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DC Fire marshals catch illegal construction DCRA is missing

WUSA9 cameras caught illegal home construction in D.C. that neighbors and the council chairman blame on lack of DCRA inspections.

WASHINGTON — In January, WUSA9 cameras captured an entire crew of home renovators that were ordered to stop working on a house on A Street in Southeast D.C. Their violation? Working without permits displayed on the front window as required by D.C. law.

"Hey, my friend! You’ve got to come out or it's a $2,000 fine," DC Fire Marshal Niggora Moye said to a house full of workers. 

ANC member Denise Krepp said she only learned of improperly-covered wiring on her neighbor's house when DC Fire Marshals informed her of the extent of illegal construction happening next door. 

This stop-work order happened by chance, and the agency enforcing the law wasn't the one tasked with this responsible, D.C.'s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, or DCRA.

"DC Fire and EMS shouldn’t be doing that, that’s DCRA’s job, but they’re missing in action," Krepp said.

The fire marshals ordering construction to stop were actually dealing with a building collapse up the street when Krepp alerted them about illegal construction at other houses.In that same time, fire marshals also spotted other homes on the same block showing signs of being under construction but without posted permits.

The next week, WUSA9 walked through the neighborhood with DC Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, including a few blocks south on Burke Street, SE, where former ANC Member Francis Campbell complained about construction not displaying proper permits, a complaint he says he too reported to DCRA. 

Credit: Becca Knier
A home renovation worker ejected from a home on A St SE, DC by fire inspectors

"Typically when they find illegal work going on, they placard it with a stop-work order," Campbell explained to Mendelson during the neighborhood tour. "Never happened, despite the numerous emails, despite the numerous calls despite the numerous complaints." 

WUSA9 gave DCRA the addresses and neighborhood concerns about non-permitted work happening.

For the Burke Street address, DCRA says one of their inspections did catch “illegal construction.” Despite the agency citing building owners, neighbors report work continued until it was finished.

Credit: Becca Knier
Former ANC member Francis Campbell talks to DC Council chair Phil Mendelson and WUSA9's Nathan Baca

For that A Street house that WUSA9 spotted fire inspectors kicking out workers, DCRA says while it labeled the house as vacant, no further inspections were made despite neighbors claiming repeated complaints.

An agency spokesperson also admitted its public database was out of date when WUSA9 brought up that it was missing inspection reports on some addresses.

Credit: Becca Knier
ANC Member Denise Krepp outside her A St SE, DC home January 2022

"What we are doing, is we’re breaking up the department," Mendelson said when asked what the Council can do to fix the issue. "There will be a new department of buildings which will have a narrow focus.”

That agency split comes after a three-year investigation by WUSA9’s Delia Goncalves exposed flaws in its building inspections and permitting.

Credit: Becca Knier
DC Fire Marshals inspect illegal construction on A St SE, January 2022.

Mayor Muriel Bowser is required by D.C. law to split the agency and tells the council her budget, scheduled to be released Wednesday, will figure out how to pay for it. 

For D.C. residents, budgets and agency control appear to matter less than the feeling that lack of housing inspections can put families in danger.

“Literally the fire marshal just told me the house next to me from where I live with my two children and husband is unsafe," Krepp said. "Yeah. I’m a little angry right now. Just a little angry." 

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