Friday, August 22, 2008

T axpayers now see evidence that even in cases where the Fenty administration tries to institute bad policies, it is unprepared and incapable of following through with them.

In July, the city fired 18 housing inspectors and last week it fired seven construction inspectors for failing to get certified by the International Code Council - a membership association that develops the building codes used to construct residential and commercial buildings, including homes and schools. City authorities said such inspectors are needed for the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs’ mission to inspect, enforce and regulate housing, construction and related industries. Now, with the firings, the agency’s capacity to fulfill its responsibilities is limited.

Just last week we warned that Mayor Adrian Fenty plans to inspect and monitor the condition of private residences, exercising, as it will, a prerogative it bestows upon its bureaucrats to dictate the exterior and interior conditions of private residences, whether or not a complaint has been filed.

D.C. Attorney General Peter Nickles put things succinctly: “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.” This new mandate would also apply to both multi-unit residences as well as single-family homes.

The public has received no reasonable explanation as to why the city is invading private matters. And now, the city’s motives look even more dubious. Linda Argo, director of the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, promised to recruit better-trained workers and bring everyone up to the certification standards she wants and Mr. Fenty supports. But The Washington Post has reported that the two officials now have a real fight on their hands as the seven fired inspectors have filed union grievances indicating they were properly certified. They also said the code certification that Mrs. Argo required them to have is not applicable to the District. For her part, Mrs. Argo said she will hire temporary inspectors until she can begin a hard recruitment effort in October.

The problems at DCRA are longstanding and well-known among residents and businesses trying to get licenses and permits. This latest issue underscores the need for reforms.

Enforcement aimed at improving unsafe properties and targeting landowners who refuse to pay their taxes is fine - to a point. But the city has no business hassling homeowners. Moreover, given the shortage of bona fide and skilled inspectors and other workers, City Hall should reconsider whether DCRA is actually capable of fulfilling its current responsibilities before rewriting the agency’s mission.

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