Staff Editorial: City has fallen short on vacant property enforcement

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The long-vacant Argentine-owned row house at 2136 R St. NW is one of many abandoned foreign missions in the Sheridan-Kalorama area. (Brian Kapur/The Current/June 2017)

The District has strong laws on the books regarding vacant and blighted properties — and for good reason. An abandoned building that’s been left to decay reduces the quality of life and the property values of the homes around it. It can cast a pall over an otherwise thriving block, or it can further hamper a struggling area’s recovery.

The office of D.C. Auditor Kathy Patterson recently looked at a variety of vacant and blighted properties from all corners of the city. And the results weren’t pretty. Time and again, the audit found, the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs dawdled on obviously unused properties or improperly granted exemptions.

Under D.C. law, a property deemed vacant is taxed at $5 per $100 of assessed value, compared to $1.65 for occupied commercial space and 85 cents for occupied homes. The rate doubles when a property is not only unused but demonstrably blighted. Short-term exemptions are available for properties that are on the market, are undergoing renovations or development, or are tied up in probate disputes. Owners can also seek relief from the higher taxes in cases of economic hardship.

We strongly support these laws. The higher rates discourage speculators from allowing precious space to sit idle indefinitely, while the exemptions protect the rights of legitimate property owners.

But as the auditor found when focusing on 31 homes, commercial buildings and apartment houses, the regulatory affairs department hasn’t reliably followed those laws. On those 31 properties alone, delays, inaction, bungled paperwork and improper exemptions — granted by the city without adequate evidence or for inappropriately long periods — resulted in nearly $1 million in property taxes never being billed.

The difference between occupied and vacant or blighted status quickly runs to tens of thousands of dollars for an individual property — with an estimated 1,000 to 3,000 such properties across the District. Even based on the auditor’s admittedly non-random sample, it’s clear that the city is leaving significant money on the table. But that’s not the worst of it. As the auditor’s report observes, “The community impact has been no less grievous: deteriorating buildings; fewer neighbors and eyes on the street; magnets for illegal activity; and frustration from neighbors and elected officials when their repeated complaints do not produce results.”

Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs director Melinda Bolling responded that many of the problems documented in the audit are a couple of years old. Ms. Bolling states that the agency has since shaken up its Vacant Buildings Enforcement Unit, bringing in new leadership, firing some employees, increasing staff training and improving the office’s electronic tracking system, among other changes. The agency is also working to better coordinate with the Office of Tax and Revenue.

Reassuringly, the auditor’s office agrees that the agency is on the right track. Even so, we think a D.C. Council hearing on the matter is important. The hearing would offer an opportunity to question key officials on the record, and for affected residents to publicly air their troubles with vacant and blighted properties.