DCRA Officials Address ANC6B Resident Concerns on Construction/Home Business Violations, etc.
by Larry Janezich
Tuesday, night, ANC6B’s Constituent Services Task Force, co-chaired by Commissioners Jennifer Samolyk and Diane Hoskins, sponsored a community meeting to hear the top brass from the city’s Department of Consumer Affairs (DCRA) address resident concerns on a number of issues under their jurisdiction.
DCRA issues building permits, certificates of occupancy and home occupation, basic business licenses, and inspects for illegal construction. The meeting had been scheduled before CM Charles Allen’s pointed comments on the need for improvement in the agency last week (see below).
Included in the issues raised by residents were difficulty reporting construction work before or after permissible hours (7:00am – 7:00pm, Monday through Saturday) because the violation has stopped by the time an inspector can be summoned; DCRA inspectors not responding to complaints; and work being done beyond what the permit allows.
The DCRA officials did not offer a remedy to address concerns regarding before and after hours construction work other than to say there is supposed to be follow-up from inspectors when no one is in the office since inspectors are “pinged” (not clear what that means) when a call comes in. Director Melinda Bolling said she should be notified personally if inspectors do not show up in response to a complaint. With respect to work being done outside the permit, Bolling said that as of six weeks ago, additional details on the scope of the permit have been provided – that prior to that time, a portion of what the permit covers was regarded as sufficient information for posting.
Another issue common to several residents was the failure of the city to notify residents of construction in our neighborhoods. Matt Le Grange, DCRA Zoning Administrator, said that most of the 4,000 building permit applications DCRA receives annually are for work being done as a matter of right and there is no requirement for notification. The Construction Code provides residents must be notified if construction affects their property’s underpinning or party wall but if there is none, the law does not require notification.
In the Historic District, until recently (see below) the Historic Preservation Review Board is not required to notify neighbors, but that responsibility still falls mainly to the individual resident who must follow the HPRB agenda or the ANC Planning and Zoning Committee agenda as posted organization websites.
According to ANC6B Planning and Zoning Committee chair Nick Burger who was present, the advance notification by Bureau of Zoning Administration of neighbors within 200 feet of an application for a zoning change works well, and that as of this month, the HPRB notifies adjacent neighbors of Historic Preservation Applications.
On another matter, one resident explained at length a hazardous post-raze issue on a property adjacent to his home and presented a strong case for the need for a post-raze inspection by DCRA. Bolling said she would take the recommendation to the Construction Code Coordination Board.
Several residents of New Jersey Avenue, SE, raised the issue of businesses operating illegally out of residences. Le Grant said that residents are allowed to use a portion of their home for businesses purposes after obtaining a Home Occupation Permit (HOP) and a business license. He said the HOP application is very detailed and if an individual resident meets the standards, they are allowed to operate a business out of their residence. (Residents say that there are cases where DCRA inspectors give a building owner the benefit of the doubt over the evidence to the contrary offered by neighbors that a townhome is being used as a residence).
Regarding instances where lobbyists and nonprofit organizations are using residences as office space, a complaint will result in an investigation to determine that the owner has a HOP and is in compliance. Timothy Handy of DCRA’s Event Houses Regulatory Section says that DCRA can revoke a HPO. Once a complaint is filed the investigation could take 60 to 90 days but many factors could extend that.
Bolling said in response to neighbors’ complaints about townhouses on New Jersey Avenue being used as event venues, that it is a challenge to discern between residences where fundraising occasionally occurs and residential buildings which are used primarily for fundraising events. She said that the most important evidence that can be offered in support of a complaint which results in a hearing before an administrative law judge is personal testimony of nearby neighbors – “That’s what wins cases, the willingness to participate in a hearing.”
Regarding concerns about Air B&B operations, Bolling said that the current “non-policy policy while we’re working on a policy” means that residents can “get away with” using a part of their homes for a short term rental as long as the tenants don’t cause problems – in the latter case, DCRA treats it as an impermissible rental. A prohibition on short term rentals for apartment buildings is easier to enforce.
The willingness of the agency’s top brass to turn out to listen to residents’ reflects an apparent concern which is somewhat at odds with actual DCRA operations which resident’s deal with on a day to day basis. The latter point was driven home by Councilmember Charles Allen, who told a Capitol Hill community meeting last week that DCRA is the “one agency which has caused us the biggest problems and has the most improvements to make” and “that the agency needs a top to bottom shakeup.” Allen said that too often DCRA thinks that their customer is the permit applicant, and he has to remind them that it’s the Department of Consumer Affairs.