“DCRA Strengthens Illegal Construction Enforcement”

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From a press release:

“The Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) announced today that the agency has added regular weekend inspections to address illegal construction. Weekend tours of duty for illegal construction inspections will enable DCRA to respond to weekend complaints as they are submitted.

“Illegal construction affects safety and quality-of-life for residents and businesses,” said DCRA Director Melinda Bolling. “With weekend inspections, we intend to stop more illegal construction while it’s in progress and strengthen the deterrent against doing it in the first place.”

Effective immediately, DCRA inspectors will be on duty from 8:00 am – 5:00 pm, Saturday and Sunday. During those hours, residents should call 202-442-STOP(7867) to report any observed or suspected illegal construction through a voicemail. Any messages left during weekend business hours will be immediately transmitted to an on-duty inspector. The on-duty inspector will then place a return call, acknowledging receipt of the complaint.

When illegal construction is found, DCRA sanctions the offender through stop work orders and citations. A stop work order prohibits a permit holder form performing any additional work until the order is lifted. The most significant citations for illegal construction carry $2,000 per-violation fines.

“The bottom line is that illegal construction—no matter the day of the week—will not be tolerated,” said Bolling. “We encourage members of the community to report illegal construction to us when they see it, so that we can put a stop to it as quickly as possible.”

Residents can check whether a nearby property has an appropriate permit by visiting DCRA’s Property Information Verification System at pivs.dcra.dc.gov.”

42 Comment

  • Question: any idea how often DCRA goes after weekend warriors who are working on their own property vs contractors and developers who are doing things that are illegal? Most of the complaints I hear of on the listservs/twitter/civic association revolve around developers and contractors. But most of the out-of-compliant work I see being done is by weekend warriors. I think someone working on their own property should be given a greater amount of leeway, as other jurisdictions permit. But, the DC law is pretty clear that residents arent allowed to do work (because they cant pull many permits) even if they know how to do it safely and to code. This forces many homeowners into the shadows without, which actually creates more problems than if htere was a resource for them to do it safely.

    • i dunno but as far as i can tell basically no homeowners get permits to do anything inside their house, while a modest % do the right thing for exterior construction (porches, additions, etc).

    • Wait a second. I am a renter who has never owned (in DC or anywhere), so please forgive my ignorance, but: if you’re a homeowner who is handy and knows how to do renovations on your own home, you’re….not allowed to? You can’t even get a permit? So you’re required to pay someone else to do it? What?

      As someone raised by a roofer/handyman/contractor who gutted and remodeled our family home (not in DC), I’m baffled.

      • Yes, you can. I think nona is saying the average homeowner doesn’t get permits to do the renos. They just do it without getting the permit.

        • Actually, no you cant. You cant get electrical, gas, or plumbing permits and you’re not legally allowed to do the work yourself, unless you’re licensed.

          • Wow, really!? Learn something new every day. Does this even include painting?

          • Does painting fall into the electrical, gas, or plumbing category? No

          • HaileUnlikely

            There are a few specific supplemental electrical, mechanical, and plumbing permits that homeowners can’t get. E.g., a homeowner can get a postcard permit to add up to 10 outlets and/or light fixtures, but only a licensed master electrician can get a permit to do a heavy up (reasonable enough in my opinion). The only one that strikes me as totally goofy is only a licensed master plumber can get a permit to install a plumbing fixture (e.g., a toilet or a sink).

          • So, I would say there are a few electrical permits that homeowners CAN get. Namely, lights and outlets.

            So, can you run new circuits? What about replacing hardwired appliances? seems like no, you cant without a contractor.

            And, as far as I know, no plumbing, mechanical, and gas can be done without a license.

          • HaileUnlikely

            A homeowner can also get a permit to replace a hardwired appliance (which, wiring-wise, is a whole lot like replacing an outlet or a light fixture). Not install a brand new one where there previously was not one, which would require a new circuit, but replacing an existing one. This is a simple postcard permit that is issued online and takes about 30 seconds to apply for. You are correct, though, that only a licensed electrician can get a permit to add new circuits.

