As DCRA Splits, Mayor Bowser Appoints Leaders of New Agencies

DC’s Consumer and Regulatory Affairs Department, established in 1983, has over the years been tasked with a wide range responsibilities: issuing building permits and business licenses, inspecting housing code violation reports, and ensuring city buildings are up to code, to name a few.

But starting Saturday, after years of criticism from residents who said the department failed in some of its assigned tasks, the agency long known as DCRA will no longer exist. It is split into two separate entities: the Department of Buildings (DOB) and the Department of Licensing and Consumer Protection (DLCP); the first agency will focus on building inspections, zoning administration and code compliance, and the second will crack down on illegal businesses and issue licenses.

City lawmakers say the transition, which was approved by the DC Council following repeated protests by Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), will streamline services by dividing responsibilities between two smaller, more manageable agencies.

Late Friday afternoon, just hours before the transition was to become official, Bowser named current DCRA director Ernest Chrappah as acting director of the new DOB. Bowser selected current DCRA deputy director Shirley Kwan-Hui to lead DLCP on an interim basis until she appoints a permanent director. Chrappah’s appointment will need to be confirmed by the DC Council; by DC lawKwan-Hui’s acting appointment does not require confirmation, but can only be paid for 180 days unless she becomes Bowser’s nominee.

DC Council President Phil Mendelson (D), who lobbied for DCRA to break away and has been among its harshest critics over the years, immediately pushed back against Bowser’s choice to lead the DOB. In a statement late Friday, he praised Chrappah for his public service, but said Bowser had shown reluctance to make a fresh start with the new structure.

“The new Department of Buildings is a chance to be transformative. This is an opportunity to lead or promote an agent of change,” Mendelson said in the statement. “Merely moving to head the Department’s dysfunctional predecessor agency misses that chance.”

At DC Council oversight hearings and public forums in recent years, Chrappah has come under fire for some of the agency’s shortcomings. Dozens of residents have complained about DCRA’s problems properly regulating vacant and run-down buildings (costing the city millions in tax revenue) and a 2019 DC Inspector General’s report found that the agency did not always track or collect fines related to building code violations.

DC’s problems with vacant and run-down properties haven’t gone away, residents and officials say

These and other issues were part of the reason the DC Board in 2020 voted to separate the two agencies. In a memo at the time explaining his choice to veto the legislation, Bowser acknowledged that some people were unhappy with the DCRA, but accused the council of overlooking “meaningful progress over the years in improving processes and operations”.

Still, lawmakers voted unanimously to override his veto.

Because so many residents engage with DCRA, individual complaints run the gamut. At a hearing last week to discuss the city’s progress in establishing the DOB and DLCP, which combined will have a bigger staff and bigger budget that the former agency, several advocates expressed their hopes for a split and urged Mendelson to watch the transition closely.

“We believe this kind of ongoing monitoring is necessary to keep DOB on track,” said Christina Simpson, a Children’s Law Center attorney who works with families to get landlords to fix housing code violations that threaten children’s health.

Lawmakers are taking additional steps to strengthen the operations of the new agencies. Mendelson and DC Council Member Anita Bonds (D-At Large) introduced a bill in July that would require the Department of Buildings to establish a tiered “proactive inspection program,” which would require more inspections frequent older multi-family rental properties, in low-income areas or have a history of housing code violations or stop work orders. This would also include those whose owner has not paid property taxes in the past two years.

During the hearing, Chrappah noted that an explanation of the functions of the new agencies can be found on a dedicated page transition site. He also promised that companies and individuals who are currently in contact with the DCRA on licensing or permitting matters will not need to initiate new requests or re-enter information. He said the transition would be “smooth”.

Chrappah said he has filled 285 of the 379 positions available at the new agencies so far. He said his team was behind on recruiting, but said many workplaces were facing similar staffing issues.

“When these challenges are coupled with the splitting of one of the largest agencies in the district government, there is simply no getting around the fact that…we are likely looking at a few years of additional work beyond the immediate scope. of our legislative mandate,” he said. said. “We just ask for a little patience, as a transition of this magnitude usually takes a few years. We are on track to achieve this in 90 days.

In addition to his qualms about new agency leadership, Mendelson stressed the need for DOB and DLCP staff to have a clear sense of purpose and mission.

“There is a chance to rededicate employees to the mission of new agencies,” he said in an interview. “But will it happen?”

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