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'Take our concerns seriously': DC Neighbors complained of vacant property months before deadly fire

The Department of Buildings visited the property in October and said it didn't meet the criteria of "vacant property."

WASHINGTON D.C., DC — Some neighbors in the District said one of their worst fears came to light early Wednesday morning. 

A man was killed in a fire that tore through a vacant building in Northeast. Several residents told WUSA9 they've been warning District leaders about that unsafe property for months.

The fire happened just before 4:30 a.m. A man lost his life inside the burning building at 842 20th St., Northeast. The fire was so intense 100 firefighters were called to contain the flames that spread to nearby apartment buildings. According to DC FEMS, three properties were damaged; two of them were vacant.

“I’m frustrated because this was extraordinarily foreseeable,” said Ian Moss who lives four doors down from the fire. “Just three weeks ago, neighbors wrote the owners of the very building that caught fire and expressed in bold a real concern that the building remains unsecure.”

Moss shared that email with WUSA9. Residents asked the owner to secure the building: “There have been for months now vagrants that have been living in your buildings."

In the daylight hours, firefighters returned to the neighborhood and went door to door. While they were talking to neighbors, WUSA9 talked to Ernest Chrappah the acting director of the new Department of Buildings (DOB).

“We want to make sure we do everything we can to enhance the quality of life and protect the safety of residents,” Chrappah told reporters.

Chrappah said after complaints from residents, inspectors visited the properties. The agency started the process of deeming one of the damaged buildings as vacant, but the building where the fire started was not flagged.

“Back in October [when inspectors visited], there was an individual identified in the building, so it didn't meet the threshold initially to be classified as vacant," Chrappah explained. “From the inspection records and from what I understand so far, the property appeared secured. If you look at the building now there appears to be signs of forceable entry, so a lot has transpired from October to now.”

“Director Chrappah ignores repeated emails and fails to engage with the public,” said Moss.  

Moss testified before the DC Council in March about the vacant properties on 20th Street. He said since being classified as an "opportunity zone," the area has attracted lots of developers – some, he believes, with no desire to be good neighbors.

In March, Moss testified asking the council, “Why is that developer like those next to me can avoid consequences by setting up new LLCs with clean records?”

WUSA9 reached out to the property owner Adam Lobene who operates under the company name, 836 18th street, LLC. We are still waiting for a response. According to DOB, Lobene purchased both properties damaged by the fire about eight months ago.

As investigators look into the cause of the fire, the DOB and the Fire Marshal posted signs on the building now deeming it "blighted" and a “danger to firefighters." 

It’s a danger residents said they tried warning District leaders about months before it took someone’s life.

Moss said, “Take our concerns seriously; don't tell us to reach out with concerns only to have them never to respond.”

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