Dear PoPville – How Not To Construct a Retaining Wall, Should I Call DCRA?


“Dear PoPville,

I live in Mt. Pleasant and for the past several months I’ve been watching with amusement, but more recently with alarm, at what is going on in a back yard a few doors down from me. As you can see from the attached photo, the homeowners have constructed a wooden retaining wall 5 or 6 feet high that is (surprise, surprise) already failing. Meanwhile they’ve constructed another one uphill from it, using the same flawed construction method. An architect friend who saw this photo has made some rather dire predictions, saying that catastrophic and potentially life-threatening failure is not just possible but likely. Is it even legal to construct a retaining wall like this without a permit? Am I being a busybody, or should I report them to DCRA immediately (as my friend suggested)?”

60 Comment

  • Under most circumstances I’d say to leave it alone, but if you’re friend’s right a call to DCRA is totally justified. Think of it this way: If your neighbor sells the house and a few months later the wall collapses on a child, how will you feel?

    • Cripes, my grammar’s awful today. *YOUR* friend…..

      And I guess it doesn’t matter if the house is sold or not, but I was envisioning a totally unaware party, as opposed to the person who built the wall and therefore should know the danger.

    • Okay, so I’m the busybody neighbor. When I first took this photo and posted it on Facebook it was along the lines of “aren’t these people stupid, ha ha ha”. (Yes I’m that kind of person.) Otherwise my attitude was M.Y.O.B. but subsequent responses suggested this is probably dangerous as well as stupid. But: (1) I don’t know and have never met the owners; (2) the owners don’t live there and the house is rented (no, the renters are not doing this; BTW I believe the owners are getting the homestead deduction, something I have NOT reported); (3) this house doesn’t directly affect me (but their immediate neighbors are friends and I think they’ve been a bit too nice by not reporting this); (4) DCRA has a twitter account???

      • Report everything from the retaining wall to the homestead issue.

        If you have to ask, you should report it. The fact that this is a negligent landlord seals the day. The people renting it would probably like a safe retaining wall too.

      • In addition to reporting this to DCRA so that it can be inspected, I would talk (or leave a note) for the renters asking them to contact their landlord to make them aware of the issue. Since the landlord doesn’t live there, they may not realize that the people they have hired are doing shoddy work which might cost them in the way of fines, headache, etc.

      • Quick update: I got the guy’s email address from my neighbor, and sent a (polite) email with a photo attached. If I don’t get a satisfactory response, I’ll call DCRA.

  • Report it. Their negligence could impact adjacent homes.

  • Yeah, I agree with the first comment. The owners probably already realize it, but it looks as if its only a matter of time before this thing collapses with potentially terrible results if someone happens to be on the wrong side of it.

  • I don’t think it’s legal to do this without DCRA approval. I had a contractor build a small retaining wall in front of my house, and he insisted on plans, permits and DCRA approval all along the line.
    I would report. That looks really dangerous.

  • Leave a note at your neighbor’s door first, and let them know you’re going to report it if it’s not fixed in a month. If you report, they might get a fine as well as having to fix it up. Better to address it in a neighborly fashion.

    Alternately, you could just post a picture of their yard on a popular blog and hope it filters back to the homeowner as a warning.

  • “Am I being a busybody?” Yes. Mind your own business. Or at the very least, have words with your neighbor BEFORE you rat them out. Though uncomfortable, it’s the decent/ neighborly thing to do.

    • Dangerous construction IS the neighbor’s business. And anyone who does something this stupid deserves whatever fines the city issues.

    • I never understood this attitude. What about the neighborly responsibility to NOT build hazardous structures that adjoin other people’s property? That responsibility has already been violated, but the OP is supposed to be all charitable?

    • I don’t know if MYOB is good advice in this case. What we see is that back part failing but if you look at the sides it is likely that same wood/construction but only with maybe a little assist from the neighbors fence. What happens when either side decides its time to replace the fence? Considering one part is failing how long is it before the rest is.

