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One of every six buildings along this major crosstown thoroughfare is an abandoned ruin. Somehow, the D.C. government hasn’t noticed.
Photographs by Darrow Montgomery
Some time, somehow, someone lived at 535 Florida Ave. NWalthough it’s hard to imagine, looking at it today, that the three-story row house with the sickly salmon paint job was ever actually inhabited. The first-floor windows are broken. The chimney has crumbled. Weeds grow through the floor.
If you peer through the shards of glass in the front-window frame, you can see a massive stack of carpet strips, floorboards, and two-by-fours piled in front of the living room fireplace. The junk nearly reaches the ceiling. It’s a colossal amount of kindling, should anyone want to start a fire.
Which is precisely what worries T.C. Bryant, who lives next doorthe possibility that squatters might light a fire and accidentally burn down his house.
I meet Bryant, a lanky man with a slow, purposeful demeanor, on a Tuesday morning in August. I’ve climbed the makeshift staircase leading up to the front door of 535 Florida Ave., and I’m looking through the window when Bryant calls to me from the sidewalk.
“You interested in buying that house?” Bryant asks in a hopeful voice. We chat for awhile, and Bryant, who has lived at 537 Florida Ave. for two years, invites me into his home. He has something to show me.
Bryant’s tour begins and ends in the cramped back yard that he shares with the abandoned hulk next door. It’s a shady nook, crowded between the two houses. An avalanche of mangled wood and tangled metal spills out of a gaping hole in the empty house, engulfing most of the grassy lot.
“I’ve called the government several times,” says Bryant, 52, a driver for a shuttle service, “but nothing ever comes of it. I just want them to clean up this trash, so I can put a chair back [here]. It could be a nice place to sit.”
Bryant’s predicament is bad enough. But he has another misfortune: He happens to live along a particularly blighted stretch of Florida Avenue NW, bounded by Georgia Avenue to the west and New York Avenue to the east. Of the 239 buildings along this one-mile stretch, fully 39or one out of every sixare boarded-up ruins.
Call it the Florida Milean example of city neglect that persists, year in and year out, in mocking defiance of the supposedly sweeping neighborhood revitalization that Mayor Anthony A. Williams and his fellow District politicians love to tout.
The Florida Mile is one of the busiest crosstown thoroughfares in the city. Each weekday, thousands of commuters from Maryland, Virginia, and the District traverse it by car. Along the way, they get a face full of some of the grimmest, scariest, most depressing real estate the District has to offer. A face full, in other words, of the District’s bad old days that were supposed to be behind us.
Yet despite all the political rhetoric to the contrary, on Williams’ watch, the District has indulged absentee owners like those along the Florida Mile with significant tax incentives to keep their properties vacant rather than renovate them. At the same time, the city has failed to enforce housing-code violations, collect required fines, or condemn decrepit structures and tear them down, all of which further encourage neglectful building owners to leave their vacant properties in squalor.
The house at 405 Florida Ave., for example, is little more than a charred husk. But listen closely, and it whispers a story that echoes throughout the city, where unsafe structures are often left standing until they collapse.
Farther east along the Florida Mile, 414 Florida Ave. tells a different tale. It illustrates how District officials use the property-tax system not as a potential tool to facilitate the repair of vacant buildings, but as a club to blunt the likelihood that such properties will ever be refurbished.
Meanwhile, the gutted four-story red-brick apartment building on Florida Avenue between Quincy Place and North Capitol Street tells another storyof the neighborhood’s constant hope for revitalization. But its final chapter has yet to be written. Adorning the side of the buildingnamed the Madisona sign high above passing traffic reads “Coming Soon: New Luxury Condominiums & Shops.” How soon is left unspecified. According to neighbors, renovation work on the Madison ended abruptly several months ago.
All of these empty properties are privately owned. And the owners have the right to do with their buildings what they wantup to a point.
But when their boards get pulled off, their fences cut open, and their blockade of bricks knocked down, the 39 vacant buildings along the Florida Mile become something much worse than an eyesore. They become caves of concealed debauchery, homes to drug addicts, prostitutes, and squatters.
For this reason, city regulations require absentee owners to keep their vacant properties properly secured. When they fail to do so, housing inspectors from the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) are supposed to move in, hammers in hand, to safeguard the situation. Afterward, the DCRA can bill the absentee owners for the cost of the work and fine them for housing-code violations.
But residents along the Florida Mile such as Bryant complain that the DCRA has responded slowly to their complaintswhen the agency responds at all. As a consequence, many of the vacant buildings remain wide open.
