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Deputy Mayor Kevin Donahue Testimony: Agency Responses to Code Violations and the Subsequent Fire at 708 Kennedy Street, NW

Monday, November 18, 2019


Joint Public Oversight Hearing on “Agency Responses to Code Violations and the Subsequent Fire at 708 Kennedy Street, NW”
Testimony of Kevin Donahue Deputy City Administrator Deputy Mayor for Public Safety and Justice
Before the Committee of the Whole
The Honorable Phil Mendelson, Chairman and Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety
The Honorable Charles Allen, Chairperson
Council of the District of Columbia
John A. Wilson Building
Room 500
1350 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW Washington, DC 20004
November 18, 2019
1 pm

Good afternoon, Chairman Mendelson, Chairperson Allen, members, and staff of the Committee of the Whole and the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety. I am Kevin Donahue, Deputy City Administrator and Deputy Mayor for Public Safety and Justice. I am here to discuss the tragedy at 708 Kennedy Street, NW, the failures by District agencies to respond to code violations, our investigation into what caused those failures, and what we are doing to prevent a recurrence. I am joined by Ernest Chrappah, Director of the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA).
I will begin by offering my condolences to the families and friends of Fitsum Kebede and Yafet Solomon. Nothing we say here today will bring them back or lessen the pain felt by their families. Our agencies failed to act promptly months before the fire. Had they done so, it is possible we would not be here today discussing this tragic loss of life. Our commitment is to learn from those failures and ensure they do not happen again.

Early Sunday morning on August 18, 2019, a fire broke out at 708 Kennedy Street, NW in Ward 4. Although the property was licensed as a commercial business, it was being illegally rented out to a number of individuals, most of whom were Ethiopian immigrants. The fire resulted in the deaths of two residents, 40-year old Fitsum Kebede and 9-year old Yafet Solomon, injuries to another resident and first responders, and the displacement of all tenants.

In response to the fire, Mayor Muriel Bowser ordered my office and the Office of the City Administrator (OCA) to hire an outside firm to conduct a full investigation into when District agencies first knew the property was being illegally rented out, what they did with that information, what they should have done, and how we would prevent a recurrence of such a failure of communication and process. The City Administrator’s office hired a respected, independent firm, Alvarez & Marsal, to conduct the investigation. Alvarez & Marsal commenced their work on September 10 and submitted their report on October 25. The full, unredacted report is appended to my written testimony and is available on the OCA website.1

Because the report goes into great detail on the failures and missed opportunities by multiple District agencies, I will only focus on a few of its key points.

The report found that the illegal rental property on Kennedy Street had been reported to two District agencies – FEMS and DCRA – five months before the fatal fire. Unfortunately, employees at both agencies failed to properly respond by immediately opening an investigation. Instead, it took a Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) officer sending reminders over the course of several months before a DCRA investigator finally visited the property. But even then, District inspectors were unable to gain entry inside the property to assess the building, fire, and safety code conditions. There were several missed opportunities by staff at FEMS and DCRA to properly respond. The failure to quickly respond foreclosed the opportunity to identify and remediate the dangerous housing conditions inside the property.

After the fire, FEMS and DCRA immediately put four employees on administrative leave. In regard to changes to agency policies, five days after the fire, FEMS issued two general orders clarifying procedures for receiving and acting on notifications from District agencies about potential fire code violations. On September 3, MPD issued an executive order on the new procedure for MPD officers to notify FEMS of potential fire code violations and DCRA of potential housing code violations. In late August and early September, DCRA implemented several new operating procedures to electronically track and follow up on complaints of housing code violations.

Alvarez & Marsal reviewed the MPD, FEMS, and DCRA policies and procedures that were in place at the time of the initial notification in March, what was in place when the fire broke out in August, and what had been changed in response to the fire. They had access to all relevant agency emails, physical and electronic records, and interviewed employees from DCRA, FEMS, MPD, and the Office of the Chief Technology Officer.

Alvarez & Marsal identified nine critical moments when District agencies could have taken action, but did not. The report contains more than 50 items that should be addressed and remediated. Mayor Bowser has ordered agencies to treat these recommendations like the results of a financial audit, thus we will be tracking the implementation of corrective actions by the agencies. I should emphasize that while some of the recommendations have already been implemented by MPD, FEMS, and DCRA, we are committed to implementing any recommendation that would enhance the safety of our residents and improve the operations of the agencies.

It is important to note that this was a privately-owned property. James G. Walker, the owner of the illegal rental property, knew the property’s conditions were dangerous, yet he rented it out to tenants desperate for an affordable place to live. Because there is an active criminal investigation, I cannot say much else about Mr. Walker, other than he must be held accountable for his actions.

As we have the dialogue which will follow our written testimony, it is essential that we place affordable housing as a central part of the broader context. Illegal rooming houses, substandard housing, exist in part because people want to be in our city, but cannot afford to live here. That is why the Mayor has invested at least $100 million annually in the Housing Production Trust Fund. It is why the city has produced or preserved more than 9,600 units of affordable housing. It is why the Mayor has added $25 million or more each year to our homeless services budget. It is why the Mayor set aside $2.5 million this year in Immigrant Legal Justice Services grants. We must continue to make these investments if we are to address the root cause of what happened.

I conclude by again offering my condolences to the families and friends of Fitsum Kebede and Yafet Solomon, and everyone else affected that day. Thank you for the opportunity to testify today. Director Chrappah and I are available to take your questions.

1 The report can be found at: https://oca.dc.gov/sites/default/files/dc/sites/oca/publication/attachments/Review-Investigation-Code-Enforcement-Policies-Procedures-Inter-Agency-Communications.pdf.