When Trent Tucker first heard that the city planned to redevelop the St. Elizabeths Hospital campus in Southeast D.C., he thought it was a good omen. For 14 years, Tucker has lived just south of St. Elizabeths in the Washington Overlook development, a town-house community in Congress Heights. Tucker, a psychologist and president of the Washington Overlook Homeowners Association, thought the redevelopment would pump energy and life into the surrounding neighborhoods. The plans, he says, sounded like “an intervention by God.”
Inspired, Tucker joined a citizens’ advisory panel on the project and befriended city planners. Soon, he was recruiting his neighbors to participate in the planning process and penning glowing predictions of the redevelopment in his community newsletter. “I started my own advertising campaign to generate excitement about the project,” says Tucker. “I was telling everyone, ‘Let’s take the bull by the horns on this.’”
Then, earlier this year, Tucker received an updated property assessment for his home. It had dropped by $17,840 since the previous year, from $127,520 to $109,680.
The District’s Office of Tax and Revenue, which assesses D.C. properties, typically catches grief from homeowners when the figures go up, not down. Lower assessments mean lower taxes, a result few D.C. residents are inclined to challenge. According to Thomas Branham, chief assessor for the tax office, on average between 3,000 and 3,500 people contest increased assessments every year, whereas homeowners contesting lowered assessments are a notable phenomenon. “We get about one a year,” says Branham. “Usually, they are misguided. Their property is for sale, and they think that if our assessment isn’t at or above the sale price, they won’t be able to sell it.”
Tucker, however, was suspicious. These were boom times in District real estate. Investment in the neighborhood was on the rise. Why was his property’s value going down?
He checked a second property he owns in the Washington Overlook, which he rents out as an investment and which he had recently renovated. Sure enough, it had dropped as wellby $18,220.
Tucker also looked at the 2004 assessment for an unimproved parcel within the association’s grounds. The patch of land had depreciated from $72,750 to $3,980.
With that, Tucker began abandoning his role as a civic booster to join a different class of District residentsthose who regard the city’s plans for the future with a wary eye. Ward 8 has a rich tradition of seeing redevelopment as a code word for gentrification and displacement. To Tucker, the St. Elizabeths project now seemed as if it fit the bill.
The next step was to talk to his neighbors. As it turned out, 47 of 49 properties in the Washington Overlook had seen their assessments drop since the previous year. Then the group conducted a rudimentary survey of more of Congress Heights, checking property values on both sides of the St. Elizabeths campus.
A pattern emerged. Properties bordering the west side, which is owned by the federal government, appeared to be going down in value, says Tucker. Properties bordering the east side, which is owned by the District government, appeared to be increasing in value. “It just makes no sense,” says Tucker. “It’s not an area where you would expect things to go down.”
Recently, Tucker sent a letter to Ward 8 Councilmember Sandy Allen asking the D.C. Council to pass legislation protecting the Washington Overlook from federal or local encroachment. “The whole neighborhood is worried that there is an established plan to take our property by the exercise of [eminent] domain, most likely by the Federal Government, as the Homeland Security Agency has been very up front about its current location being a temporary site,” wrote Tucker.
In late spring, Tucker attended a public meeting, hosted by the city, to discuss the redevelopment plans. “I didn’t know who to trust,” says Tucker. “How much should I say? I didn’t want to tip them off so they could cover up.”
In the end, Tucker decided to voice a general warning to everyone in the community, declaring, he recounts, that “this project could ruin my life.”
“It was pretty dramatic,” Tucker says. But it was also vague.
Perhaps because of his ambiguity, city officials in the D.C. Office of Planning were hesitant to address Tucker’s accusations. Michael Downie, a redevelopment planner with the office, says it wasn’t until a later meeting that he became aware of Tucker’s specific concerns. “He was very vague at first,” recalls Downie. “All he would say is that something sinister was going on.”
Downie says that he sympathizes with Tucker’s concerns but that his fear of being displaced is unwarranted. Downie says that the city planners are too busy with their campus redevelopment to be eyeing extra territory. “We do have a very large-scale redevelopment project that will take 20 to 30 years at a minimum to build out,” says Downie. “We face such a formidable task right now that I don’t think it would be our best interest to sort of go out and try to accumulate more land to develop.”
Downie points out that the planning office has nothing to do with property assessments in D.C. “We don’t have meetings with the [Office of Tax and Revenue] to draft up a way to tackle the redevelopment of the surrounding area,” says Downie. “It’s not our jurisdiction.”
Officials with the tax office acknowledge that some property values, including those belonging to Tucker, decreased in the Washington Overlook last year. But the overall total residential assessments in Tucker’s sub-neighborhood, a larger unit that includes 1,575 residential properties, increased by $8 million, or roughly 5 percent. “Some property assessments increased while others remained the same or were reduced,” writes Virginia Daisley, director of communications for the Office of Tax and Revenue, via e-mail. “The point was to more equally distribute the property-tax burden.”
According to Chief Assessor Branham, the assessments of residential properties in Congress Heights dropped because of a change in the assessment method the tax office used for the neighborhood. For the most recent assessment, the office switched from a method based on broad price trends to a more complex mathematical formula drawing on specific prices from home sales in the area over the past two years.
The formula does not include any variable reflecting future plans for St. Elizabeths. “We assess the properties every year now,” says Branham. “There’s no need to speculate into the future about what might happen and try and reflect that today. I think it’s poor tax policy and fairly speculative to try and tax people on something that may or may not be ultimately approved in the future.” CP