By Martin Austermuhle posted March 29th, 2019 on www.wamu.org
Ernest Chrappah, the interim director of the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, unveiled an idea this week one lawmaker described as “so crazy it could work:” he wants to recruit D.C. residents to serve as an on-demand force of inspectors to make sure housing conditions are safe and that developers are sticking to the rules when they build.
“In the old days people would go out and keep their hands out there. Today, they look at multiple apps and drivers are matched to the demand in real time,” he told a D.C. Council committee on Wednesday, using ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft as an analogy to explain how he would leverage regular people to overcome a shortage of traditional housing inspectors in the city.
“We can tap into neighbors who say they want to be part of this revolution, so if there are complaints or reports they get matched and get a job done,” he explained.
Chrappah presented the idea at budget oversight hearing for DCRA, the oft-maligned agency Mayor Muriel Bowser nominated him to run earlier this year. He promised to implement “digital transformation” at DCRA, which does everything from license businesses to enforce the housing code.
Speaking to the Council committee, Chrappah explained how he hopes to use new technology — and a beefed up IT budget — to make it easier for residents to request inspections, for everything from shoddy construction to a contractor working without a permit, and for inspectors to quickly write a notice of violation or issue a stop-work order. And with all the data that could be produced from that work, he said DCRA could develop models to predict where housing code or construction problems could pop up.
But he also faced pushback from a trio of lawmakers and some housing advocates, who raised concerns that amid all the talk of digitally transforming DCRA, the proposed budget would also cut the number of housing inspectors in the agency’s ranks.
“This budget says you will have three fewer residential inspectors,” said Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, who is spearheading a bill to split DCRA into two separate agencies: one for business functions, the other for consumer protections. “You’re disinvesting people from your payroll.”
But Chrappah stood his ground, saying that inspecting rental units and policing developers cannot only be done by increasing staffing in DCRA, but also by enlisting residents — who the agency would train and certify — to act as its eyes, ears and enforcers when DCRA inspectors are not available or busy elsewhere. Not only would that add capacity, he said, but give those on-demand inspectors — which could be notified of the need for inspections via an app — a chance to make some extra cash.
“If we are able to crowd-source or expand our supply of people, when somebody reports illegal construction maybe with photographic evidence we will match in real time to the nearest available inspector, who will take over the situation and can even earn some money. So we are taking a problem of not having enough inspectors to meet the demand and we are turning it upside down and creating an economic opportunity,” he told the Council.
His idea drew a mix of confusion, skepticism and curiosity from lawmakers, including from Council member Brianne Nadeau (D-Ward 1), who in recent years has given DCRA more money to hire housing inspectors and pushed the agency to be more aggressive in policing developers and contractors working in residential neighborhoods.
“It’s actually a cool idea,” she said in an interview on Thursday. “It’s so crazy it could work, and nothing else has worked so what do we have to lose? But not at the expense of the professional inspectors we need on staff.”
Anne Cunningham, an attorney with the Children’s Law Center who expressed concern over DCRA’s record of holding landlords accountable for violations of the housing code, expressed a similar sentiment as Nadeau, and said Chrappah’s proposal raised a number of important questions that would have to be answered.
“These folks would need expensive training. How would we do quality control? I doubt a star-rating would be sufficient. How are we going to make sure we prevent corruption in these inspections? You’re talking about sending people into properties that potentially have asbestos and lead and serious mold issue. What kind of safety considerations will there be?” she said.
DCRA already allows third-party inspectors — private inspectors who are registered with the department — to conduct certain inspections of construction projects. But critics say that the program has been rife with problems, notably that it gives third-party inspectors a financial incentive to sign off on projects whether or not they meet the construction code. Cunningham worries the same could happen with Chrappah’s corps of on-demand inspectors.
Chrappah told the Council that he hopes to implement the initiative by 2020, and conceded that it would be difficult. In his prior job as director of the D.C. Department of For-Hire Vehicles — which regulates taxicabs and ride-sharing services — he took on a similar task, spending $500,000 to develop an Uber-style app to hail taxicabs. The app was not widely adopted, though, and has since been discontinued.
“I don’t want to in any way suggest what we’re trying to do is a walk in the park. Far from that. It is ambitious and it is very challenging,” he said on Wednesday. “This has not been done anywhere in the country. We are leading the charge. But it is not impossible.”