GIVEAWAY WINNER: Reader battles with red-tape to do the right thing

Unlicensed rental properties in the District have often been at the center of controversy. Sadly, in some cases, they have also been the center of tragedy. The District's Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) has been making great efforts at informing renters that they should only rent from licensed landlords, and that they should keep their landlords accountable. DCRA has set up a web site (thisshouldbeillegal.com) and a Twitter to spread the message. I'll admit, at first I mocked the @DCRA Twitter, however lately I have been impressed. This is a great resource, and should serve as a model for other District agencies. Making sure properties are licensed isn't just about slumlords or taxes, it's about accountability and landlord-tenant rights.

While DCRA has made great strides at opening communications, there is still some work to be done. While some landlords are reluctant to register because it may hurt their ability to claim a home as their residence--others avoid the process due to red tape and bureaucracy. One reader, Adrienne, wrote in with her story.
Several months ago I applied for a Basic Business Licence in order to rent out two rooms in my house. Part of that process includes an inspector coming to the house to make sure I am complying with all the health and safety regulations. He refused to pass my house "pending interpretation of the zoning laws," insisting that I should not allowed to rent out two rooms. He directed me to call the DC Office of Permits, which directed me to call the Licensing Office, which directed me back to the Inspection Unit, which then directed me to the Office of Zoning, which directed me to the Home Owners Center, which directed back to the Office of Zoning.

Three months later, I had finally gotten the zoning issue settled, scheduled another inspection, only to have the new inspector come out and tell me that I hadn't needed to contact the Office of Zoning, because it clearly stated in the DC code that I could rent out two rooms. The previous inspector cost me three months of income from rent, including countless hours of phone calls trying to get the various DC department to return my calls.
Thankfully Adrienne stuck through the process and was able to get her business license. I offered to put her in touch with contacts at DCRA, but fortunately the matter has finally been resolved. I can see how some people in Adrienne's position might give up and just operate illegally. Government inefficiency certainly isn't an excuse for breaking the law, but this whole process could be made smoother. While I understand there are certain turf wars between agencies and departments, it's always frustrating when no one is willing to see a problem through to a resolution. Recently I had to deal with some issues with the DMV, which I assumed would be a nightmare. Eventually I ended up working directly with the Director of the DMV and her assistant who were able to get everything straightened out. I applauded their helpfulness, but like DCRA's Twitter, these resources are only helpful for people who know they exist and who have access. Adrienne's troubles might have been straightened out had she Tweeted to @DCRA, but many people are likely unaware.

We see a lot of talk around blogs about buying property and rental units, however there is little talk about whether landlords obtain proper licenses. When was the last time you saw a Craigslist post that touted a property was licensed and inspected. When was the last time that you, as a renter, verified if a property was registered with the city?

Thanks to Adrienne for sharing her story and bringing this issue to light. She's the first winner of the GRAB BAG GIVEAWAY.


  1. Why you claiming DC on your facebook page? You not from here!January 28, 2010

    "The previous inspector cost me three months of income from rent, including countless hours of phone calls trying to get the various DC department to return my calls."


    You almost brought a tear to me eye with your story.

    Did it ever occur to you that the previous inspector might have hated your guts?

    Not everybody is going to roll out the red carpet treatment for you.

    Deal with it.

  2. Fascinating. I'm going to get another cup of coffee and then re-read this post.

  3. Adrienne,
    We apologize for any delays. Sometimes the zoning laws have multiple layers, historic districts, exemptions, etc. Sometimes this causes unnecessary delays. This, however, just sounds like bad customer service and, again, we apologize. Anyone who feels a process is taking too long or isn't getting the service they want they can email me at michael.rupert@dc.gov or, as Mr. Stroup suggests, send us a tweet @dcra and we'll get on it. We issued almost 2,000 new residential licenses last year and more than 4,000 renewals for residential licenses. We're not perfect and let us know when we are not. Thanks.