For many students, the start of the school year includes the excitement of moving into off-campus housing. For the Department of Consumer Regulatory Affairs, it means just another year of going unnoticed. According to DCRA spokesperson Michael Rupert, each year his office kicks off a new campaign to encourage students who rent off-campus housing to make sure their homes are up to code, and each year, the response is lackluster. So last week, his office and the D.C. Fire Marshall tried something new: launching a “student-friendly” website, thisshouldbeillegal.com.
“We didn’t want to just knock on the door and drop off a flyer anymore,” Rupert said. “We want a real relationship with students.”
The website, which got about 4,500 hits in its first ten days, includes step-by-step instructions on how student tenants can determine if their residence is up to code and provides a list of licensed landlords within the District, which 1,000 visitors have viewed. Students who report that their landlord is not legally licensed to rent to them will receive house inspections free of charge, without their landlord knowing who the complaint came from.
“Interestingly enough, the thing that sort of got higher level officials to start taking initiative on this issue actually started at Georgetown, with the death of a student in 2004 that was totally preventable,” Rupert said.
Rupert was referring to Daniel Rigby (MSB ‘05), who died in a basement fire in a Prospect Street rowhouse which had several severe fire code violations. This October will be the four year anniversary of his death, which set off a spate of inspections in Georgetown that displaced 39 residents whose homes were deemed unsafe.
Joanna Rodgers (NHS ‘09) who lives on Reservoir Road, said she knew of many rented properties near hers that could use inspections.
“My landlord last year was like a slumlord,” Rodgers said.
Ann-Lee Chen, whose business rents five rowhouses in the Georgetown area, said that renting in Georgetown is difficult because housing available to students ranges from very well kept to dismal, and students cannot be sure which they’re getting until they move in.
Rupert said that since the launch of the website, which is on Twitter and also has a Facebook page, DCRA has scheduled over two dozen inspections of student-rented properties. How much of the website traffic comes from Georgetown students or how many inspections will take place in the Georgetown area is unclear.
“We don’t necessarily want to know who’s coming from GW, who’s coming from Georgetown,” Rupert said. “As big as D.C. is, it’s not that big. And we want to protect students from landlord blacklists.”
DCRA has already informally partnered with Georgetown administrators to spread the word about the site and its services. Ray Danieli, the Assistant Director of Off-Campus Student Life at Georgetown, said the University supports the new campaign “100 percent.”
“We want our students to be safe. A degree means nothing if you’re not safe,” Danieli said. “This is a wonderful way to reach students at their technological, visual level.”
Danieli said that he has spoken with several students who are going to use the website to see if their landlord is licensed to rent to them. At an off-campus orientation last night, he plugged the website with the hope within the year, all off-campus residents who need to have their units inspected will have done so.
Additional reporting by John Cooke