      How to deal with the situation is harder. You either confront them directly with a not so subtle threat or you just report them. Neither option is great but unless the OP know the people, they have no way of knowing how the “offenders” would react.

      • +1 If I were doing a major project like that, I would give my neighbors the courtesy of a heads up and a “let me know if this disrupts your life while it’s going on so that I can try to address it.” If this person can’t do that, I don’t see why they would react well to neighborly complaints. Report them. At least that way they can just guess at who it was, and won’t retaliate against you.

    • “Mid your own business”

      100% wrong when it comes to something that is dangerous. But yes, talk to the neighbor first. If he/she doesn’t assure you that it will be fixed soon (and then does it), then absolutely report it.

  • how about sharing what you’ve shared with us with them? Tell them they built a hazard and recommend your architect friend if they need a professional to help them with a sturdy retaining wall

    • I agree with Victoria. So many commenters here seem to assume that if they themselves know something, EVERYONE else knows it too. Maybe the person who owns the house grew up in an apartment and is taking advice from their boyfriend’s cousin. This looks like a serious hazard. Please let the neighbor know this, and let the neighbor know that a professional — your architect friend –had serious concerns about the safety and stability of their construction. If they seem amenable to your concerns, you might make recommendations about ways that they could address the problem — because they may genuinely not know.
      I write this as someone who grew up in apartments, and really don’t know about plumbers and wall-studs and gardening because it isn’t a part of my experience. And I would hate to learn that advice that I was given, or my makeshift efforts were problematic the hard way. If the neighbors don’t respond “normally” –than contact DCRA.

      • I agree with you to a point, but even someone who grew up in an apartment or is from abroad so doesn’t know about permitting should look at that wall for 2 seconds and know that isn’t right or safe.

    • Except that they already got this to this state, which shows pretty poor judgment. I think the OP should get some supervision in the form of DCRA involved.

  • A collapse could have serious implications on the alley, which all the neighbors on your block use to access their parking spots (I know exactly where this house is located). I’d report it to the DCRA and let them deal with it.

    • um….if you know exactly where this house is….why don’t you report it?

      • I don’t live here. My friends lived across the alley from this house last year (probably next door to the OP) and I saw this place from their roof deck. I actually recognized the sandbox and brick patio next door. I think the neighbor has only recent begun this grading, as the yard was a hilly mess of rubble before this. The terraced grading is actually a visual improvement, despite now being more dangerous.

    • that’s ‘serious’ eh? lets cut the tattle tale crap…everybody isnt an architect so they make mistakes. getting johnny law and johnny govt involved should be the last resort after they tell you to f off or dont fix it after kind prodding. people the govt is not your friend. wait til you need the cops help next time…im saying this without experience.

  • You cannot change grading to a site like that with out a permit. Pretty simple to look up. The people who made this wall know that and its not your duty to be the nice neighbor and leave a note. Call DCRA, the only problem there is actually getting them to respond. If these people know anybody in DCRA or have some extra side cash this will pass right through them.
    The best way I have found to get a response is tweet a picture of this to their twitter. Almost in a public shaming way they are forced to respond. Record everything you do with DCRA. After every phone call type up the conversation and email it back to that person. Totally corrupt bunch.
    Again don’t feel bad that somebody builds a make shift retaining wall and illegally fills it up with the wrong fill. You cannon not change the grading of a lot to this degree without a permit.

  • Dear PoPville,
    I live in Mt. Pleasant and for the past several months I’ve been watching with amusement, but more recently with alarm, at what is going on a few doors down from me. Initally the neighbors were only spending way too much time watching me work on a retaining wall in my backyard, but now they’ve started photographing my property and posting the photos on public websites…

    • This sort of mocking response was funny the first ten or so times it showed up on POPville, but I think it’s time to retire it. If you disagree, I’ll gladly go back to posting “FIRST!!!!1!” in response to every post.