The Florida Mile’s 39 run-down houses are part of a much larger problem within the District. In 1999, the DCRA hired a private consulting group to conduct a survey of the city’s abandoned and vacant housing. The consultants found more than 4,000 such properties citywide.
Seen in the broader context of the District’s affordable-housing crunch, the Florida Mile’s 39 vacant properties look like something elsea waste of precious space. A recent study by Carol O’Cleireacain, of the Brookings Institution, and Alice M. Rivlin, chair of the financial control board, predicted that the District’s population will increase by 100,000 residents by the end of the decade. City officials facing a potential shortage of housing stock and a simultaneous glut of empty buildings have, at least in theory, put two and two together.
On March 30, Williams proposed legislation, which is still pending before the D.C. Council, called the Housing Preservation, Rehabilitation and Production Omnibus Amendment Act of 2001. Two of the bill’s nine sections target the city’s deteriorated housing stock. “Not only do we have to address the vacant properties around the District, but we must also expand the supply of housing,” Williams said when he introduced the bill.
But the mayor’s attempt at a legislative remedy for vacant properties comes somewhat belatedly. Between January 1999 and October 2000, 13 different bills addressing the same issue were proposed by various councilmembers, and the council’s Committee on Consumer and Regulatory Affairs held five public hearings on the subject. As a result, last January, the council unanimously passed into law the Abatement and Condemnation of Nuisance Properties Omnibus Amendment Act of 2000. The regulations to implement the law are due out in October.
Critics contend that the problem won’t be solved by passing more legislation but by enforcing the laws already on the books. An analysis of the vacant properties along the Florida Mile suggests that both the DCRA and the Office of Tax and Revenue (OTR) are struggling to cope with the magnitude of the blight.
Until 1890, Florida Avenue was called Boundary Street, because it marked the end of the city’s northern frontier. And the Florida Mile remains to this day a marginalized borderland. It marks the northern edge of Shaw and the southern edge of LeDroit Park. It runs through the fringes of many neighborhoodsBloomingdale, Truxton Circle, Eckingtonbut through the heart of none. And thus it remains a kind of no man’s land. Everyone sees it suffering, but few stop and wonder why.
To the east, near New York Avenue, the District’s so-called high-tech corridor greets passing motorists with the sound of jackhammers and the sight of bright-orange construction cones. Newly renovated office buildings, abuzz with activity, line the streets, and a new Metro stop is under construction. To the west, the U Street corridor sings a siren song, beckoning to passers-by with an overture of chic cafes and trendy nightclubs.
Sandwiched in between, the Florida Mile remains silent, a once-great gateway to the city hibernating inside a cocoon of cinder block and particleboardthe materials of choice for barricading unoccupied buildings. City officials insist that stronger legislation and better enforcement of housing laws are on the way. But along the Florida Mile, the fulfillment of these promises, like the completion of the luxury condominiums at the Madison, seems to be forever “coming soon.”
At the corner of Florida and Rhode Island Avenues, four look-alike houses lean together in a state of disrepair. They are all two-story brick town houses, slathered from foundation to rooftop with a heavy coat of white paint. All four are vacant.
Three of the four houses have no addresses listed on their exteriors. But by counting from left to right, east to west, you can place 414 Florida Ave. NW as the last one in the row. There’s no knocker, no mailbox, no doorbell. A thick slab of wood is nailed securely over the front entrance. Thousands of metal staples crisscross the flat wooden surface, forming a universe of miniature constellations.
The myriad staples suggest that, for years, this door has served not as an entranceway but as a makeshift billboard for guerrilla advertisers. Currently, there’s nothing hanging up at 414, but, next door, a couple of posters promoting Black Nitti & Goddi’s new album, Top Flight Thug Life, are stapled up in duplicate.
Despite an abundance of evidence to the contrary, for years the tax office has regarded 414 Florida Ave. as not only occupied but also the primary residence of its ownera company called Megaros Incorporated, according to OTR records. (Partners of Megaros Incorporated did not respond to a request for an interview.)
Thus, the OTR has classified 414 Florida Ave. as an owner-occupied, or Class 1, property and granted it the lowest available property-tax rate.
There are four classes of property in the District. Owners of Class 1 properties pay the lowest rate96 cents for every $100 of the property’s assessed value. Owners of vacant and abandoned properties are supposed to pay the highest rate of taxes in the District. Along with owners of commercial properties, absentee owners are required to pay $1.95 for every $100 of assessed valueor roughly twice the rate of Class 1 properties.
