Investigation into row house remained stalled for 97 days, closing 4 days after fatal fire

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NOTE: This piece was originally published on September 24, 2019. You can read it here.

WASHINGTON, D.C. — A D.C. row home that was being illegally used as a rooming house with multiple fire violations was flagged by a police officer four months before two of its tenants died in a fire, documents from D.C’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs show.

The illegal housing situation ultimately ended in tragedy on August 18, when a man and 9-year-old boy died in a fire that ravaged 708 Kennedy Street, Northwest.

The house was initially flagged for investigation on April 24, when Officer Ernie Davis with D.C. Police wrote an email to a program analyst with DCRA.

“It is being used as a rooming house with an abundant of violations,” Davis wrote. “Both DCRA as well as fire codes. Once they are checked, can I get an update on the two properties.”

A case regarding the property wasn’t officially opened by DCRA until a month later, on May 24. It remained open for 97 days, until it closed on August 21, four days after the fatal fire and the same day that 9-year-old Yafet Solomon died of smoke inhalation.

The notes on the case state, “Unable to gain access on multiple attempts.” A DCRA employee reportedly attempted to enter the home, but left after not being allowed inside. D.C. Fire did not report ever visiting the property.

The tenants of the building were all Ethiopian immigrants who paid $300 to $550 per month in rent for tiny makeshift apartments on a street where one-bedroom rentals are frequently listed for as much as $1,400 a month, according to Zillow. The building’s owner, James Walker, told ABC7 by phone on August 19 that he was unaware of the living arrangements of the home, then hung up.

Officials say that before a property owner can legally rent out residential properties in the District, they need a business license from DCRA, which is only given after an inspection. Walker didn’t have this license, and DCRA never inspected his property.

Fire safety issues that Davis had flagged included the following: no smoke detectors in the home, a lack of exit signs and fire exits, the fact that the lone fire extinguisher was not tagged, and that there were too many makeshift doors with locks that would make leaving in an emergency difficult.

Though Davis had asked for an update from DCRA on their investigation, he says that he didn’t receive one and never expected to. “We don’t get updates,” he said. “They just do their thing.”

Mayor Bowser addressed this lack of communication in a Sept. 4 comment, saying, “We want to institutionalize how our agencies talk to each other.” That same week, both D.C. Police Chief Peter Newsham and Fire Chief Gregory Dean issued executive orders for their departments addressing the handling of possible fire code violations.

Newsham’s order was a brief half-page document that laid out a clear workflow for addressing fire code violations.

“Effective immediately, when a member observes what appears to be a serious fire code violation (i.e., conditions that appear to present a serious hazard or possible life-safety threat), he or she shall notify a supervisor who shall respond to the scene,” it states.

The fatal case and its apparent mishandling are now being investigated by the city, internally within each culpable department, and on a federal level. Between them, DCRA and D.C. Fire have placed four employees on leave, and Mayor Muriel Bowser has referred the case to DC Office of the Attorney General and the United States Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia.

On Sept. 25, two additional DCRA employees were placed on leave after an unrelated investigation led to employee Darrell Pope being charged with dealing heroin and fentanyl. Pope and his wife, a fellow employee, are currently on leave from the department.

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