Abandoned Properties Raise Ire on Hill

Posted May 25, 2007 at 4:48pm

A group of Capitol Hill residents believes the D.C. government is failing to address vacant properties that have been languishing in the neighborhood for years and attracting drug dealers, pests, graffiti, loitering and prostitution.

As resident Charles Elliott put it, the group is “mad as hell and not going to take it anymore.”

So Elliott and others have organized a Joint Advisory Neighborhood Commission 6C/6A Vacant Property Task Force, which Elliott chairs, to try to help the city address the problem.

D.C.’s main method of dealing with abandoned property is by raising taxes on such units. Vacant property is taxed at a Class 3 rate of $5 per $100 in assessed value; residential property in use is taxed at a Class 1 rate of 85 cents per $100.

The Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs is responsible for identifying vacant property and informing the Office of Tax and Revenue of a change in tax status.

Elliott said the task force has documented more than 200 vacant units in its two ANCs alone and that 150 of them are classified incorrectly. The plan now is to send letters to the owners informing them of the nuisance to the neighborhood and of the tax laws and requesting information on the owners’ plan for the property.

This comes after Elliott said he provided Allen Smith, manager of the DCRA Office of Vacant Property, with a list of 70 vacant properties more than a month ago and waited as no action was taken.

“I said, ‘Hey, look, here’s a gift. You guys don’t have to do anything but say OK and change the status,’” Elliott said. “They’ve done nothing. It’s a little frustrating.”

DCRA spokeswoman Karyn-Siobhan Robinson confirmed the receipt of Elliott’s list and said a number of its addresses were already in the department’s database. The DCRA will investigate those houses, Robinson said.

Nick Majett, DCRA deputy director for compliance and enforcement, said the department has recently been granted more resources to deal with vacant property.

Only two of the department’s 80 housing inspectors currently deal exclusively with vacant units, according to Majett. The Office of Vacant Property consists of Smith, the two inspectors and three clerks.

“If there are 200 vacant in 6A and 6C alone, imagine how many there must be in the whole city,” Elliott said. “It’s really mind-boggling that there are only two DCRA inspectors on this.”

Elliott said he sees the task force’s relationship with DCRA as “a partnership.”

“The DCRA has the responsibility to change the tax status for people, and that’s obviously something we cannot do, but what we’re trying to do is be a resource for them, knowing that they are understaffed and have the whole city to deal with,” he said.

“We’re saying, ‘We’ve done the work, we’ve done the research and taken pictures. All you have to do is send an inspector out to do an eyeball and say OK and we’re good to go.’”

The task force has proposed a one-year budget of $550, split evenly between the two ANCs, for postage, envelopes, paper and a post office box.

Elliott mentioned a particularly enraging case where the owner of a vacant property threatened to sue its neighbor after the neighbor planted flowers on the vacant lot to make it look nicer.

“You’ve got a case where a lot has not only been vacant for who knows how many years but is also getting a homestead deduction, and you have the nerve to sue someone for making your property look nicer? That’s not OK,” Elliott said.

He said the point of the letter project is to put pressure on owners to develop their property or sell it to the D.C. government or someone else.

The message, Elliott said, will be, “We’re paying attention now. We are sick and tired of this. What is your plan? If you are trying to get permits, we can point you in the right direction.

“But if the plan is to do nothing, if this is ‘situation normal’ and it’s, ‘Get the hell out of my face,’ then that’s a problem.”

The task force met last week with the office of Ward 6 Councilman Tommy Wells (D), who is supportive of the effort. According to Wells’ chief of staff, Charles Allen, the office may send follow-up letters to owners who ignore the task force.

The police are aware of the problem of vacant properties, too.

“I have found that one vacant house can deteriorate the quality of life for all in one block,” 1st District Cmdr. Diane Groomes said.

“The police, Councilmember Wells, we’re all on the same page on this,” Elliott said. “I don’t know how you could say the task force is a bad idea unless you were a vacant property owner.”