If used effectively, the District’s multitiered system of assigning property taxes could provide city officials with a way to coax vacant properties back onto the market. By charging a relatively high amount of taxes on vacant properties, the city could give absentee owners a significant incentive to refurbish their properties. Instead, the city appears hellbent on doing the opposite.
Under the Tax Parity Act, which Williams signed into law in 1999, the amount of taxes that absentee owners must pay on their vacant properties has decreased sharplyand will continue to do so until leveling off in 2002.
Before the Tax Parity Act, there were five classes of property taxes in the District. Vacant and abandoned properties had a tax class of their own: For the privilege of keeping their properties unoccupied, owners could expect to pay an exorbitant $5 for every $100 of assessed value. According to OTR officials, the classification system had to be streamlined because of problems with enforcement. But enforcement remains a problem even under the simplified scheme.
Last year, 414 Florida Ave. also wrongly received a homestead tax credit. Designed to provide tax relief for District homeowners, the homestead credit exempts owners living in their primary residences from paying any tax on the first $30,000 of their home’s assessed value.
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Between the misguided tax classification and the spurious homestead deduction, the OTR last year offered an $942 tax break to the owners of 414 Florida Ave. for doing precisely what city officials claim to want to discouragekeeping a property uninhabited.
Earlier this summer, the OTR finally took steps to cancel the homestead exemptions on 9,000 District residences that were improperly receiving them, including 414 Florida Ave. Tax officials estimate that the crackdown on suspicious tax credits will bring the city approximately $13 million in additional revenue.
But whereas tax officials have taken steps to clean up erroneous homestead deductions, they have failed to address another major enforcement problem with the tax code. Last year, of the 39 vacant properties along the Florida Mile, 33 were listed as non-owner-occupied, or Class 2, residential properties. As such, the owners pay slightly more than they would for Class 1 residences but still far less than they should for leaving their properties empty. Yet, aside from the occasional squirrel or rat, the 33 properties are unquestionably unoccupied and ought to be paying the higher, Class 4, tax rate.
The misclassification of properties along the Florida Mile cost the city nearly $20,000 in uncollected taxes last year.
“There are vacant properties out there, and some of them are definitely misclassified. And I don’t like that,” says Herbert J. Huff, deputy chief financial officer at the OTR. “You’re catching us right in the middle of trying to better address this problem.”
But Huff says that tax officials are reluctant to automatically take away the occupied status of all boarded-up properties, because sometimes people live in the houses, despite the dilapidation. “Some of these properties that are boarded up actually have people living in them,” Huff says. “If we take away their occupied status, we’re really going to catch some stuff.”
There are approximately 170,000 commercial and residential properties in the District. The OTR has 35 employees who assess each property’s value and classify its tax status. All the assessments are made from the outside. “We don’t really have the authority to go in and do a Gestapo kind of thing,” says Huff.
To prove that a building is unoccupied, the OTR must marshal a pile of supporting data. If there is no gas or electricity being used at a property, tax officials can make the case that there are no tenants. They can also compare the address of a particular property with lists of addresses for all of the city’s registered voters and licensed drivers; if there is no match, OTR officials can use this information as further evidence that the property is unoccupied. In the past, collecting this information has been time-consuming.
But according to Henry Riley, director of Real Property Tax Administration at the OTR, a better system is coming soon. “We’re just now getting to the point where we can slice and dice our data with information from the DCRA and other agencies, so that we can call things up immediately and take away their occupied status.”
Vacant properties also tend to rack up fines for health- and housing-code violations. But in the past, each agency, including the Department of Health, the DCRA, the Washington Area Sewer Authority, and the Department of Public Works, kept track of its own fines. According to Huff, it was nearly impossible for the OTR to collect the various fines, because the information was scattered among the numerous fiefdoms of the District’s government.
“Soon, they’ll be able to send the fines over to us, and we can turn them into real property taxes,” says Huff. “These owners will be hit with substantial penalties, interest, and fines. If they don’t pay, the properties will go into the tax sale. Before any property transfers, we’re going to get those fines.”
Within a few months, the OTR hopes to expand its property-assessment database, which is already available to the public through the District government’s Web site. The revamped site will eventually serve as a clearinghouse for any fees and fines levied against District properties.
