Washington, DC


“Dear PoPville,

Bottom line: I’m trying to convert my basement into a legal separate apartment and am being told by the structural reviewers that I need 7 foot 6 inch ceilings. My architects and I have met personally with the structural reviewer, emailed his boss (who has simply ignored my emails), and finally requested help from Councilmember McDuffie’s office two weeks ago, to no avail. This seems to be a significant change in DCRA’s policy about basement apartments, and one that was done without public consultation.

Sometimes I just want to scream, “fix it!”:

Original letter to CM McDuffie’s office:

“I’m a resident in Eckington and am looking for the Councilmember’s help with an extremely frustrating experience with DCRA.  I requested permits back in the spring to convert my basement into a separate rental unit — permitted by right in my zone.  I retained an architectural firm to draw plans meeting all relevant code to get a business license and certificate of occupancy, and was completely transparent about my intentions in my permit request.

Unfortunately, I am apparently in an absurd no man’s land between the residential codes (which require 7′ ceilings in living spaces) and building codes (which require 7’6” ceilings anytime a structure undergoes a “change of use.”)  In short, this means that although my proposed basement apartment would meet every requirement DCRA specifies for a rental business license and proper certificate of occupancy — and thus all residential safety and health requirements — I am still being denied a building permit.  This interpretation of the building code is evidently a change for DCRA, as the agency has put out multiple documents over the past several years which indicated 7′ ceilings were the requirement (see attached DCRA guidelines).  You can find more details about my request and the referenced code provisions in the emails below.  To change my project to get 7’6″ ceilings would require the painful and ultimately cost-prohibitive underpinning process, and — per DCRA’s own guidelines — is unnecessary for obtaining a rental license.

My architects and I met with the first level structural reviewer who was polite but unable to satisfactorily explain DCRA’s conflicting building height requirements/apparent change in code interpretation.  He referred me to his supervisor who has simply ignored my messages (see below).  However, since my email to this supervisor, DCRA has quietly removed their “Rent My DC Apartment Legally” website, which, besides being an excellent resource for homeowners, was one of the sources I provided to the DCRA permit reviewer and his supervisor as evidence of DCRA’s conflicting guidance.

This entire process has taken months and I have wasted countless hours and hundreds of dollars in additional architectural fees.  I’ve even gone so far as to contact experts at a private code consulting firm, who told me that the firm is considering just refusing any basement conversion projects because of how difficult DCRA makes it.

Councilmember McDuffie and Mayor Bowser speak frequently about increasing available housing in this city, but clearly this message isn’t making its way to DCRA, which is effectively making it more difficult for residents to convert their basements legally.  This results in a perverse incentive for residents to avoid DCRA entirely and illegally rent potentially unsafe apartments.

Thank you for your assistance in this matter.  If you require additional information or would like to discuss further, please let me know.”


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