything else, confronted with a bureaucracy complacencent about life-threatening and life-taking occurrence (despite statements of concern to the contrary) — all due to total lack of effort to prevent these deaths. Surely, as reported, mere suspension is an inadequate response; those employees should have been fired — if not criminally prosecuted. This time the Mayor must get serious and demand results, and the members of the Council also need to demand results.