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“I’d love thoughts on this insanity I am running into with DCRA.”

by Prince Of Petworth — November 3, 2016 at 12:45 pm 57 Comments


“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.”

  • anonymous

    Can’t you just make it an accessory unit? Rules went into effect Sept1. Don’t see anything in regards to ceiling height to make a basement an accessory dwelling.

    • Anon

      You need DCRA to sign off to get a Business License. I don’t think the recent zoning laws change anything in that respect.

  • Anon

    Interest piqued. My guess is that you’re SOL and that DCRA is simply inept with regard to their messaging (among MANY other things). You could try to sue, but that’d ultimately cost more than just the underpinning.

  • Smittty

    While the DCRA permitting process is simply the worst, it appears your problem is that your basement doesn’t meet the standards to qualify as a legally rentable unit. If you can’t do the underpinning, it looks like you can’t convert your space. I’m not really sure this qualifies for as one of the reasons to hate on the DCRA, although there are many.

    • Eckington Chic

      I think the point the OP is trying to make it that according to DCRA’s posted standards it does meet the requirements, it’s just that they seem to have a secondary, conflicting set of standards which they are now applying without explanation. The frustration stems from the contradictions and lack of explanation as to why they post one set of standards but then apply a second.

      • younofukonme

        To be fair, the primary source for standards you referenced is a website brochure made to be a quick reference to us builders. With any large investment, it is wise to go back to the source material and vet assumptions made by you and especially by some administrator at DCRA. The primary source for your design is the ICC. If you have the patience, read below and I will guide you through the convoluted process. The path through DCRA is called the International code council (ICC). Read it, design by it, and cite it when DCRA is wrong. That shuts them up. There are three publications that are relevant to your project. They are the International Residential Code (IRC), the International Building Code (IBC), and the International existing Building Code (IEBC). To make it more complicated, when the District of Columbia adopted the IBC 2012 they renamed it DCMR2013. It is the 2012 IBC with minor changes adopted for DC. None of which affect your work.

        The problem with basing your design on what was said on a website is that the website was a general statement and basement renovations are not general. For example, if your home is detached and you add a unit in the basement, it is governed by the IRC. But if your home is a detached duplex and the new basement unit constitutes 3 units, you are IBC/IEBC. More commonly, if you are a single family town-home (attached) you are governed by the IRC but as soon as you add a unit in the basement you fall under the rules of the IBC/IEBC. I could go on and on but it is a lot. All this sounds arbitrary but it has a purpose and an explanation. If you open the referenced books and read the defined scope that each book covers you will find where your project falls. I can also tell you this: If you are governed by the IRC, minimum basement head height for existing construction is 6’8″ and 7’ for new construction and additions. If you have an existing building governed by the IBC and you do not wish to get a new certificate of occupancy, the minimum ceiling height is 7′ per the IEBC. But if you are an IRC building changing the space to the more restrictive IBC and you wish to get a new certificate of occupancy, you need 7’6″ in the basement and a lot of other costly items.

        I know this is irritating. Building code is the convergence of engineering, architecture, and law. Each topic by itself is tough. To think that a person not trained and experienced in the first two fields could comply with the interpretation of the third field is… absurd. What is even more absurd are the number of unlicensed architect (draftsmen) and unlicensed structural engineers (dangerously cocky guy on a skid steer underpinning your party wall) in this city. If you hire an engineer or architect, ask for their registration number. Then use these two sites to check their credentials:



        Additionally check your engineer is a civil/structural engineer and not anything else. If they are anything else or if your architect and engineer prove incompetent or flighty report them to the Board of Professional Engineering and cite DC municipal Regulation 1517.


        Remember this, anything can be drawn but not everything can be built and even less can be permitted. When you are hiring a professional you want one who designs for code compliance. The DC landscape is littered with turn of the century IRC buildings looking to be changed into new millennium IBC2012 compliant 3 unit, 4 story, narrow stair apartments. It is very difficult design.

        • Vicar

          Wow, thanks for the long and detailed…plus cited…explanation. I faced a similar issue getting my basement set up – wish I had your insights at the start. Greatly appreciate that you took the time to go into this detail.

  • HaileUnlikely

    This blows. Sorry this is happening to you. Do you have any insight into what constitutes a “change of use” for the purpose of the relevant building code? Basically, I’m wondering if you can build it as yours first, and then officially change the use later. Maybe not if this involves separately-metered plumbing, electrical, removal of interior staircase, etc, but just a thought.

    • Anon

      OP can likely build this out as you suggested, but they’d still need a separate CoO to get the Business License.

