The District Relents: The Group Home Story

by Marc Fisher, The Washington Post

Eugene Sampson no longer need fear being thrown out of his home, the only apartment he has ever had to himself. John Cook can rest easy about the D.C. government’s threat to fine him thousands of dollars and haul him to jail. After my column Tuesday about the District’s efforts to harass one of the city’s best-run group homes for the mentally disabled, D.C. council member Phil Mendelson (At Large) jumped into action against the bureaucracy.

L’Arche runs an extraordinarily comfortable and welcoming home on Ontario Road NW. There’s plenty of room for several more residents than the city bureaucrats have allowed. But a months-long battle over the certificate of occupancy led to three D.C. departments abusing their authority by throwing the book at L’Arche’s director, John Cook.

Now, after the column and a call from Mendelson, the Consumer and Regulatory Affairs Department has miraculously ruled that–poof!–the house can actually handle eight disabled people rather than five. And the Fire Marshall has informed Mendelson that it has rescinded all penalties that were levied against Cook for failure to conform to regulations. The city had threatened Cook and L’Arche with fines of $300 a day and 90 days in jail for each passing day.

“I happen to know both Gene [Sampson] and the L’Arche community, and they are the model for what group homes should be in this city,” Mendelson tells me.

But why did this happen? Why did three city agencies gang up on a little group home that is doing its work superbly, when the District is known across the nation as a place that permits truly awful group homes to exist for years on end? “L’Arche is a small outfit and they don’t have the bucks for a fancy lawyer downtown to represent their interests,” Mendelson says, “so it’s very easy for the bureaucracy to catch them up in red tape.”

Amazingly, some city bureaucrats yesterday tried to defend themselves by contending that the problem was being fixed even before the column ran, that changes were being made at the end of last week. Still, that would have been after I’d peppered city agencies with calls seeking comment on the situation at L’Arche. The problem is how those agencies treated L’Arche in the first place, not how they respond to calls from a newspaper.

The councilman is frustrated because “it shouldn’t be necessary for me to get involved” to fix a situation like this.
But unfortunately, that’s all too often how the D.C. government operates. Another case in point: A D.C. restaurant owner came to Mendelson a while back complaining that the city was forcing him to buy a $25 permit to burn candles in his dining room. It’s just a nuisance fee, the restaurateur complained.

Mendelson checked with the fire department, which confirmed that such permits were required, and that they actually cost $100, not $25. Mendelson, seeing no reason why a restaurant should have to get a permit to burn a candle, wrote a bill changing the regulation. The fire department went ballistic: Candles could start fires, they said. This was a safety issue! But Mendelson determined that only a few dozen eateries had bought the permits, and obviously many more places use candles. More important, fire inspectors already had the right to check how candles were being used at any restaurant in the city; the permits didn’t add a bit of extra safety. The council went ahead and changed the regulation, and, Mendelson says, “Life has gone on, and everybody’s just as safe as they were before. There’s just this insensitivity in the bureaucracy.”

At least the L’Arche case has a happy ending–but is it really an ending? People throughout the agencies that devote themselves to the care of the city’s mentally disabled say that the bureaucratic ruthlessness and incompetence that L’Arche has witnessed is all too commonly aimed at the good players in the industry, while some of the bad guys go unpunished. That’s the challenge that Mayor-elect Adrian Fenty faces in one of the city’s most chronically mismanaged areas.