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D.C.'s New Department Of Buildings Debuts, Headed By Leader Of Disbanded DCRA

1100 Fourth St. SW, home of the D.C. Department of Buildings

The dismantling of the troubled, sprawling D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs got off to a bumpy start when it was announced that the agency's top officials would lead the two new departments set up to take its place.

The long-debated breakup of DCRA became official at midnight on Oct. 1, but former DCRA head Ernest Chrappah was tapped by the mayor to stay in leadership as acting director of the Department of Buildings. In his new role, Chrappah will oversee an agency responsible for permitting, inspections and code enforcement of the built environment.

Other former DCRA functions have been transferred over to the new Department of Licensing and Consumer Protection, which will be led by Shirley Kwan-Hui, the former deputy director of DCRA.

D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, the highest-ranking proponent of the DCRA breakup, criticized the choices and called out the mayor for being unsupportive of the vision of two new, more efficient agencies.

The director of the Department of Buildings, Mendelson said, should be a "change agent," and bringing over leadership from the DOB's "dysfunctional predecessor" isn't enough to achieve a transformation.

"Why does this matter? Because every tenant is harmed by the poor quality of housing code enforcement," Mendelson said in a statement released Friday. "Every homeowner is harmed by the illegal construction rampant in our city. And every developer, including non-profit affordable housing providers, is harmed by the cost of permit delays and mistakes."

Mendelson and Bowser have long clashed over the breakup of the DCRA, which became law in 2020 after the council overrode a veto from the mayor.

The agency has been criticized for years for its slow permitting process and outdated systems, which Chrappah was brought on board in part to update. An expedited permitting program implemented by DCRA in 2017 called Velocity also drew scrutiny from the Office of the Inspector General, due in part to concerns over fraud and bribery.

Bowser highlighted the experience of Chrappah, who took over the agency in 2018, in her announcement of his new position on Friday. But advocates of the breakup have told DCist and others that they're worried the continuity will actually hold the new agency back.

The Department of Buildings also makes its debut at a disadvantage, as a quarter of positions remain unfilled, Chrappah told the council during a hearing Sept. 21.

That could portend a rocky start for an agency pivotal to the development of D.C., Eric Jones, vice president of government affairs for the Apartment and Office Building Association of Metropolitan Washington, said in a statement shared with Bisnow.

"We are pleased the Mayor has announced the leadership of the two agencies and maintained some level of continuity with her appointments," Jones said. "However, it is quite concerning that the new agencies are not fully staffed upon launch, and it does little to calm our unease about a transition that many, including the executive, had reservations about."

The new DOB's full list of functions includes building inspections, code enforcement, permitting, surveying, zoning administration and other functions. The new DLCP handles business licensing, corporate registrations and filings, enforcement, consumer protection and other functions.

The District government posted a FAQ page regarding the two new agencies on its transition website.