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If homeowners on the 600 block of Q Street NW pretend just a smidgen, they can almost fancy themselves living in a little slice of Georgetown. The street, which hosts an eclectic mix of two- and three-story town houses adorned with colorful window boxes and perfectly landscaped postage stamp-size front yards, brings to mind those found 25 blocks due west. The fantasy ends, though, when neighbors approach the corner of 6th and Q. And that’s even before they remember that the liquor store across the street stocks a poor selection of cabernet sauvignon.
Two derelict properties anchor the end of the block. An assortment of garbage, including food wrappers and a small Christmas tree, lies in the exposed basement at 600 Q. Its next-door neighbor, 604, is only a slight improvement, featuring large swaths of plywood that cover its missing windows and doors. Both buildings are decorated with red-and-white mayoral campaign posters selectively edited with black paint to read, “Jack Evans. Excuses.”
Nick Keenan, who lives down the block at 633 Q Street, considers these so-called nuisance properties more than an eyesore. More and more prospective home buyers (especially white professionals) are discovering this part of Shaw and investing large amounts of money and time in its revival. Keenan and his neighbors have been making a nuisance of themselves, pestering city officials about the decrepit buildings, but they haven’t made much progress.
After repeated requests to city agencies, Keenan and a neighbor ponied up $35 of their own money for plywood and boarded 604 Q themselves. The East Central Civic Association has filed a lawsuit against the property owner, but Keenan claims city bureaucrats have stymied the effort by making information on the property hard to obtain. In seeking to get the landlords to improve their properties or sell them to someone who will, Keenan has discovered that city officials have been actively ignoring a key mechanism to penalize abandoned-property ownersby socking them with a tax more than three to five times that of their neighbors.
“Bells started going off for me when every time I’d ask [city officials], ‘What’s going on with all these vacant properties?’ they’d start out by saying, ‘It’s really very complicated,’” Keenan says.
In the early 1990s, members of the D.C. Council expressed some concern about the swatches of vacant properties dotting city neighborhoods and enthusiastically passed legislation to get tough on their owners. The law created a special tax rate, known as Class 5, which taxed vacant properties at 5 percent of their assessed value. Owner-occupied units, known in the lingo as Class 1, pay only .96 percent. The logic behind the law was very simple: to give absentee owners or real estate speculators a big economic disincentive to hang on to vacant property.
But when Keenan plugged the addresses of vacant properties in his neighborhood into the computer at the Office of Tax and Revenue recently, he found not a one taxed at the Class 5 rate.
Advisory neighborhood commission 2F, which represents parts of both Logan Circle and Shaw, reached similar conclusions. The commission has compiled an extensive portfolio of nearly 50 vacant properties in the area. Not one is listed as Class 5. Neighbors believe the city’s lack of enforcement on Class 5, as well as other laws regarding vacant properties, has been a terrible drag on the economic revitalization of the area. “We need stakeholders in our community,” says Leslie Miles, an advisory neighborhood commissioner in Logan Circle. “Not absentee owners or speculators who exemplify someone who doesn’t really give a damn.”
Officials at the Office of Tax and Revenue (OTR) report that 2,979 properties in the District are taxed at the 5 percent rate. But in the next breath, those same officials admit that they are not using the tax to its full extent. “We will follow the law,” says Natwar M. Gandhi, deputy chief financial officer for tax and revenue. “But we are in favor of eliminating that classification.”
Gandhi argues that D.C. is one of the few jurisdictions to have a special tax class for vacant properties, and that it is largely ineffective due to a bounty of loopholes and a dearth of enforcement manpower. “Class 5 was designed to remove eyesores and make sure that community development takes place. We’re not accomplishing that original purpose,” Gandhi explains. “It is really hard to administer the law effectively….It is really hit-and-run.”
City officials who work in conjunction with OTR agree. “We laughed here privately when they passed [Class 5],” says one. Building inspectors and tax assessors rarely pass on information to the office about the status of abandoned and vacant properties. “We often say to [OTR], ‘You know that such and such an address was vacant?’”
But, the official adds, part of the problem lies with poor record-keeping and oversight of OTR’s real property tax division. “A major source of revenue for the city is property taxes,” she adds. “But the real property tax records are a mess.”
That’s a stark contrast to the tidy and efficient image of the office touted by Anthony Williams, the city’s former chief financial officer who recently resigned the post to run for mayor. When Williams first came to the city three years ago, the tax records and filings were a free-for-all. But now, Williams says on the stump, the city has reaped the benefits of his diligent supervision.
“Without a doubt, we still have some data on index cards,” says Stanley Jackson, who heads the real property tax division in OTR. But Jackson insists that property tax records have been keeping pace with the other records in the office.
Keenan and his neighbors plan on making the nuisance property issue a high priority in the fall elections. “They don’t have to live next to this,”