City officials are seeking to inspect students’ off-campus townhouses for dangerous living conditions after a Georgetown University student died in a townhouse fire one week ago.
Daniel Rigby, a Georgetown senior, died Oct. 17 after his two-story townhouse at 3318 Prospect St. caught on fire. The house had faulty electrical wiring in the basement, where Rigby lived. Metal bars on the building’s windows may have prevented his escape.
In response to Rigby’s death, GW is working with the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs to ensure safety in off-campus housing, said Glen Davis, a DCRA spokesman. Officials have been going door to door in Foggy Bottom and other areas and ask if they can inspect students’ townhouses for fire safety violations.
Tracy Schario, director of GW Media Relations, said the University is particularly concerned about one Foggy Bottom townhouse that she declined to identify. The townhouse has been the subject of several complaints from neighbors concerned about possible safety violations.
“There are several apartments in the building,” Schario said. “We know of three GW students who live in the building, and the landlord actually lives in California.”
Davis said she encourages students to ask for an inspection from the fire marshal because they have a right to live in a safe home. Some Georgetown students were advised by their landlords not to allow DCRA officials inside, and Davis referenced Rigby’s death as an example of the potential consequences of inaction.
“There was no way for him to get out. There were bars and locks on the windows and a rear exit that had an air conditioner mostly blocking it,” Davis said.
Schario said she was unaware of the new city inspection program but said the University has been contacting students in an effort to encourage them to ask for DCRA fire code inspections.
She also said students should contact Michael Akin, director of the Office of D.C. and Foggy Bottom/West End Affairs, if they have questions about dealing with potentially unsafe conditions.
In October 2003, an electrical fire ravaged a townhouse in the Foggy Bottom Mews, located at 900 24th St. behind 7-Eleven. No injuries were reported, though the blaze and subsequent fire department response resulted in thousands of dollars in damage.
Ali Noor, a second-year GW medical student, lived in a Foggy Bottom Mews townhouse when the fire occurred.
“It was very well-contained,” Noor said. “(The firefighters) did a very good job.”
Alan Etter, public information officer for the D.C. Fire Department, said some students are willing to overlook safety concerns if rent is cheap, especially since living in D.C. is so expensive.
“So often people wait until after a tragedy to do something,” Etter said.
Inspectors cannot enter a private residence without a request from the tenant or owner, so it is up to students to look after their own safety, Etter said.
In order to rent a house, the owner needs to obtain business and housing licenses, a process that entails a city safety inspection, said Assistant Fire Marshal Chief Gary Palmer. If an owner does not have the licenses, it is illegal to rent a townhouse. But the city has no way of knowing what is happening in a private residence, Palmer said.
“Our job is to help you make these homes as safe as they can be,” Etter said.
He also said inspections are free, but if there are significant safety violations, the building will be deemed inhabitable and closed until repairs are made. An inspection of Georgetown apartments following Rigby’s death resulted in the evictions of 43 students, Georgetown’s student newspaper, The Hoya, reported. City officials primarily made inspections in the 3200 through 3500 blocks of Prospect Street.
The DCRA tries to work with residents to find temporary housing, Etter said, noting that Georgetown has put displaced students in hotels.
Sandi Safro, a 2004 GW graduate who lives at 3265 Prospect St., said city officials inspected her townhouse twice in the last week and installed a carbon monoxide detector and two fire extinguishers. They also checked smoke detectors and instructed the owner to replace the light bulb in the house’s exit sign.
Safro said she is concerned because the fire – which occurred less than a block away from her house – could have spread to nearby buildings in densely packed area.
“It’s always a little scary because when you rent the house,” she said. “You don’t get control over (the security precautions) in the house.”
-Michael Barnett contributed to this report.