  • Of course.

  • always funny how everybody likes to be so neighborly and forgiving when something isn’t happening to them. Look that the sand box in the picture. Somebody appears to have kids with a 5-6ft foot pile of sand against their fence.
    I now have a house built directly on my property line with their pitched roof hanging over my property. I posted it on here and I got the same BS responses.

    • I don’t understand why you’re whining. Please tell me you went ahead and followed up with the authorities, and that you didn’t listen to the “BS responses”. I mean, you recognize them as BS, so…
      I don’t recall your post, but I’m pretty confident that while there might have been a few people saying MYOB (because there always are, in every thread, regardless of topic), the majority were in favor of taking advantage of the laws that exist to protect you and your property.

      • you name a person at DCRA and I talked to them. Had Robbie Sabbakahn, head of illegal construction, forced over to look at the house himself. Some of the poorest/negligent construction I have ever seen. DCRA did nothing about it.
        Hopefully which it appears to be so in this case, the owner doesn’t have the deep pockets, and expensive lawyer to make DCRA turn their heads.

        • Ok, so then you took it up to your council member, in person, right? Both the construction itself and the fact that the DCRA inspector passed an illegal project? And the mayor’s office? What did they say?

          • In that process of now turning what is a Building Code Danger issue of firewalls and run off situation to a DC politics situation. It’s so much fun and I’m glad you’re so interested.

  • Reminds me of the hill favelas in Rio de Janeiro.

  • DCRA requires you to file plans & have a permit for anyretaining wall over 18″. This is serious problem & I would encourage you to address it. That being said, from personal experience, this is what you can expect from DCRA.

    After sending the photos via email (or Twitter, which they are very responsive to), they will send out an inspector. After a period of time, DCRA will slap up either a stop work order or issue a fine. The home owner could then appeal and DCRA would schedule a hearing. The homeowner would then probably have to pay the fine. They would then be ordered to rectify the problem (with approprate permits) within a certain amount of time. The homeowner would probably not comply & you would the have to report them again to DCRA. This would go back & forth with a series of fines & no one doing anything to fix the issue. A year or more will pass and you will be staring at the same issue or a collapsed retaining wall.

    I would suggest, as a first option, contacting the neighbor to give them the option of paying a contractor to fix the issue rather than the cash to DCRA.

    • I second this comment. DCRA is helpful – to a point. They can’t actually force the neighbor to DO anything other than pay fines.

      One of these days though, a retaining wall like this is going to collapse, and someone will be able to file a lawsuit against DCRA.

  • Yes, you are being a busybody. But sometimes that’s the right thing to do.
    Hard to believe the people who constructed that wall don’t know that it is already failing. But whether they do or not, it presents a danger to properties other than theirs so it should be reported. Whether DCRA does anything about it or not is up to them. I have seen stop work orders slapped on construction that appeared far less life or property threatening than this.

  • I completely get why the OP would post here (or send to DCRA) with some expectation of anonymity, instead of sauntering up to the neighbor’s door and saying “Hey there! I live in that blue house across the alley. Please spend thousands to correct the problem you just spent hundreds creating. Oh, and when the law comes for you, that’s all me. I (will have) called ’em. Bye!”
    We have all heard stories about bad neighbors, the kind you don’t want to know you exist, much less want to know you called the inspectors. And there is, anecdotally, quite a bit of overlap between the kind of neighbors who will build dangerous no-permit additions on their property and the kind who will throw bricks through your window.

  • It’s not legal to construct a retaining wall higher than 18″ without a permit. Your architect friend is right, this is an accident waiting to happen. There’s another aspect, the fences on either side are also acting as retaining walls or assisting to retain (it looks like they may have constructed another wooden retaining wall on their side of the neighboring fences.) So there is more than one household at risk: risk to the property in question but also risk to the adjoining properties.

