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D.C. buildings department touts illegal construction ‘blitz’ in Northwest

The agency says it recently dealt out more than 20 stop-work orders

D.C. rowhouses
Jon Bilous/Shutterstock

The District agency responsible for inspecting developments for safety and code issues says it has dealt out more than 20 stop-work orders this summer at buildings in Northwest as part of a new “blitz” against illegal construction that will last through the fall.

On Thursday, the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) revealed that it recently conducted inspections along unspecified routes in Ward 1, a municipal area that includes Columbia Heights, Park View, and other Northwest neighborhoods. DCRA says it selected the routes “in part by analyzing historical data for postcard permits issued and [stop-work orders] posted since October 2016.”

Stop-work orders require developers and contractors to halt construction on projects that DCRA determines have run afoul of necessary permitting or regulations on proper building practices. The orders result in citations and potential fines that can grow into the hundreds or thousands of dollars, although these are often appealed and can be overturned.

According to data that DCRA provided to Curbed DC, the agency issued stop-work orders at 23 properties in Ward 1, with potential fines for the underlying infractions totaling almost $116,000. The potential fines ranged from $509 to $12,204 per property.

DCRA Illegal Construction Blitz Properties

Address Potential Fine
Address Potential Fine
3550 ROCK CREEK CHURCH RD NW $5,086.00
3536 NEW HAMPSHIRE AVE NW $5,086.00
1025 LAMONT ST NW $4,068.00
625 PARK RD NW $4,068.00
1027 LAMONT ST NW $4,068.00
3453 HOLMEAD PL NW $4,068.00
549 PARK RD NW $9,154.00
640 NEWTON PL NW $4,068.00
638 NEWTON PL NW $4,068.00
624 IRVING ST NW $12,204.00
3112 WARDER ST NW $10,170.00
514 COLUMBIA RD NW $4,068.00
3003 GEORGIA AVE NW $4,068.00
518 COLUMBIA RD NW $4,068.00
1424 BELMONT ST NW $1,018.00
911 T ST NW $509.00
630 KEEFER PL NW $4,577.00
2615 UNIVERSITY PL NW $5,086.00
1409 LONGFELLOW ST NW $12,204.00
1321 SPRING ST NW $509.00
1711 KENYON ST NW $5,086.00
609 KEEFER PL NW $4,068.00
727 QUEBEC PL NW $4,577.00
TOTAL $115,946.00

In a news release, DCRA Director Melinda Bolling called the effort a “proactive tactic [that] will help us ensure that the work being done is legal, safe and within the scope of a permit.”

She adds in a statement to Curbed DC that this is the agency’s first dedicated blitz against illegal construction, and that DCRA was motivated by “customer feedback and data on stop work orders.” Bolling says that “about six to eight teams” of usually two inspectors each can participate in a blitz, but the precise staffing depends on the size of the area being covered.

“Ward 1 was selected based on analyzing data that indicated a higher than normal level of stop work orders per neighborhood and permit applications that have not been completed,” explains Bolling. “The blitz will eventually take place in each and every ward, but we’re not making any announcements to tip off would be violators.”

The effort comes during a time when DCRA has faced heightened scrutiny from residents and D.C. lawmakers over its enforcement of the District’s construction and housing codes. Last year, the D.C. Council held a series public oversight hearings on DCRA where councilmembers criticized the department and asked pointed questions of its leadership.

Also in 2017, two reports from independent D.C. agencies highlighted significant gaps in DCRA’s regulatory prowess. In September, the D.C. Auditor’s office published a damning report on DCRA’s policing of thousands of vacant properties across the city, and the next month, the D.C. Inspector General’s office put out a separate critical report on the agency’s handling of illegal construction.

The latter report found that DCRA lacked a robust electronic system for monitoring illegal construction cases and inspectors, and did not “consistently” enforce regulations on nights, weekends, and holidays. It also said the department had fewer than 10 staffers in its “Illegal Construction Unit,” or ICU.

“Overall, [we] found it difficult to evaluate how effectively the ICU was deterring and combating illegal construction,” the inspector general’s office wrote, noting that DCRA had provided “deficient documentation” about its efforts.

Currently, the D.C. Council is considering legislation that would cleave DCRA into two new agencies: a Department of Buildings and a Department of Licensing and Consumer Protection. The idea is to make DCRA more efficient by reducing its size and restructuring its responsibilities, including those pertaining to illegal construction.

While a supermajority of the Council supports the bill, Mayor Muriel Bowser’s administration opposes it. Lawmakers held a hearing on the legislation in April, but have not marked it up yet.

Residents can report illegal construction and vacant properties through D.C.’s 311 system.

This post has been updated with additional information from DCRA.