      • HaileUnlikely

        I’m pretty sure that’s a non-issue. The issue is getting the building permit. Once built, business license and CoO wouldn’t be denied due to 7′ ceiling. The stumbling block here appears to be getting a building permit to build a new unit for occupancy with ceilings that are lower than the current building code.

        • Anon

          I think you’re likely right in that OP is currently held back by lack of a building permit, but I wonder if they wouldn’t run into a similar issue upon presenting their (existing) building plans to DCRA and get denied due to the lower ceilings (assuming everything was already built out).

          • dunning-kruger

            I would not do this, I’m managing a property where they basically did this and finding it very difficult to get the business license.

    • younofukonme

      Do not do this. You will be denied a C of O. A no work/as built building permit for C of O triggers a DCRA inspector in your home. If you invite a DCRA inspector into your non compliant, non permitted basement unit you will be paying fines and not getting a C of O. Just do it Right.

  • gonzo

    Here’s what I’m understanding:

    1. If you’re building something new (or making significant structural change), you need to get a permit to build. Those permits’ requirements fall under the building code, which dictates 7′ 6″.

    2. If you want to get approval for occupancy for your existing English basement, and dont need building permits, then you only need at least 7′.

    Building codes exist because we find out better practices over the years. But, there are flexibilities in the regs for older buildings if you’re not making major renos.

    • Anon

      I don’t think that’s correct – you need a CoO to get a Business License. In order to get the CoO, you have to go through the “change of use” process that OP referenced above (presuming there was no prior CoO for the basement).

    • ah

      Yes – this seems to be the issue. As with many other aspects of the building code, existing structures don’t have to comply with provisions put in the code after they were built – for example, width of stairways, sprinklers, door requirements, and a host of other things. But if you want a building permit, you have to comply with those new code requirements, at least to the extent they apply to new construction (or what you’re doing constitutes new construction).

      Meanwhile, people are allowed to rent out apartments that don’t meet current building codes, but did meet the code in effect at the time.

      So, if your argument were to win, it would mean people could claim to be building an accessory apartment and then evade newer building codes. I’m pretty sure DCRA isn’t looking to allow that perverse result.

    • Christopher Bailey

      If my basement ceiling is at lease 7’6″ and all I’m adding is drywall, flooring, kitchen and a shower, what other requirements must I meet in order for it to be a legal rental.

      • anonymous

        2 means of egress.

        • younofukonme

          No. Only 1 means of egress is needed. Refer to DCMR2012 Ch1015.1, exception 1. IBC does not need 2 means of egress for stories less than 4.

      • HaileUnlikely

        Make sure ceiling height is still as stated after adding the flooring; if you are cutting it close, this may influence your selection of flooring product. As noted, there are other requirements too, but watch out for that, as most flooring materials have non-zero thickness.

  • Simon

    Considering the sheer number of packaged plans DCRA must receive related specifically to making the basement a legal unit, it constantly floors me that they seem to make it up as they go, and every applicant has a different set of rules to follow.

    And people wonder why so many DC homeowners are too afraid to even bother trying.

    • JS

      Or why people just decide to build without involving DCRA

      • Anonymous

        And rent it without them too. Hassles like this make it worth the risk.

  • HaileUnlikely

    One other addition: I’m surprised the website that you reference was not taken down a long time ago. It contained a lot of obviously-incorrect information and generally came across as if it were put together by unsupervised interns with inadequate supervision. I honestly was not clear on whether it was actually maintained by DCRA or whether somebody with good intentions was using the DCRA name in an unauthorized manner.

  • anon

    i don’t think this sounds too crazy. if you didn’t need to do structural work, you can rent it out at 7′. if you’re doing structural work, which it sounds like you are, you need to meet the building code.

    • Anon

      You need to submit structural plans regardless to get a CoO.

  • Anon X

    The rules changed. It has to be 7.5′ now. It seems reasonable to me. Not sure I understand the argument for some sort of waiver. 7′ has always seemed short to me.

    • ah

      Indeed. Although people were shorter 100 years ago. And they also tolerated living in relative squalor.

    • maxwell smart

      This is all very interesting to me, who lives in an English Basement apartment with 6′-8″ ceilings.

      • Ashy Oldlady

        Many, if not most English basements in DC do not have the proper business licensing to be rented legally, and therefore are not subject to current regulations.

        • Anon

          That’s not quite accurate – they’re most certainly subject to this regulation, but the landlords are actively choosing to ignore the requirement to legally register their unit (and thus prove that it’s up-to-code).

          • Anon Spock

            +1 to that.

          • Anonymous

            It’s risky to not register. According to what I’ve read on NOLO, units NOT properly registered with the District automatically become subject to rent control laws and the rent cannot be legally increased by the landlord. A tenant would probably win treble damages in landlord-tenant court. And that’s not taking into account the risk of getting denied by your homeowners’ insurance if a tenant causes a fire or has an accident. Way too much liability.

