- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Jeff Duncan has been pleading for two years with the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs to enforce its vacant-property laws.

Mr. Duncan, 46, the legislative director for Rep. Edward J. Markey, Massachusetts Democrat, lives next to the dilapidated property along the 2000 block of 37th Street NW.

It is the property that has come to be the eternal challenge of Mr. Duncan, his wife, neighbors, the DCRA and the Advisory Neighborhood Commission.

It is the property that aspires to be an environmental hazard and a potential squatters’ den of the stoop-sitting crowd along Wisconsin Avenue.

It is the property of bursting pipes, broken windows, collapsing gutters, accumulating trash, overgrown foliage and, at one point, a home to an opossum.

Mr. Duncan, of course, is unsympathetic to the dysfunction of the DCRA after paying good money on his home in 2001 and ever-escalating property taxes. Just do your job, DCRA, is what he says. How difficult is that? “This is not a complicated case,” Mr. Duncan said yesterday.

But this is the city, and nothing is ever easy or simple with a bureaucracy that functions at two speeds, slow and slower, if it functions at all, as Mr. Duncan has discovered.

So Mr. Duncan and his wife are left to live in fear of the unknown, of what could happen on the other side of the wall of their row house, of another burst pipe, of a natural gas leak that could lead to a fire or an explosion, of who knows what on a property that has been neglected since the tenants moved out three years ago.

This is Mr. Duncan’s tiny piece of the world, and what an upside-down world it is.

Mr. Duncan should not feel obligated to slip into a hazmat suit after returning home after a long day on Capitol Hill. He should not have to wonder what icky matter lurks next to him.

He should not have to place a zillion calls to the DCRA or seek the help of D.C. Council member Kathy Patterson, only to be led back into the tired arms of the inert DCRA.

He should not have to interpret the motivations of Barbara Hartmann, the Bethesda resident who owns the property.

His environmental nightmare should have been resolved a long time ago through the laws and regulations already on the books. His home should have been spared the specter of the unthinkable.

Mr. Duncan merely wants to feel safe in his home again. He merely wants to be free of the worry. He merely wants the DCRA to finally do its job after two years of torment. Is that too unreasonable? Does that qualify as too much pressure on the city’s bureaucrats?

As it is, the city has a peculiar attitude about private property. The city will seize viable property through the liberal application of eminent domain if it thinks the seizure would be helpful to its coffers.

But in Mr. Duncan’s case, the city won’t move on a vacant property that poses a potential threat to those sentenced to live next door to it.

Mr. Duncan’s hair-pulling ordeal with the DCRA has led to an obvious conclusion: Someone is falling down on the job.

“Lots of good people work there, and they are very helpful when I call. But on some level, I can only attribute the inaction to incompetence,” Mr. Duncan said.

Mr. Duncan received a letter from the DCRA last week after he attended an ANC meeting seeking the help of the commissioners. He suspects the letter was drafted in response to his decision to go public with his crucible.

“It should not take the city two years to enforce its own laws,” Mr. Duncan said.

Perhaps one of these years, if the city’s bureaucrats ever elect to end their coffee break, Mr. Duncan will be able to relax in his home after a day at work.

Until then, Mr. Duncan and his wife are consigned to live in dread in a place that should provide comfort.

“It is just a frustrating situation,” Mr. Duncan said.

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