Three months ago, I asked a simple question following a house fire that killed a 9-year-old boy: Who knew what all was going on inside the row house?
The answer was simple, too: D.C. police, fire and staff at the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA).
Now comes a new problem related to the fatal blaze: Civilian legal advocates want to “overhaul” DCRA and want tenants to become overseers.
Let’s first dispense with an “overhaul” of DCRA. The word overhaul — like another favorite of politicians, “comprehensive” — means overshadowing the real problem by distracting from the root cause.
In the case of the blaze that took Yafet Solomon’s life, the fact is that iron bars and locked doors prohibited residents from exiting and blocked first responders from entering the home on the day of the fire.
No one could get out and no one could get in.
What’s also a fact is that DCRA staff went to the home months earlier after being alerted by police that safety was amiss, but DCRA couldn’t gain access and failed to follow through.
So the first thing lawmakers and Mayor Muriel Bowser must do is tell DCRA employees to do their jobs.
Next, they should scour laws to ensure that DCRA, the agency chiefly responsible for dealing with those violations, inspects, investigates and enforces what’s already on the books. Then tighten laws as necessary.
Creating another layer of bureaucracy or oversight would muddy the process and is totally unnecessary. Besides, government never overhauls government.
D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine is likely best positioned to handle enforcement issues, as his office is politically independent of the council and the mayor. Indeed, three months after Yafet’s death, Mr. Racine’s office has a proven record with several successful civil cases against slumlords and repeat housing-code offenders.
It’s truly sad that the Aug. 18 blaze killed Yafet and an older resident, but splitting up the responsibilities of DCRA with other city agencies will not solve the problem — only splinter it and create additional red tape.
Staff with the Metropolitan Police Department alerted DCRA to unsafe problems at Yafet’s home. DCRA ignored the police, and if DCRA ignores the police, who else will they ignore?
Their brothers and sisters who would work at a new agency called the Department of Buildings, that’s who.
• Deborah Simmons can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.