In response to my inquiry, Riley sent inspectors to Florida Avenue to double-check on the houses in question. The inspectors determined that more than 30 of the properties along the Florida Mile should have their tax rates bumped up to the appropriate Class 4 level. There is no statute of limitations for collecting back taxes, so OTR officials could still revisit their past classifications of vacant propertiesalong the Florida Mile and throughout the cityand, if appropriate, bill the absentee owners for more money. Riley hesitates to estimate how much revenue the city could generate by reclassifying vacant properties on a citywide scale, preferring to wait until the OTR has more up-to-date data concerning vacant properties.
“Thank you for bringing this to our attention,” Huff concludes. “This is going to be a real challenge for us.”
The arrival of the green Jiffy John was a good omen along the Florida Mile.
Since early July, the portable toilet has occupied a patch of dirt and grass behind eight town houses at the southwestern corner of Florida and New Jersey Avenues. For more than a decade, neighbors say, the buildings have been vacant and abused. But the portable toilet has been well-received by its neighborsfor where there is a Jiffy John, there is hope of construction.
By 9 a.m. on a muggy Thursday in August, a group of men is hard at work on the property. Against the backdrop of a washed-out, hazy blue sky, two men stand on a rooftop and wrangle with an electric saw. Its high-pitched scream is punctuated by the rhythmic clang of sledgehammers.
Like many who live in the surrounding neighborhood of Shaw, Alexander Padro, a 37-year-old book publishing executive and Ward 2 Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) commissioner, has been optimistically watching the construction. “I hope those properties will serve as a catalyst for renovating the entire area,” says Padro.
Padro attributes much of the dilapidation along Florida Avenue to the wait-and-see attitude of absentee owners. “People have been sitting on these vacant houses, hoping to make a profit when the market improves,” says Padro. “But before the market gets better, someone has to make the first move.”
Padro also asserts that to understand why there are so many vacant properties along Florida Avenue, you have to understand the history of the area. Prior to 1948, he says, the Florida Mile was thriving.
At the time, black familiesrich and poor, blue-collar and white-collarlived alongside one another throughout Shaw. After the end of the Civil War, many successful black institutions, such as Howard University and Freedmen’s Hospital, took root in the surrounding communities.
In 1910, the Howard Theater opened its doors on T Street just off of the Florida Mile, becoming the country’s first major venue for black entertainers and black audiences. It predated Harlem’s Apollo Theater by nearly 20 years. The cluster of venues at the crossroads of Florida Avenue and U Street, of which the Howard Theater served as the anchor, earned the area recognition as “the Black Broadway.” The neighborhood attracted the best entertainers of the day, including Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, and Louis Armstrong.
But in 1948, the U.S. Supreme Court made a decision that altered the neighborhood’s overall trajectory. In Hurd vs. Hodge, the Supreme Court forbade the restrictive real estate covenants that had previously barred blacks from buying property in other parts of the city. In the years that followed, many of the wealthier black families living in Shaw chose to decamp to less-crowded environs. This so-called “black flight” chipped away at the formerly solid economic base of the areas abutting the Florida Mile.
“By the early 1960s, the area was already in mid-economic decline,” says Padro. Then, in 1968, riots ripped through the city following the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Even though the unrest left Florida Avenue physically unharmed, the disturbances marked the Florida Mile with long-lasting psychological scars.
“The riots were basically the straw that broke the camel’s back,” says Padro. “That’s really what started the severe disinvestment in the area. And the perception still exists that this is not a safe neighborhood. The ’68 riots are still fresh in people’s minds.”
To this day, the vacant Howard Theater languishes, its baroque architecture buried beneath a shell of wooden boards.
And yet Padro, like many others in the neighborhood, thinks that the revitalization of Florida Avenue may be coming soon. “The flight to the suburbs has reversed,” says Padro. “You have all these baby boomers and empty nesters who now want to move back into the city, closer to downtown.
“If you stroll down Florida Avenue between 7th and New Jersey two years from now,” he continues, “you won’t see a single empty house. The perception of this area is finally changing.”
With city officials doing little to encourage absentee owners to fix up their properties, many see the upswing in the District’s real estate market as the key to resuscitating the Florida Mile.
“Florida Avenue had better come around, or I’m going to lose a lot of money,” says Orlando Brooks, a partner in the development group Fathi & Associates, which is the single largest owner of vacant properties along the Florida Mile.
Until mid-July, the eight red-brick town houses at the convergence of Florida and New Jersey Avenues were a part of Brooks and his partners’ portfolio. “The only reason we sold those properties is because the people we sold them to [the Florida Group LLC] made a commitment to start renovating them right away.