          • Running a new circuit is one of the easiest (and lowest risk) things you can do with electricity. Trying to add 10 new lights and outlets on a circuit is where you start getting into trouble. not to mention, relying on the existing wiring in these old houses is asking for trouble. They should encourage you to run new wire anytime you think the old wire is undersized or really old.

            So basically, even if you assumed gas work was too risky and you need a plumber, you could not renovate your kitchen yourself, if you add more than 10 lights, run all of the circuits it requires to be code compliant, and change your sink and dishwasher.

            even though its not structural, or even particularly high risk, you couldnt do the non-gas work yourself. Thats what bugs me.

          • HaileUnlikely

            I mostly agree with that, with the caveat that I think most homeowners would be well advised not to open up their circuit breaker box and start connecting new stuff to it themselves. It’s not too hard, but the opportunity to f*ck up is considerable, and the penalty for f*cking up can be great. My breaker box had all sorts of unsafe and illegal sh!t in it when I bought my house, which I suspect was from the previous owner either doing work they weren’t qualified to do or hiring incompetent contractors to do it. Multi-wire branch circuits with both branches connected to the same electrical phase. 20A breakers on circuits fed by 14AWG wire. Two independent circuits in the same box had the neutrals crossed so that each had an electrified neutral even after turning the breaker off – I was literally shocked to discover that one.

        • I can’t believe adding an outlet requires a permit. And replacing a toilet requires a licensed plumber. So weird and interesting. Thanks for enlightening me.

    • This is an over simplification of what DCRA will allow a home owner to do. I say this as someone who pulled full permits on my house to completely gut it and separate the basement as a legal Apt. I have a degree in architecture, and work in construction, so I may be more than a “weekend warrior” but to suggest that home owners can’t get permits out of DCRA an over statement. A home owner can indeed pull a building permit, they can’t pull trade permit, mechanical, electrical and plumbing. For example with my house I did the drawings for everything which included a lot of structural work, all new mechanical plumbing and electrical, I was able to do those drawings and pull the main building permit myself, the trades were able to pull their trade specific permits off of my building permit, yes I needed to have them pull those permits, but that isn’t the end of the world, with both the plumber and electrician I did some of the work and they did the tricky stuff. As for a typical “weekend warrior” how many are actually doing renovations that go beyond the scope of a surface renovation of a kitchen or bath? DCRA has postcard permits that can be obtained online to address this, that would cover new tile and figures in an existing bath, or new cabinets in an existing kitchen and a little bit of the plumbing and electrical associated with that. For things like fences and decks and other small projects DCRA has the home owner’s center to specifically help out home-owners. I may sound like I work for DCRA but trust me I don’t, I am very frequently at odds with them in what it do, but I do think it is a little unfair to say that DCRA doesn’t allow homeowners to pull permits, it is way easier to deal with DCRA as a home owner than as a contractor or a developer.

      • fwiw, i was simply stating that my unscientific poll of people I know shows that homeowners almost always choose not to get permits for interior work, b/c its complicated and the likelihood of getting caught is pretty small compared to un-permitted exterior work.

    • To be fair I think that, controlling for the type of repair, weekend warriors probably cause damage to their homes and the homes of others at a far greater rate than pros.

  • I love how this is tacit admission that contractors had free rein to do whatever the hell they wanted to on weekends and not worry about being slapped with an immediate stop work order (like that post about the Bloomingdale row house where the developer tore off the sleeping porch and built an illegal pop back over a long holiday weekend). Often once the structure is up they just ask for forgiveness or grease the right palm and get a retroactive pass in the permitting office. This is a good change.

    • That house sold last month for something in the $930s range. Developer was very skilled in circumventing the rules and putting in high end finishes to cover up the short cuts he made elsewhere. DCRA enforcement just didn’t seem to care that he put an addition up overnight. He had a pattern of the doing the same thing, minimal interior permits and then doing whatever he liked. He built an overnight addition a couple of years back a few doors down the block and was never held accountable by DCRA.