    Which brings me to another option: discuss with the neighbors on either side of retaining-wall-house. Maybe they know them better and can say something or, at least, it won’t be just you complaining.

  • Not to defend this construction, but do we know if this is the end product? Or are those temporary walls to hold back the earth as the permanent structures are built in front of them? Either way I think they need permits for the temporary walls as well.

  • You call DCRA. I am surprised that the property’s neighbors have not done so. While it will most likely fail and collapse backward toward the alley, either land/sand mass could collapse laterally into either neighbors’ backyard and toppling the whole fence. It looks like at least 3.5 feet of mass in behind both retaining “walls,” even with the incline. When it rains heavily, both of those walls are going to fail spectacularly. In fact, I bet that rear-most wall started to fail during that rain bout we had 3 weeks ago. Looking at the wood used, those walls can’t be more than 2 months old, tops.

  • Call DCRA, of course. You don’t need to talk to the neighbors – you don’t ‘know’ that it’s unsafe, you just have a feeling, and the comments of a friend. It probably is unsafe, but you don’t know what has to be done to make it safe, so you couldn’t give the builder a month to fix it (as sugested by one poster). How will you know it’s fixed? Will you be able to certify it as safe?
    Let the inspectors deal with it.

    • Absolutely correct. I don’t understand those who feel that OP somehow owes this person anything. People that cheap/lazy/reckless (take your pick) don’t deserve the courtesy.

  • Of course you report it. “Neighborly”? Fine, but it’s not your job to make sure they’ve constructed a legal retaining wall, it’s the DCRA’s. Report it and then let them do their job. I advise against getting personally involved with the neighbor.

  • About 10 years ago, our next door neighbors in Mt. P decided to dig out a parking spot in their backyard without permits and without properly retaining the raised ground from which they were digging. Our back sidewalk subsequently collapsed into their yard. It was a mess and a mess to resolve.

    Call DCRA. They need permits for that very reason.

    • I don’t get why several commenters are so concerned with being “neighborly” to the people who are doing something so obviously unsafe, but don’t seem to care about being “neighborly” toward the people on either side or anyone else who shares the alley who are going to be affected when this thing inevitably comes crashing down. And for those direct neighbors that won’t just be an inconvenience, it could cost them some real money to remedy. Call DCRA and get them out there.

      • I also remember years ago when one of the Lamont St houses, which was an end unit on the alley down by 19th St., dug out it’s front yard to create a parking space. Just looking at the hole made you tremble knowing that whole row would come crashing down. The city made them refill the hole, fortunately.

  • “Catastrophic…” Do words even have meaning anymore (to quote another poster)? Anyway let one of the adjacent neighbors deal with it; it’s not your problem.

    • in this instance, catastrophic is used in a legal sense, not in a hyperbolic one: “catastrophic failure” is a phrasing commonly used in that context to indicate a ‘point-of-no return’ failure which cannot be recovered from.

      • If that is the case I do agree. I do though envision a very slow process of failure not at all like the bursting of a dam, and the possibility of ‘life-threatening’ness very low to nil.

        • Slow failure is the best-case scenario, and is what is happening right now. But past a certain point wood tends to break rather than bend, and with one heavy rain the whole thing could come crashing down in a matter of seconds, with several tons of heavy, wet soil flowing into the basement of this house. If I were a tenant in their basement apartment, I would be very concerned about this.

        • I don’t think you know much about material failure issues, L. Which is totally okay. But I don’t know why you are on here talking about them.

  • That is not a wall, it is a dam and it is failing. Retaining walls retain the soil but allow water to flow through.

  • I agree that something needs to be done, but I don’t think DCRA is the first step. Send them an anonymous note. Print out this article. Ask them to rectify. They may just not know better. If they don’t rectify, then call DCRA.

    • DCRA should have been the builder’s first step. They fucked up, now the neighbors have to take the first step for them. No pity for sneaky cheap homeowners. Not with this density of housing.

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