“Since we started,” continues Brooks, “we seem to have been the trailblazers in the Florida Avenue corridor. It was a scary process in the beginning. But now we’re much more encouraged because we see lots of activity starting up. I think the guys that are waiting for a better market are basically speculators who have been doing this for too long. What are they waiting for? This is the best real estate market that we’ve had in my lifetime. This is what they were waiting for. Call me naive, but I don’t think it’s necessary to sit on a property.
“I grew up here,” continues Brooks. “It’s frustrating to see it languish.”
So far, Brooks says, he and his partners have renovated three houses farther to the east along Florida Avenue, between First and North Capitol Streets NW, and are planning to sweep westward along the Florida Mile, fixing up the seven vacant properties still in their possession, including the Madison.
“We don’t have an exact date yet,” says Brooks about the completion of the Madison. “But we know it’s coming up soon, because the city just gave us our letter saying we can proceed with the conversion. That was the major holdup.
“We give people properties that are beyond repairI mean beyond compare,” Brooks stumbles, before launching into what sounds like a practiced sales pitch. “A lot of people like suburban houses, so we try to bring the suburbs into the inner city. It’s the inner city until you walk through those doors. We open the floor plan up, just like you see in the suburbs, but then we give it city character. We bring back the wood floors and expose the brick.”
Some neighbors, however, complain that there are too many bricks and wood floors exposed in Fathi & Associates properties along the Florida Mile, which have not been properly securedan observation readily apparent to anyone driving past them.
“They had those properties on the corner for almost a year and a half, and during that time, they did not do one single thing,” says Gretchen Wharton, a lifelong Shaw resident who now lives in a restored Victorian town house on Fifth Street NW, just off the Florida Mile. “They sat on it, and they didn’t even secure it or keep it clean for the time they had it. There was a blue van that always parked outside. I had to get the police to go up there and get the prostitutes out.”
“As far as the former owners saying they’re helping the neighborhoodthey didn’t keep it clean and they didn’t secure it,” asserts Wharton. “And then they flipped it.”
In Wharton’s mind, this is typical behavior for absentee owners. She’s seen it for years. “Absentee owners just don’t seem to care,” says Wharton, who can remember a time, during her childhood, when there were no vacant houses on Florida Avenue. “When I was growing up, the neighborhood was much quieter. There were more family-oriented establishments.”
Though Wharton concurs with Padro concerning the economic and historical events that conspired against the Florida Mile, she also believes that a social phenomenon contributed to the decline, as well.
“The families who owned these houses grew older, and many of them died,” says Wharton. “The kids who were left in charge of the propertiessome of them didn’t have any money. Some of them already had families and lived out in the suburbs. What did they want with a property in the city?”
Sometimes, when an old-timer passed away, the deed to the property would be split between numerous children or grandchildren. The bickering that would ensue concerning the property’s fate would often end with their plans in stalemateand with the property in squalor. “Like 1800 New Jersey Ave.,” says Wharton. “It’s been sitting there forever and ever and ever, because the people who inherited it couldn’t come to grips on how much to sell it for or what to do with it.”
Wharton says she can understand wanting to turn a profit off of these properties. “But the one thing I ask them to do is at least take responsibility for keeping [the properties] clean and secure. Because, quite frankly, if they are looking to sell the property, a prospective buyer who comes into the neighborhood and sees a lot of trash and debris and people living in abandoned housingthat’s not going to help the market at all. Just clean it and secure it.”
Farther east along the Florida Mile, in the neighborhood of Bloomingdale, Cleopatra Jones, an ANC commissioner and longtime resident of the area, would like to send absentee owners a more positive message. “Just come and see the neighborhood,” says Jones. “Take a look at the community, whether you’re an investor or if you inherited the property.
“They will have visions of what Florida Avenue used to be like,” continues Jones. “I grew up in Washington. And I remember Florida Avenue being likeeverything. I think Florida Avenue is going to come alive again. It’s going to be a place where the new generation can nurture and start to build and create their own history and legacy, as well as taking a little bit from the past.”
By day, 535 Florida Ave. spews wreckage into T.C. Bryant’s yard. By night, the house gets more action, hosting the wild blowouts of die-hard drug abusers.
Bryant suffers through it all. “I can hear them through the walls,” he says, shaking his head. On the tour of his back yard, Bryant points at a squashed plastic trash can that he says “drug-addict types” have used to climb into the vacant property.