          • Ashy Oldlady

            And yet it happens all the time.

          • maxwell smart

            probably the case. I’m not complaining.

  • Dognonymous

    If you want assistance from McDuffie’s office, call. They are hit and miss on email but good on the phones. Demetris Cheatham, his Deputy Chief of Staff, is particularly great if you can get her involved. This does seem to be a tricky case. As to DCRA, you basically need to project manage for them and hold their hand through everything. They have few staff and let a ton of things slip, and really only seem to pay attention if you’re constantly following up and guiding them to what they need to do.

  • HaileUnlikely

    One additional thought: if it proves to be correct that the applicable building code does indeed require 7’6, I wonder if you could get a partial refund on fees paid to architect who drew plans not to code? I realize this is small potatoes relative to the prospect of digging out the basement or else not being able to rent at all, but if the relevant code calls for 7’6 and they didn’t know that, I’d think that would be on them.

    • maxwell smart

      I will tell you, as someone in the architecture profession, the building codes are written like the bible – as in, they are subject to a wide range of interpretation.

      • younofukonme


  • So, Just Sayin’

    This is why many homeowners just avoid DCRA altogether.

    • anonymous

      Even if you have all your docs in place- it’s STILL a nightmare when having to deal with tenant issues. TOPA still is applicable as well as all other tenant protections rights.

  • Kevin

    Have you considered going through your ANC, rather than jumping to the top of the ladder with McDuffie?

  • anon

    I’m not taking a position on the merits of the OP’s argument, but I will say that it’s a sign of how messed up the agency is that people routinely call their elected representatives to help them deal with it. ANC Commissioners and Councilmembers should be creating legislation and making big picture strategic decisions for the city, not intervening in every individual’s bureaucratic nightmare.

  • V

    My recommendation is to go to the DCRA offices until you end up with the person you need, including the top directors, etc. I have done that a few times, once getting very fast resolution on a significant issue and another time not getting the answer I wanted, but a clear explanation from the guy in charge. May not always be effective, but so far for me has been a good approach.

  • navyard

    DCRA is, without doubt, the most frustrating aspect of living in DC, working in DC, and doing business with DC. Every step of the way they seem to be making stuff up as they go along. They’ve wasted countless hours of mine when I tried to do things “by the book”. My last attempt, I finally gave up and I’m just going to do what I want without a permit, without a license, and without anything else that they regulate. It’s so unbelievably difficult to get the same answer from them 2 times in a row.

    In my opinion, Melinda Bolling needs to be fired because she is just not getting the job done. If you’re not down in DCRA doing business on a daily or weekly basis, it’s almost impossible to figure out how to get anything done. If they would just tell me who to bribe, I would do it.

  • jon

    As someone else already stated, there’s a difference between DC’s standards for living in a legal basement rental (which applies regardless of whether the apartment is old or newly constructed) and DC’s standards for building a new legal basement rental. Seems perfectly reasonable to me that the standards for something new may be higher than the standard applied to something that already exists — otherwise, better building practices could never be put in place. I think your argument is with your architects, who should have known off the bat that 7′ high ceilings were never going to pass muster.

    • dunning-kruger

      The way it is supposed to work is some things are supposed to be grandfathered. If OP already has 7′ and that is legal it is insane to require a 6″ dig when they are already compliant, they are simply ensuring the project will not go forward and stopping development is not supposed to be their mission statement. If OP is already doing underpinning then yes the 7’6″ requirement makes perfect sense. The gray area would be if they are digging but not doing underpinning.

      • Anon

        My understanding is that it’s only grandfathered if the space previously had a legal CoO. If someone converted a basement at 7′ but never went through the process, and then sold the house to someone who wanted to bring everything above board, they would not pass as the “change of use” process would require 7’6″

        • anonymous

          As long as there is NO construction going on- all they need to do is have drawings done up on the apartment and everything else is up to code. The CoO is what determings if a place is a single family- or multifamily–Which adds another level of complications when refinancing or selling- because it’s then viewed as a multiunit.

