The Federal City Council has been convening DC’s leading business organizations to create a shared approach to policies impacting the DC business community. For the most important issues, the group develops one-pagers that lay out the key problems and recommended reforms. Below is the one-pager on plans to reform the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) and possibly split it into two entities.
DCRA is one of the government’s most criticized agencies and it touches many DC residents and businesses. It houses a lot of permitting functioning and code enforcement under one roof—for buildings as well as business startups and professional licensing. Builders complain that permitting takes too long and code inspections are too arbitrary. Building tenants complain code violations go unenforced. Businesses complain there is too much paperwork required to get up and running. Activists worry DCRA’s professional licensing disproportionately harms low-income professions. Moreover, DCRA operations remain stuck in the past. Almost all filings must be done in person rather than online. No mayoral administration has managed to dramatically reform DCRA.
State of Play
The DC Auditor published a critical report of DCRA in 2018, prompting DC Council hearings and the first proposal to break up DCRA into two entities—one for buildings and another for business and professional licensing. The bill was re-introduced again in January 2019. Chairman Mendelson and a supermajority on the DC Council support the legislation as a good first step for reform. The Mayor does not support it, arguing splitting it up would require wasteful duplications of administrative support functions. There is about $500K from the FY19 budget to fund a feasibility study of the breakup.
Issues in Brief
Splitting up DCRA will not necessarily improve its performance. But any reforms should include:
- Building permits:
- Create more consistency in permitting decisions. Require in-house certification or divide staff into concentrating on the residential code or the building code to ensure decisions are timely and consistent across staff.
- Make DCRA more tech-forward and transparent. Allow some permits to be filed online and make it easier to access permitting docs online and to track the permitting process.
- Establish an ombudsman to advocate for the resolution of complaints.
- Code enforcement:
- Focus on bad actors. DCRA spends too many resources regularly inspecting properties with a clean track record, and often proposes solutions to bad actors that have unintended major consequences for all construction projects.
- Improve third-party inspection, making it a more professional, business-like operation.
- Business regulations and licensing:
- Why can’t we have an efficient and easy-to-follow system for registering a business?
- Remove barriers to business startups by, for example, lowering the business startup fee, removing the “clean hands” requirement and creating a more simple, seamless experience at DC’s Business Center.
- Remove licensing requirements for some lower or middle-income professions.