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Can DCRA be Fixed?

In its November 18th story headlined “Changes sought after D.C. agencies failed to act on complaint of illegal rooming house,” the Washington Post reported that among others testifying at a city council oversight hearing that Monday, the witness speaking on behalf of the DC Tenants Union offered this stark assessment: “The DC government might as well have set that fire.” It was the failure of the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) to address long- known dangerous conditions at that illegal rooming house where a devasting fire took the lives of two residents that sparked this most recent outpouring of condemnation directed DCRA’s enforcement failures and perceived overall incompetence at all levels and pervasive throughout that massive bureaucracy and seemingly all of its diverse separate agencies and offices.

As the witness for the Children’s Law Center basically summed up the problem, DCRA  “is too broken to repair itself.”

Those witnesses were not stating something that was not already long-recognized by almost everyone who has had the misfortune of having to interact with DCRA, as we reported two years ago. And it hasn’t been just citizen-supplicants attempting to receive help, but also at the District Building when in 2017 At-Large Councilmember Robert C. White, Jr. issued his own assessment (which was the subject of our own commentary)<> in 2018 when council Chairman Phil Mendelson introduced a bill by which DCRA would be completely overhauled –- actually split into two separate entities.

With that bill, “Buildings Establishment Act,” having recently been re-introduced with now seven co-sponsors (there was not time to proceed with it during the prervious council session), Chairman Mendelson issued the following statement: “After a year of oversight hearings, it has become abundantly clear that DCRA is an agency in need of major change. DCRA needs to do a better job -– for both residents and businesses. I believe breaking up and reorganizing the agency is the best way.”

Now, although we are not 100% on board with the idea that breaking up DCRA into two separate departments will solve the problems Can we be confident that the endemic bureaucratic inertia and too-frequent incompetence and indifference that pervades DCRA will magically be relegated to a bad memory as a consequence of splitting the huge monster into two smaller ones? Also, what will surely result iwill be the need to find large sums of new funding to support two separate teams of top level executives –- directors, deputy directors, assistant directors, assistants to the deputies, division chiefs, etc. –- raises red flags with us.

We are not saying the idea is a bad one, only that it will require a full analysis and informed discussion. Here’s how Chairman Mendelson summarizes the new landscape, as it were:

“The bill re-designates the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs as the Department of Licensing and Consumer Protection (DLCP). The DLCP will retain functions and duties related  to business licensing, regulatory investigations, consumer protection, and small business resources.

“The bill establishes a new agency focused on the oversight of construction compliance, rental housing safety, and residential property maintenance activities in the District — the Department of Buildings (DOB).  <>    Permitting, inspection, and enforcement of the construction/building, zoning, and residential housing codes are among the duties that will be transferred to this new agency.”

One aspect of tjhis – and it’s definitel major – is the creation of that proposed separate DOB. Chairman Mendelson, quite frankly, does cogently and convincingly state his case:

The goal of this legislation is to create a new agency that will have a more robust focus on code enforcement, clearer consistent application of policies and standards, and more responsive culture of customer service. Bill 22-669 establishes the Department of Buildings (DOB) – which is expected, but not limited to: running the permitting center, reviewing design plans, inspecting construction sites, issuing certification of occupancies, interpreting zoning rules, citing code violations, and assessing and levying fines.

Currently, this DCRA has not demonstrated the ability to effectively oversee licensed trade work, ensure the integrity and safety of built structures, and the property maintenance of residential properties, while also issuing licenses for food trucks, investigating retailers for illicit sales, and inspecting gas pumps. By spinning-off the construction and property maintenance functions from DCRA to the new Department of Buildings, the District can have an agency that will be less distracted by a long list of vaguely interconnected responsibilities and finally have the capacity to focus on one mission: To ensure the safety and habitability of structural buildings in the District.