Nearly two months ago, Mayor Adrian Fenty announced what he deemed “sweeping changes in how the District will track and monitor the condition of residential properties.” Said Linda K. Argo, director of the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs:
“We can no longer wait for someone to lodge a complaint before we intervene. Too many tenants are suffering in silence because of fear or financial difficulties. We want to get inside these properties on a regular basis to ensure properties are well maintained and remain in good condition.” Attorney General Peter J. Nickles said the city will level criminal and civil actions against landowners. “We have very strict laws to protect tenants in the District of Columbia,” Mr. Nickles said, “and we intend to exhaust all legal options to enforce them.” Another priority is to work with the D.C. Council “to eliminate burdensome legal hurdles.”
Now, take our advice and re-read those quotes, because those aren’t mere words strung together. What the mayor and his people are telling us in plain-spoken language is that, without benefit of complaint, the D.C. government “will track and monitor the conditions” of your home and, having eliminated “burdensome legal hurdles,” exercise a prerogative it bestows upon its bureaucrats to dictate the exterior and interior conditions of your home.
The paradox herein remains unannounced, though. That’s because not only will the city use your tax dollars to “track and monitor the conditions” of your property, but it will also use your tax dollars to make any repairs it deems necessary.
Here’s how the repair-fund works in theory and in practice. The city determines that the roof, broken windows, busted waterpipes, overgrown lawn, dead trees and broken knobs and doorlocks need repair. So the city hires a contractor to determine the costs, the contractor does the work and the city - that’s you - pays the contractor from the D.C. repair fund, which is handled by Mrs. Argo’s agency, DCRA. That’s the essence of the good-government policy Mr. Fenty and his people were talking about (and which The Washington Post has been reporting in a series of articles). In practice, however, the repair-fund program is mismanaged overreach.
The Post, in a news story yesterday, called the fund “a crucial piece of the city’s efforts to protect renters in rotting buildings.” That’s a stretch if ever there were one. In fact, the DCRA is neither a landlord-tenant agency nor a tenant-landlord agency. The DCRA Web site spells out the agency’s parameters: “The mission of theDepartment of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs is to protect the health, safety, economic interests, and quality of life of residents, businesses, and visitors in the District of Columbia by issuing licenses and permits, conducting inspections, enforcing building, housing, and safety codes, regulating land use and development, and providing consumer education and advocacy services.”
The mayor and his people have no business trying to corral an agency into being responsibile for hiring Mr. Plumber and Jane Doe Roofing Co. As things stand, DCRA doesn’t even have the capacity to effectively and efficiently carry out its admitted mission.
One would think the mayor wouldn’t make the same mistake twice over. The mayor misstepped earlier this year, when he was going to permit the police chief to allow officers to enter private residences - without benefit of the homeowner’s permission - in search of guns, drugs and any other illegal thing their eyes fell upon. The mayor saw the errors in the policy and pulled back.
Likewise, the repair-fund has spun out of control. The Post goes as far as to report the program isn’t even helping so much the very people it was intended to help. With the council on summer recess, some lawmakers are itching to ensure the repair-fund money is spent effectively. The mayor should give his people and the other occupants of City Hall an imperative: Strengthen DCRA to carry out its mission and use the proceeds from the fines and levies to fund the repair-fund coffers. That way, Mr. Nickles will still have his days in court, and Mrs. Argo will be positioned to prove her mettle as a reformer. The mayor and council, meanwhile, will find other issues - say, school reform, sports stadia or economic development - on which they can continue to disagree.