According to city records, the owner of 535 Florida Ave. is a company called the District TLC Trust 1996. The OTR’s Web site lists its address as 101 Farnsworth Ave. in Bordentown, N.J. The company’s telephone number is unlisted, and a Web search for more information about the owners turned up nothing. Like most absentee owners, the people behind the District TLC Trust 1996 are hard to find.
Yet the responsibility for cleaning up 535 Florida Ave. rests, first and foremost, with those absentee owners in New Jersey. “We try and work with the property owners first,” says Clark Ray, neighborhood services coordinator for Ward 2. “But some of these folks are really hard to get a hold of.”
As part of the Abatement and Condemnation of Nuisance Properties Omnibus Amendment Act of 2000, absentee owners will, in the future, be required to register their names and telephone numbers with the DCRA. That’s supposed to speed the complicated task of contacting irresponsible owners.
If the absentee owner of a vacant property can’t be found after a break-in has occurred, housing inspectors from the DCRA’s Neighborhood Stabilization Administration (NSA) are supposed to get involved.
In the case of a property like 535 Florida Ave., the NSA becomes responsible for cleaning up the garbage and barricading the house. After completing the work, the agency can charge the cost of the repairs to the owners and tack on additional fees for violating housing codes. If the owner fails to pay the fines, the DCRA can place a lien against the property. And if the owner fails to pay the lien, the property can then be placed in the annual tax sale of delinquent properties.
But residents like Bryant who live next to derelict properties often complain that DCRA officials are slow to respond to their complaints. In a recent report, the D.C. Council’s Committee on Consumer and Regulatory Affairs concluded, “Despite the NSA’s progress, there remains a considerable amount of distress on the part of citizens, especially Advisory Neighborhood Commissioners, as a result of their often futile attempts to obtain relief, or even assistance, in their efforts to get irresponsible owners to abate violations of both vacant and abandoned, as well as occupied but run-down, properties.”
When DCRA employees make repairs to secure decrepit properties, the cost of the effort is paid from what is known as the “5-513 fund,” which takes its name from a section of the housing code. The 5-513 fund is supposed to be a revolving treasury. Money goes out to pay for repairs; money comes in when owners pay the subsequent fines. But, by 1999, the 5-513 fund had stopped revolving.
At a DCRA oversight hearing on Feb. 10, 1999, then-DCRA Director Lloyd Jordan testified that the 5-513 fund was essentially bankrupt. The fund’s balance, which had once soared into the millions of dollars, had sunk below $50,000a revelation that didn’t bode well for District residents awaiting repairs to hundreds of community eyesores.
The NSA’s fiscal woes resulted primarily from the agency’s failure to collect fines. According to the regulatory affairs committee analysis, “It appears that DCRA is collecting approximately 10% of the $3 million it could collect in outstanding fines and civil infractions.” The committee further encouraged the DCRA, “in coordination with the Office of Tax and Revenue, to undertake more aggressive measures to increase the collection rate.”
Those measures are at last being promised. David Clark, who recently became acting director of the DCRA after a six-year stint as the District’s postmaster, says, “We’re working hard to shore up our compliance group. And the new legislation is going to give us more leverage.”
Clark is particularly optimistic about the so-called “quick-take” provision of the mayor’s proposed housing legislation. “In the past, when owners didn’t pay their fines, the only thing we did is put a tax lien on it and sit around hoping something happens,” says Clark. “But the new legislation is going to help a lot with that. It won’t simply be a question of paying fines. We can actually take over a property, and we won’t spend years doing it. It won’t take long before people get the message real clearthis is serious business. They are going to pay the fines, or we’ll take ownership of the property.”
Much of Clark’s confidence that the DCRA can begin to do a better job of coping with vacant properties rests on his faith in forthcoming legislation. But the regulations for the new nuisance properties abatement act have yet to be written. And the mayor’s other housing proposals remain just thatproposals, which have yet to be approved by the D.C. Council.
Clark says that the additional personnel he’s recently added to the NSA, including 21 new housing inspectors, will help improve enforcement. “The new legislation will allow us to do what we’re supposed to do,” says Clark. “My job, as I see it, is to have us staffed up and to have our people ready to go, so that we’re not sitting around anymore saying, ‘Oh, we don’t have enough people. Oh, we don’t have enough resources.’ Now we have the people. We have the resources. We have the legislation. It’s up to us. And we’ll be able to do the job.”
