The District government recently announced a temporary amnesty program that allows Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs [DCRA] customers to secure business licenses – minus $2,000 fines – even if they were operating without permits. This was met with mixed reaction by Ward 7 residents and businesses at the Skyland Shopping Center, along Good Hope and Naylor Roads and Alabama Avenue in Southeast.
"I'm sure people don't have any money so the amnesty is a good idea," said a 60something-year-old native Washingtonian who asked for anonymity, adding that DCRA charges "them a bunch of money for licenses." She stood behind a table vending perfume oils, hats and scarves, and jeans. The table was a stone's throw from a building flattened by a backhoe, in anticipation of the massive redevelopment of Skyland. In late September, Mayor Vincent Gray, 69, marked the start of Skyland's phased demolition.
The woman overseeing the business for her 42-year-son on a Saturday afternoon said he's been licensed since 2006, so he's not affected by amnesty. But he's interested in his vending location once the Skyland overhaul makes way for the soon-to-be-built Walmart.
However, Ms. Oh, who runs an unlicensed beauty and barber supply shop, said she's not renewing her expired license.
"Anytime they give me money, I go," said Oh, 72, a Korean who's been here since 1989, who lives in Virginia. Hers was a Skyland business to be removed to make space for the upgrade, which includes a mixed-use site. D.C. government now owns the businesses through eminent domain. "Last year, until now, they tell us get ready to leave, and they don't come. I'm ready to go." Oh, concerned about her paltry $160,000 buyout, complained it wasn't comparable to what others received.
"They offer me little money, and they got big money," Oh said, adding they got close to a million. While she spoke, at least five customers came into the rundown store to buy hair bands or stockings. By press time, the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning & Economic Development, which oversees the city's development projects, said it was working on finding out more about Oh's situation.
The amnesty program, which began Nov. 1, will end Dec. 31, 2012. DCRA said enterprises with expired or no licenses qualify, and won't incur late fees. Also, operators with expired or missing corporation filings or registrations for weights-and-measures devices may benefit from amnesty.
"We don't have stats on the number of unlicensed businesses in D.C.," said Helder Gil, DCRA legislative and public affairs officer, "but based on the CBCI experience, it appears to be a sizeable number operating either with expired business licenses, incorrect licenses, or no licenses at all."
The amnesty program was the result of DCRA's Citywide Business Compliance Initiative [CBCI], which launched a trial period in mid-July. DCRA partnered with District agencies that issue licenses such as the Department of Health, and Gil said they agreed this was the "best way to bring businesses into compliance with the law," rather than exploring if a reduction in licensing fees would make a bigger impact. CBCI visited nearly 300 businesses and found those with the lowest compliance were general-retail stores, food vendors, beauty salons and barber shops.
Businesses with expired licenses or none at all before Aug. 1, 2012, would qualify. Those operating without current registration with DCRA's Corporations Division, and those without registration of their Universal Product Code scanners, commercial weights or scales, produce scales or gas pumps would also qualify. Besides business licenses, Gil said home-based enterprises also need Home Occupancy Permits, which demonstrated they complied with zoning regulations. Operating without this could result in the fine. This is the first business license amnesty DCRA ever offered.
Sandra Forrest, a Ward 7 resident, disagreed about offering amnesty.
"That's not right," said Forrest, 51, adding that scofflaws are receiving undue advantages without giving back. "When you got homeless people out here trying to get hired, some of these small businesses are only hiring their own kind."