I appreciate the attention your paper gives to the trials and tribulations of the Shaw neighborhood. The story by Elissa Silverman (“Nobody’s Home,” 6/26) brought to light our plight against vacant properties and the failure of the District government to enforce its own laws. I would like, however, to comment on two small, but I feel significant, points. First, the atrocity of the problems vacant houses present could have been fleshed out a bit. It also bothered me that Ms. Silverman felt compelled to portray the residents of Q Street as a gaggle of Georgetown wannabes.

The several vacant properties plaguing Shaw are popular dumpsites, littered with dilapidated sofas, mattresses, car parts, condoms, drug paraphernalia, and raw garbage. Those with shells (or somewhat more intact interiors) provide harborage for the small lot of crackheads and crack whores who perennially roam our sidewalks and alleys looking to score. The lots and alleyways surrounding the vacant properties function as bedrooms, sitting rooms, and bathrooms for the chronically high.

The 5 percent vacant property tax rate was intended to be punitive so that speculative absentee landlords would not allow their properties to deteriorate into nuisances while they cooled their heels in Silver Spring, dreaming of the payoff that might come with gentrification. Although sometimes the city comes around to ticket nuisance properties for housing code violations, the Department of Public Works is often left to clean up the sites, hoping the property owner will eventually pay the imposed lien. The refusal of the Office of Tax and Revenue to enforce the law directly hurts those citizens and their children who are forced to live next to these unsanitary and sometimes dangerous sites. It also indirectly robs the rest of the citizenry by forcing public money to be used to clean up these properties with, at best, a deferred chance of rectitude when (and if) the owner decides to sell the property. Of course, the owner could always abandon the property if the tax and nuisance liens outweighed the potential value of the property, leaving everything in the city’s lap. If the law were enforced, the landlord would have to put up real money to protect his dreams (like the rest of us) or abandon his speculation sooner and spare the local residents of such a protracted nuisance. The current practice of OTR, contrary to the law, facilitates irresponsible speculation and robs the electorate.

As to the somewhat facile characterization of the residents of the 600 block of Q Street: We would have to do more than squint to pretend we’re closer to say, the 3100 block in Georgetown; we’d have to squeeze our eyes tight and click our ruby-red slippers together three times. But that misses the point. Yes, Shaw is sometimes Oz-like, with its cast of eclectic and colorful characters, but we like it here. Unlike Georgetown (the true mecca for “especially white professionals”), the neighbors of Shaw represent an interesting cross-section of D.C. demographics. With a deep history as the African-American enclave of Washington’s segregationist era, Shaw’s current black residents span the spectrum from well-educated professionals, middle-class families, and retired folks to working-class families, foster-care households, and welfare mothers and grandmothers. There’s a lot of Section 8 housing here, some of it providing a blessedly decent place for a grandmother to raise a passel of kids. But there’re also Latino and Chinese homeowners, some immigrants, first- and second-generation. We have lesbian and gay families and a smattering of “white professionals” who would consider Georgetown and its reputation for litigious, NIMBY, and self-righteous residents stifling.

There’s a laissez faire attitude here in Shaw that sometimes hurts us (not driving out the crack houses soon enough, ignoring the illegal dumpers, letting the city off the hook for not providing the same level of services that places like Georgetown enjoy). But in the scheme of things, I think I speak for most of my neighbors who, if given the unlikely chance of trading their home here for an elegant townhouse in Georgetown, would prefer it here—flying monkeys and all.


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