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Georgetown Community Targeting Unsafe Rentals

Education, enforcement are key to ending unsafe and unsightly rental properties.

The Georgetown community is taking on the sticky problem of unsafe, unsightly and unlawful rental properties often owned by negligent landlords, rented to inexperienced tenants and inspected by what some consider an inefficient system.

The new Georgetown Community Partnership (GCP), composed of neighborhood leaders, students and University officials, formed a committee to address these problems at the GCP steering committee’s first meeting on Nov. 6.

Renting Headaches

About 1,600 Georgetown undergraduate students live off-campus, and approximately 1,200 of them call West Georgetown and Burleith home, according to university spokesperson Rachel Pugh. Many of these students are renting for the first time. Nearly a thousand inexperienced renters are signing leases for each year.

Kara Brandeisky, a last semester senior at Georgetown University, said she was “struggling” to figure out her rights as a tenant when the apartment she was subletting with a friend in Burleith became infested with bedbugs in the summer of 2010. Though her lease was "unclear" on the matter, she was forced to pay the cost of pest extermination.

It was her first time renting an apartment.

She wishes there had been more resources for her to turn to help her navigate the process of renting.

Brandeisky currently rents a property in Burleith and says she is happy with her landlady.

“There are all sorts of landlords out there. What I would like Georgetown University to do is provide a place for students to rate landlords,” she said. 

Another student told Patch that the city's Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs recommended she and her four roommates withhold the final month’s payment on the property they were renting in West Georgetown from May to August last year because its kitchen was lacking an oven.

The renter wished to remain anonymous due to recent threats her past landlord made stating he would file a lawsuit against her because she withheld her final month’s rental payment. 

The renter said addressing the absence of the oven with their landlord was “a little bit touchy.” 

“When we asked him what the deal was, he said you don’t have to live here anymore,” said the renter. “We didn’t know what our rights were.”

The renter said she new that DCRA regulations required each rental property to include a full kitchen, but she was not sure if the kitchen had to have an oven.

The renters contacted Georgetown University Off-Campus Housing and were referred to DCRA. DCRA said there was nothing it could do and recommended the renters withhold payment until an oven was put in the kitchen, according to the student renter.

“We felt like we had no way to hold him accountable,” she said.

Systemic Problems

Peter Prindiville, newly elected Georgetown student member of the Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) and member of the Georgetown Community Partnership, told Patch there was a fourfold “systemic problem” with the renting system in Georgetown.

  • First, Prindiville said many of the property owners are “absentee landlords,” meaning they live outside the Georgetown area. 
  • Next, he said properties begin to deteriorate, sometimes even falling into illegal conditions, due to owners’ distance from their properties or from negligence.
  • Third, many renters do not know what to do when their housing drops to “sub-par conditions,” said Prindiville. 
  • The final systemic problem, according to Prindiville, is poor enforcement. He said the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs needs to better enforce housing regulation codes and penalize landlords who do not follow them. 

Ron Lewis, ANC2E commissioner, told Patch he agreed with much of what Prindiville said. 

“Many of these landlords don’t live in the area,” said Lewis. “The landlords have very little incentive to keep up the property.” 

Calling Out Landlords

Georgetown University began publishing a list of “good”  and "bad" landlords in October 2011. Landlords who signed and returned a pledge the university sent them stating they would comply with DCRA housing code regulations were placed on a list and recommended to students. Properties of landlords that received three or more housing regulation compliance complaints within a period of two years were placed on a “Properties of Concern List.”

There are currently 13 rental properties on that list of concerns. Seven of the 13 “properties of concern” are registered under recorded owners with a mailing address outside of the District of Columbia or owners who filed paperwork on the property outside the District of Columbia. 

Two properties on the list are not even registered on a basic business license, according to the Property Information Verification System (PIVS) on the DCRA website. A license must be obtained by passing a DCRA inspection, but the license can be renewed without an inspection. Renting without a basic business license is illegal in the District of Columbia. 

Prindiville expressed concern about one property in particular on the 3300 block of Prospect Street NW. The property’s license expired May 31, 2001, according to PIVS. 

Prindiville said some “landlords cheat the system” and do not apply for a basic business license. Then they can allow the home to fall below DCRA housing regulation code because their rental property goes undetected. Prindiville also said the DCRA basic business license policy that does not require an inspection for license renewal “fails renters and the neighborhood.” 

Clara Gustafson, Georgetown University Student Association president, said another part of the problem is a “lack of understanding” about which housing responsibilities are landlords’ and which are tenants'.

“Many residents blame students for poor conditions of homes in West Georgetown and Burleith, when it is actually the landlord’s responsibility to keep up homes,” said Prindiville. 

Working on a Solution

Lewis said the GCP working group will address rental issues like the ones mentioned by instituting a program to inform student-renters of their rights as tenants and will “get the attention of the DCRA.” 

“I think there is an enormous opportunity to put in place a much more effective system,” said Lewis. 

Prindiville said he is most focused on “pushing for more proactive DCRA enforcement” of housing regulations, and he said his new colleagues on the ANC are “receptive” to his desire to make sure landlords are in compliance with DCRA regulations.

“Getting these landlords into compliance of the law is better for people in the neighborhood,” said Prindiville, noting that properties not meeting code tend to be “dingy” on both the interior and exterior.

“We don’t need new laws,” said Prindiville. “We just need the laws to be enforced.”

Prindiville said the details of the group have yet to be worked out, but he expects the group to launch in December or January. 

He hopes their work will “send the message to delinquent landlords that they are not welcome.”

Robert Hyman November 28, 2012 at 04:31 PM
DCRA is the single largest detriment to getting enforcement in this area of rental properties. DCRA just will not do their job adequately when investigating these rental properties operating without the required Basic Business License
Shaun Courtney November 28, 2012 at 04:58 PM
Thanks for your comment, Robert. Do you agree that DCRA is the problem? What will it take to put an end to unsafe and illegal rental conditions? -SC
Robert Hyman November 28, 2012 at 05:45 PM
Shaun, I have tried to get DCRA to conduct more efficient and effective investigations of suspected rental properties for 6 years. First the Homestead Deduction that was being claimed by owners actually renting and now rentals without the Basic Business License. They are just unwilling to really do a comprehensive investigation. What Investigators DCRA has, drive out the the properties one at a time and knock on the door between 9 and 3 weekdays. Over and over again very few ever answer the door because they are at work to pay their RENT! Instead of implementing ideas that we have suggested like sending letters to the property owners, calling them directly or speaking to the neighbors and mailman to determine if a property is a rental, DCRA continues to make excuses about how they need to prove in court that a property is definitively a rental. You have no idea what the Georgetown Community Partnership is up against on getting property owners to come into compliance. I am willing to advise your group on this free of charge of course!
Robert Hyman November 28, 2012 at 05:53 PM
For one year I was turning in rental properties using the DCRA on line verification system that "leads you to believe" that you have reported a suspected rental property to DCRA for investigation. Then they tell me by phone, a year later, they have no record of my reports and they do not know where the on line reports actually go to. They never received any reports from me.

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