        • dunning-kruger

          There are basically certain types of work that trigger certain code requirements.
          For example, regardless of your water service and sewer size, remodeling a bathroom does not trigger a required fixture schedule to asses load regardless of whether things are appropriately sized to begin with. Adding a new bathroom does, and you will have to size your civil plumbing accordingly even if the house next door has 2x as many bathrooms with half the size supply coming in.
          As a guy who knows more than me stated higher up, code is open to interpretation. Generally the interpretation across most fields is that if something could be grandfathered through old code and is not being worked on then it is fine. Another example is interior stair winders, new code requires stairs be at least 4″ deep at all points but old winders often taper down to nothing to make those tight corners in rowhomes. If you’re doing a bunch of structural they might around the stairs they might make you put in new ones, but if your work is minimal in the area of the stairs it will virtually never come up because the added cost is so high and you had planned to just leave them alone which would be fine if you weren’t in the process of pulling permits (ie it would pass an inspection, just like the 7′ ceiling).

      • younofukonme

        The term grandfather does not exist in any of the ICC books. If the project is an IBC job the OP can reference IEBC2012 for exceptions. However Change of use and Certificate of occupancy work does not allow the head height exception. Please refer to IEBC ch 1001.2.

  • Eckington Homeowner

    Original Poster here — thanks to all for the responses. The architects I hired have gotten DCRA approval for similar basement projects, just not within the past year. Our best guess is that past DCRA reviewers informally chose to approve projects to the residential code (which is specifically designed for one and two family units), rather than applying the massive International Building Code (IBC) (designed for 3+ family and every other type of building.) Since then DCRA reviewers have changed, thus new interpretation.

    As I understand it, if I were to construct a new townhouse from scratch I would fall under the IRC, which requires 7′ ceilings in habitable space. But because this is an existing townhouse and I am requesting a change of occupancy to create the basement apartment, DCRA says the International Existing Building Code (IEBC) applies, which refers to the IBC, which insists I need 7’6″ ceilings. Of note, per wikipedia, other jurisdictions like CA and NJ have written their own code addenda to address issues like this arising when new building codes are applied to existing buildings.

    And as further evidence of DCRA’s inconsistent application of building codes, if my project must adhere to the IEBC/IBC, then I am also required to have a complete sprinkler system installed. However, the DCRA reviewers are not requiring me to have a sprinkler system (and we raised this discrepancy to the reviewer). Why is it critical that I meet one provision of the IBC (ceiling height), but not others (sprinklers)?

    Ultimately, what frustrates me most is the disconnect between District leadership’s stated priority of increasing housing and streamlining regulation and what is actually executed by District agencies. Mayor Bowser is making a big push on increasing housing units and DCRA itself proposed a rule change in September to allow homeowners to self-certify basement apartments. Absent a favorable ruling from DCRA — or a creative and subversive work-around such as proposed by HaileUnlikely — it does not make financial sense for me to convert the basement, resulting in one less housing unit in a city which needs every one it can get.

    • anonymous

      Eh- Just do the construction and rent your basement out. Claim taxes on the rent and be done with it. Even better find a friend or a friend of a friend to rent the apartment to. You get to make some income, they get to get a little break on rent. the city get taxes. win win win. but please keep the property up to code otherwise(electrical, plumbing, hvac etc) Make sure you don’t have any dead bolts that require key access to unlock from inside, have couple fire extinguishers around the unit and you are good to go.) Oh one other thing- are you keeping the internal staircase or removing it?

      • younofukonme

        Stop work order fines are $2000. So is a month of rent. So why wait in DCRA right? Well do you have a 1 hr fire separation between the units? do you have fire rated recessed lights and vent fans? Have you checked with WASA on the fixture count? How big is your electrical panel? Do you have space for independent breakers in your box for GFCI outlets? This list can go on. How does your homeoner’s insurance feel about unlicensed rental units? does it void your coverage? How does the property assessor feel about unlicensed units? Can you not HELOC your house for the same amount?
        Just do it right.

    • dunning-kruger

      I’ve made that exact argument to people at DCRA. “This is why you have so many non-compliant rentals.”
      If you haven’t already I would suggest maybe giving it one more shot with your current plans and an experienced expediter.
      I have had DCRA reviewers be flat out wrong and it took weeks to get them face-to-face and straighten it out. Once they flag something it is very hard to get them to acknowledge an error. I think perhaps if they flag something and the plans are resubmitted without changes their bosses catch it. My experience has been once they make one mistake they’ll make 10 more trying to find something that will stick to force you to revise it.
      If that is the case, and it very well could be, an experienced expediter will know who to get your plans in front of and they will be able to access to that person. Could be money well spent. For the record I’m not an expediter.

  • sonocontenta

    This is not really your point, I know, but do consider that 7′-0″ is a VERY low ceiling for dwelling… not especially comfortable for most people to be attracted to live in… many of the people here, I think, will attest to some experience with living in basement units (I include myself)…. even bright and shiny NEW, as yours will be, you will have some tough competition renting at any competitive rate if there are units out there w/ more height. … just saying, perhaps you might reconsider the scope of your conversion and the return on investment there….


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