Walking down Prospect Street these days, it’s hard to miss the ten homes with bright orange signs warning “Danger” in big black letters taped to the front doors. It took a tragic death to alert the Georgetown neighborhood of a pressing, but seemingly neglected, problem – the deteriorating condition of some of its rental homes.

Early Sunday morning, Daniel Rigby (MSB ’05), a 21-year-old international business major, died in the basement of a rowhouse on Prospect Street after a fire started by what fire inspectors believe was faulty wiring. As a precautionary step, inspectors attempted to inspect nearly 100 houses in the area Tuesday, entering 30. What resulted should trouble any student living off campus – two stop work orders for illegal construction, two certificates of occupancy revoked, 150 housing code violations and ten houses and basement apartments temporarily condemned. Not one of the 30 inspected had a basic business license, which ensures that the homeowner has paid his or her taxes and that proper inspections were done on the house.

Sunday’s tragedy and the week’s events have led many in the community to ask how the university could have allowed its students to live in such dangerous conditions. Because the university does not guarantee students four years of on-campus housing, it has a responsibility to ensure that the homes that students are renting are up to code. Every year, houses change hands from one group of students to the next, but there are landlords that have remained in the neighborhood for years. Students should enter into their housing contracts knowing what kind of past relationships the landlords have had with their tenants. The university should make this possible.

Already the university has in the works a system to verify that landlords who post their spaces online have the necessary licenses. But there is more the university can do. The university can maintain a pro-active role by setting up a system that would allow residents to grade their landlords and post the results online. This would hold the landlords accountable for their lodgings from year to year.

Clearly, it is unacceptable that students are living in houses that do not meet minimum safety standards. And while the university has a responsibility to ensure basic standards in properties rented to students, the burden rests with landlords. Any tenant deserves to know the exact state of the house and should have a landlord readily available to attend to any problems. Owners have a responsibility to their tenants and should not just wait for an emergency phone call. They should be checking in regularly to make sure that the home is up to code and being cared for properly.

While there are plenty of local landlords that default on their responsibility to their tenants, perhaps the greatest obstacle facing student tenants is the absentee landlord. Often owners living out of the area make few if any visits to the house in Georgetown that they are renting, remaining content as long as they receive a check in the mail. Their absence and neglect of the home only endangers the residents. It also makes it difficult for the landlords to make changes to the home if there are problems that the tenants bring to their attention.

Worse yet are signs distributed by some landlords that discourage students from allowing inspectors into their homes. The Student Housing Association, a Georgetown-area landlord that owns multiple area properties, distributed notices warning residents that fire inspection visits may be a form of municipal “manipulation.” Nothing could be further from the truth. Nothing could be more dangerous. These landlords’ disregard for student safety borders on the criminally negligent and should not be tolerated.

Still, students remain ultimately responsible for making sure that they communicate with their landlords and that they maintain good living conditions while they are tenants. If there is a blatant problem in the house, students should not hesitate to let their landlords know about it immediately. If the landlords are indifferent or slow to reply, students should be persistent, taking their complaints straight to the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs and getting their homes properly inspected.

It should not have taken a student’s death to wake up the Georgetown community to the crumbling conditions of its rental homes. Ten houses and basement apartments in Georgetown have been temporarily condemned, but how many others in the neighborhood are slowly deteriorating? The university, students and landlords need to focus closely on working together in order to protect not only the condition of the homes, but also the safety of their renters.

Off-campus students can request that their houses be inspected by calling the Department of Regulatory and Consular Affairs (DCRA) at (202) 442-4400.

Additional information can be found in the Off-Campus Living Guide provided by the Office of Off-Campus Housing on its website at http://och.georgetown.edu.

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