I appreciate the fact that the Washington City Paper staff took the issue I raised seriously enough to dedicate an article to the subject of Washington Overlook’s property assessments (“The Price of Vigilance,” 6/27), but I was quite shocked at the superficial style of the piecea sort of he-said, she-said affair with little effort to synthesize, integrate, or even confront the contradictory information that had been presented.
First of all, the article did not convey an adequate description of Washington Overlook. It’s not just some place in Ward 8, but a well-designed complex that affords spectacular views of the city during the winter and gives the appearance of being a suburban hideaway during the rest of the year.
Having been aggressively engaged in the neighborhood real-estate market for the past few years, I have seen market values escalate at a rate of 10 percent to 15 percent annually. Although this suggests that the market might not be determined by the assessed values, it is not independent of them. What could this divergence in the direction of values mean? Historically, valuable land, the U.S. government, and minority communities have been factors in an equation that invariably results in disastrous outcomes for the minorities. Locally, as indicated by the controversy around the new convention center, the District government appears to have found one arena in which it can equate itself with the feds: the ruthless exercise of eminent domain.
One of the primary reasons my suspicions and investment of energy in this issue grew so much was that the Office of Planning people appeared to be extremely intimidated by it and to have adopted a strategy of “If we ignore it, it will go away.” I did give a dramatic but vague warning to the crowd at one of the citizen meetings, but I gave full details to the Office of Planning’s Ward 8 staff liaison within the hour. He promised to look into the lowered assessments. After that, I stopped receiving the reminder calls that had previously served to ensure my attendance at meetings. The Office of Planning made no attempt to tackle the issue, which became a source of disruption in subsequent meetings and was surely a factor in the office’s decision to cancel its final meetings with the community. Doesn’t that seem like big, scary stuff to you?
The Office of Planning’s assurance that the District has its hands full with the redevelopment of St. E’s proper is only somewhat relevant to my concerns. The survey my group did found that the values of properties that border the hospital’s east campus, the portion owned by the District, were unaffected. The properties adjacent to the west campus, the federally owned portion, were significantly reduced in assessed value. Writer Felix Gillette made a significant blunder in not approaching the feds about the issue.
It is also interesting that the Office of Planning did not acknowledge the limits of its authority in speaking about the project. From what I observed in the planning meetings, the District’s position in regard to the west campus is that of a blind man standing on the corner with his hat held out for alms. The feds state, with considerable contempt, that they have no intention of transferring the land to the District until they are assured that no federal agencies have any interest in the property. This concrete pattern of east-west differences in the Congress Heights assessments is not accounted for by the vague and conflicting explanations put forth by the Office of Tax and Revenue.
I assume that the City Paper’s acceptance of those conflicting and unbelievable explanations represents a total change in the paper’s philosophy toward accountability in government. One official indicated that the overall property assessments in Congress Heights, Section B, went up about 5 percent, while the other reported that they went down because of a switch to a complex mathematical formula. Gillette did not require the office to provide documentation at the level of specificity of the material I presentedthat is, providing the specifications of a sample of identified properties to demonstrate the process they were utilizing or to provide an overview of how this process plays out in communities across the city.
The biggest error of all seemed to be Gillette’s not requiring these
district officials to elaborate on statements that appear to indicate that the Office of Tax and Revenue has some options in terms of the methods employed to calculate values in different neighborhoods. What are the organizing principles that determine which methods are used in a given neighborhood? Virginia Daisley, the director of communications for the office, was quoted as stating in an e-mail that some of the assessments in Congress Heights were the result of efforts “to more equally distribute the property-tax burden.” They are doing a great job! One of the records my group pulled disclosed that an associate’s $250,000 house was being assessed as a vacant lot. Yet none of the citizens’ groups or D.C. Council staffers I contacted have had any knowledge of the District’s plan and processes for redistributing the property-tax burden. Apparently it’s an ongoing process. Since the City Paper article, I have received a notice that the Office of Tax and Revenue wants to reassess my property.
I believe that the City Paper has an obligation to follow up on this issue for the education of its readers. I certainly plan to forward the issue to the council with a request that a full investigation be initiated.
Washington Overlook Homeowners’ Association