Thanks in large part to the efforts of Ward 6 Councilmember Sharon Ambrose, who chairs the Committee on Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, the 5-513 fund has been temporarily replenished. At the start of the fiscal year, it contained more than $1 million. And, as part of the new legislation, absentee owners will be required to register their properties with the DCRA and to pay an annual registration fee of $20. That money, as well as fines up to $1,000 for failing to register vacant properties, will be added to the 5-513 fund. But during the first quarter of 2001, the NSA has spent nearly $150,000 more than it has collected on nuisance properties, suggesting that, without further assistance, the 5-513 fund will once again land belly-up.
Despite Clark’s optimistic promises, Bryant and others in the neighborhood believe that their concerns are not being heard. As Bryant leads me out of his house, he expresses his disappointment with the Williams administration. “[Marion] Barry was our best mayor,” Bryant says. “He may have had personal problems, but at least he listened to people. Now that’s what I’m talking about.”
On a Monday morning in mid-July, more than a hundred people are milling about, jockeying for prime seating positions at the District’s annual tax sale. This year, the OTR has chosen to host the event in a windowless room on the fourth floor of its headquarters at 941 North Capitol St. NE.
The room is sparsely decorated and lit by rods of fluorescent lights. Latecomers straggle in and are forced to take seats toward the back, where the view of the auction stage is obstructed by two large rectangular pillars. Hanging from one of the columns is a framed photograph that captures a series of mountain ridges splashed in purple light. The caption reads, “Begin with the end in mind.”
Today, more than 4,000 properties are up for grabs on the auction block because their owners have failed to pay last year’s property taxes. The bidding for each property starts at the amount of the delinquent taxes and moves up from there. The highest bidder is rewarded not with the deed to the property but with something called a “certificate of sale.” The original owners of the property have six months following the auction to fork over the delinquent taxes. After that point, if the owner still hasn’t paid the taxes, the holder of the certificate of sale can initiate foreclosure proceedings.
It is with this end in mindobtaining a property for a fraction of its actual valuethat many eager individuals flock to the tax sale. They are easy to spot. Their anxious expressions, tense posture, and casual dress distinguish them from the other mainstays of the tax salethe pinstriped businesspeople representing million-dollar investment firms.
As the auction gets underway, a middle-aged woman declares to no one in particular, “I got $10,000. We’re going to do some serious bidding. I’m gonna get me that house.”
Most properties up for auction at the tax sale never actually change hands. According to OTR statistics, 95 percent of property owners eventually pay the delinquent taxes, thereby nullifying the certificates of sale. But even in these situations, winning bidders are rewarded for their efforts. Their money is returned in full, plus 18 percent interest on the amount that covered the delinquent taxes. For the syndicates of professional investors that stake out the tax sale, the high rate of return is the end in mind.
Theoretically, the tax sale serves the purpose of getting dilapidated and abandoned properties into more caring hands. If an owner is unable or unwilling to fix up a house and pay its taxes, the tax sale creates a mechanism to shift ownership of the property. So you might expect a high proportion of houses like the boarded-up ruins along the Florida Mile to be represented within that 5 percent of properties that actually transfer ownership.
But, at least this year, the tax sale doesn’t promise to do much for the Florida Mile. Of the 39 vacant properties, only 304 Florida Ave. is up for auction. The owners of the other 38 properties have all paid their property taxes.
OTR officials estimate that there are 610 properties in this year’s auction that are not only run-down and dilapidated but also abandoned. Year after year, nobody pays the property taxes for these 610 residences, and nobody bids on them at the tax sale, because the amount of delinquent taxes owed far surpasses their actual value. Some of these properties have been showing up every year in the tax sale since 1993.
Under these circumstances, the Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) is supposed to intervene to get the abandoned properties into new hands. As part of the agency’s Homestead Housing Preservation Program, each year the DHCD holds a lottery for low- and middle-income District residents at which the winners receive run-down properties for as little as $250.
Many of the abandoned properties in the lottery are orphans from the tax sale. The burden of refurbishing them is left to the new owners. But often the task proves too overwhelming, and the properties continue to languish. As a result, this year’s housing lottery was canceled, as DHCD officials contemplate ways to improve the systemwhich leaves the 610 deadbeat properties in bureaucratic limbo. Like so many aspects of the District’s system for bringing vacant and abandoned properties back onto the market, the DHCD’s lottery system has broken down.
On the day of the tax sale, a pile of rubbish clutters the front porch of 304 Florida Ave., suggesting the aftermath of a swinging summer barbecue. There’s an empty 40 of malt liquor, a discarded flask of vodka, a plastic shot glass, and lots of little crab legs. Yet the atmosphere of the two-story, brick row house is anything but festive. The upstairs windows are all barricaded shutone with an old wooden door, the other three with grimy particleboard.