  • I’d love to see actually get some teeth and make developers revert stuff that’s not code or zoning compliant. Everything I’ve seen is usually a stop work followed by a slap on the wrist, then business as usual for the developer to continue whatever they were. When your ‘punishment’ for causing a building collapse is being allowed to replace it w/ sth much larger there’s not really any incentive to follow the law

  • We just call the cops when the developers are doing this in our [rapidly transitioning] neighborhood. We also call DCRA and get them shut down, but for an average Sunday the cops come quicker and shut it down immediately.

  • After 10 years of stop work orders, fixing crap, etc they finally put a raze permit on 723 Morton St NW. They only gave them a few days to raze it. I will be interested to see when that monstrosity is finally razed.

    • Believe it when I see it but the raze at 723 Morton was well overdue! It became a game of cat and mouse with the developers (crooks) not respecting laws at all. Also, the list of problems that were cited on the raze were incredibly serious and dangerous, unbelievable they were allowed to continue working on this place for years.

  • Does anyone know if a permit for “underpinning” covers a basement dig-out? I’m curious whether a developer has exceeded the scope of its permits.

    • That’s the correct permit needed. Underpinning refers to digging under the existing foundation/party wall to extend it to lower the basement floor. iirc, if it affects the party wall the immediate neighbors must be notified.

      • HaileUnlikely

        Underpinning does not ordinarily lower the basement floor, it digs under the basement floor to add increased structural support to the footers. A basement dig-out to lower the floor will *also* require underpinning, but making the basement deeper is beyond the scope of just underpinning.

        • Depends on what is in the permitted drawings, the description on the front of the permit is written by the people who applies for the permit, I have been told to dumb my descriptions down by DCRA. It is entirely possible that the permit drawings do show the lower of the basement floor but it is not in the verbal description written on the permit

          • HaileUnlikely

            Ok – I haven’t seen that happen. The last permit I got read “Interior Waterproofing, install 66 feet of drain tile and one sump pump.”

    • HaileUnlikely

      Almost certainly exceeding scope of permit. Underpinning fundamentally a type of repair of an existing foundation. Depending on the extent of damage to the existing foundation, which underpinning is being performed to repair, the work may look a little bit like a “basement dig-out.” However, if they tore up the entire slab and are clearly making the basement deeper, or creating a basement where there previously was not one, this is almost certainly exceeding the scope of the permit if the only permit is only for underpinning.

      • It depends on the context. The description in PIVS for my dig-out was “…existing basement renovation to convert it to a 2nd unit. There is also under pinning the foundation…” That was the only mention of the work to do the dig-out in the description and it was absolutely permitted correctly. So, in that case, underpinning does indeed indicate that it was permitted for a dig-out. If the entirety of the description in PIVS was “underpinning,” there is a chance it was only permitted for a repair. But, I really doubt that is the case here.

        • HaileUnlikely

          I don’t care about PIVS, I meant what the actual permit was for. (I imagine the question was from a neighbor windering about the work next-door or similar. They can just go look at the permit posted on the window.) PIVS is more useful to find out after the fact, eg, when buying a house, to hunt for red flags. Obvious total flip with no permits shown = mad huge red flag). If you wonder aboutbpermits for active construction, no need for PIVS, just go look. If the actual permit was only for underpinning, digging out the basement is exceeding the scope.

          • It’s the same language as on the permit. That’s where the PIVS information comes from.

          • HaileUnlikely

            In my limited experience (I have applied for and received three various permits for work on my house), the language on PIVS is much less specific than the language on the permit itself. (This was in 2012, though, perhaps the PIVS content is generated automatically now. Comparing PIVS vs. actual permit as recently as 2012, the PIVS text was clearly entered manually.)

          • I don’t know how it worked in the past. But, that is certainly not the case now. Did you submit electronically? For me the text in PIVS is exactly what is on the permit (that was last year). Regardless, it doesn’t matter with regards to whether “underpinning” means a dig-out on the permit. The claim that a dig-out “almost certainly exceeding scope of permit” when underpinning is listed on the permit is wrong.

          • HaileUnlikely

            Ok. My point is that the language on my permits was a whole lot more specific than a one-word or two-word description. If yours wasn’t, ok then. You know what your permits said, and I know what mine said, and I guess neither of us has a monopoly on wisdom regarding the universe of all permits issued by DCRA.
            .
            I suppose that it is theoretically possible that a person would get a permit whose entire description reads “underpinning” that would also actually include a full dig-out within the permitted scope. I am still skeptical, though, but I’ll play along for now and not argue that point any more.
            .
            Seriously, though, you and I both know that Joe Homeowner hardly ever digs out his own basement. If you did, cool, props to you, but there is no way in heck that the proportion of basement dig-outs done by owner-occupants is greater than about 10%. The vast majority are done by developers. And it is a whole lot easier and faster to get a permit for a repair (like underpinning) than a permit for a modification, like a dig out. For that reason, developers get permits for repairs and then exceed them all the time. It may well be that in the specific case of the neighbor that anon is asking about, they applied for a permit that included a full basement digout within the permitted scope of work and that all the permit says on it is “underpinning.” (It also may well be that it looks like they’re doing a digout but really all they’re doing is underpinning). However, given that they have a permit that reads “Underpinning,” they’re doing a digout, and no other info is provided, I’d still be willing to bet that they got a permit to really just do underpinning in the usual sense of what “underpinning” means and are exceeding it.

          • HU – you’re missing the whole point. “anon for this” asked about a permit for underpinning. This is the description on the posted permit itself which is only a summary of the description in the application to DCRA which describes the work that is actually permitted. Furthermore that summary is idiosyncratic since it is written by the applicant.
            .
            You have no way of know based on the description here alone whether the work described exceeds the permit described. There’s lots of unpermitted work that goes on in the city, but that doesn’t mean you should go around pretending like you know something about construction or permitting and telling people wether their neighbor’s work exceeds the scope of their permits when you have NO IDEA.

          • HaileUnlikely

            Dude, chill. I learned something here. Based on my experience getting permits, the descriptions written on the permits have been reasonably detailed. I learned here, today, from Keefer, who explained his experience in a thorough manner and without being a d!ck about it, that sometimes the descriptions are considerably less detailed. That is to say, coming in, I thought I knew more than I did, but I was wrong about it. There is a difference between believing sincerely that you know something yet being wrong about it, versus knowingly making sh!t up that one is cognizant that one knows nothing about. I’ll admit I was [unknowingly] doing the former, but I think you can tell I was not doing the latter. There is no point in chewing somebody out for doing the former, as they are by definition unaware that they are doing it until after the fact. Here we are, after the fact, and I admit I was wrong. Happy?
            .
            Having said all of that, I will reiterate 1.) I do not know whether this specific case has proper permits or not (I said that already), but 2.) I’d be willing to bet that of the entire universe of dig-outs whose permits read “Underpinning [not further specified],” the proportion of them that involve exceedances in scope is large (not 100%, but large).

          • I don’t really agree that most permits for underpinning don’t include a dig-out. Adding a dig-out to an underpinning project doesn’t add any more DCRA reviews. It would actually be more work to come up with one set of plans that has an underpinning that goes through structural review and then another to work off of. The cases of exceeding the permit are when permits are for interior work only.

  • DCRA-related question: Once illegal construction is complete and it is not up to code, is there any recourse? Or is the deal if the homeowner slips through the permit cracks and gets away with the un-permitted construction then there’s really no recourse?

    • i’m wondering this in the context of the monstrosity on new jersey avenue pictured at the top of this post. when does the city step in and tear it down to avoid a catastrophic collapse?

      • No joke. Isn’t the gas station next door terrified of it coming down on them?

        • The rest of the neighbors on the block certainly are… what really should have happened was to tear down that monstrosity and build one 3 or 4-story building using all three of those lots. That’s what they’ve done on the other sides of this block and it’s a lot more cohesive (but I live in one of the buildings so I’m biased).

    • I’m wondering the same for 1339 Dexter Terrace, SE. I don’t see how you can buy a house for $100,000 and then sell it 8 months later after a “total renovation,” yet somehow not pull a single permit.

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