For a bid of $3,140.69, the Mooring Tax Asset Group, based in Vienna, Va., eventually walks away from the auction with the certificate of sale for 304 Florida Ave. “Our main focus with that property is making money off the interest by getting the owners to pay the taxes,” says Jim Meeks, a representative for the Mooring Tax Asset Group. “Chances are, we’ll get the money back, not the property.”
Meeks says that his firm spent roughly $2 million at this year’s tax sale.
“The area you’re talking about is definitely up-and-coming,” says Meeks. “I’m a big believer that the city is trending upward economically. I’m committed to continuing to invest in the city.”
What if the absentee owners of 304 Florida Ave. don’t pay up? “If we end up with a property in that area, we’d be in pretty good shape,” says Meeks. “It certainly wouldn’t break my heart.”
On the northern side of the Florida Mile, near 4th Street, a three-story row house crouches ogrelike in a dangerous state of disrepair. The house’s midsection bulgeslike a bloated bellyoutward at a perilous angle, threatening passers-by on the sidewalk below.
Where once there had been windows, a gaping wound in the house’s façade reveals its charred innards and other sooty scars from a devastating fire. The house’s address, 405 Florida Ave., is scrawled in black marker on a flat wooden board covering the front entrance.
An 8-by-11-inch piece of orange paper is taped beneath the address. It’s a notice from the Board for the Condemnation of Insanitary Buildings (BCIB), presumably foretelling an imminent death for this forlorn-looking property.
The condemnation board is one of 15 boards and commissions within the DCRA. It’s an interdepartmental body, with members coming from various agencies and appointed by the mayor. The BCIB determines which properties pose immediate threats to their occupants and neighbors. Once a condemnation notice has been issued, an owner can either fix the unsafe conditions or knock the building down. If the owner fails to comply within 30 days of the condemnation notice, the BCIB is required to raze the property and assess the cost of doing so to the owner.
According to OTR records, Kathlyn A. Clark and Earl T. Clark own 405 Florida Ave. The Clarks did not respond to numerous requests for an interview.
The orange notice posted on the front door of their building is dated July 3, 2001. According to neighbors, the fire that ravaged the residence occurred about two years ago, and the property has languished in its current state ever since.
During the first quarter of the current fiscal year, the BCIB reported to the Committee on Consumer and Regulatory Affairs that it had condemned 136 buildings, out of which only 20 had been demolished. At a March 30 oversight hearing, Ambrose addressed those statistics. Why, she wondered, were so few properties actually being razed?
In a recent report, Ambrose’s committee concluded that “even after a property is condemned, it often seems that the most significant effect of this action is that the address is simply placed on a ‘Condemned Property’ list.”
“We would agree that the process takes way too long right now,” says the DCRA’s Clark. “But there’s a lot of unwillingness to demolish houses in this city.” The opposition against demolition is twofold. First, given the housing crunch in the District, community advocates would prefer to see properties restored rather than destroyed. Furthermore, the logistics of knocking down houses in the District are complicated by the predominance of row housing, Clark says. Neighbors often live on either side of a condemned row house, presenting the DCRA with structural complications that would not exist for free-standing properties.
According to Gina Douglas, communications manager at the DCRA, on Aug. 8, 2001, the condemnation board was supposed to hold a hearing concerning the fate of 405 Florida Ave. But when I arrive on the seventh floor of DCRA headquarters to observe the hearing, I’m told by the receptionist not only that there is no condemnation hearing taking place but also that the room it was scheduled forRoom 7218doesn’t even exist.
Eventually, I’m directed to Hubert Johnson, branch chief of the NSA, who explains apologetically that the hearing has been canceled. Perhaps, he says, new owners were interested in the property, and perhaps they would make the necessary repairs.
James Aldridge, a DCRA employee who serves as the chair of the six-member condemnation board, declined several requests for an interview. But a simple irony may account for the board’s overall inefficiency: Until April, three of the board’s six seats remainedjust like the houses the board is supposed to deal withvacant.
“We’re working closely with the mayor’s office, and internally, to fill up those vacancies,” says Clark. “From there, we’ll be ready to implement the new policies and procedures.”
In other words, just like most of the promised assistance for the Florida Mile, improvements by the DCRA are supposed to be coming soon. CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Darrow Montgomery.