The poor District government just can’t win. When it raises the assessments of some homeowners in Ward 3, they complain they’re being taxed out of the city. When it lowers assessments of other homeowners, they complain that their property values are being destroyed.
This latter gripe comes to us from Ward 1, 3, and 4 residents who are trying to sell their homes and get the hell out of D.C. Some saw their assessments plummet by more than one-third this tax season, slashing property values by hundreds of thousands of dollars in some cases.
“I don’t understand how you can devalue people’s property like this,” says Kathy Ehrman, who lives in Ward 4’s pricey Crestwood neighborhood, and who saw her assessment decline by 37 percent this spring. Ehrman received her decreased assessment just after she had put her home of 25 years on the market. Now there is a huge gap between what she hopes to get for her house and what the city assessors claim it’s worth.
“It stunned me,” Ehrman says of her assessment. “My neighbors are pleased because their assessments all went down. I guess I would be, too, if I were going to stay, because it means less taxes.
“But at this point, I’ve just had it with this city,” Ehrman exclaims.
Perhaps this is Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr.’s latest and greatest transformation plan: He’ll stop taxpayers from fleeing D.C. by making it impossible for them to sell their homes.
Those who received higher assessments are also irate. A group of 14 homeowners from Ward 3, Sheridan-Kalorama, and Mount Pleasant last week met with Department of Finance and Revenue official Beatrice Gaines to ask how some District assessments doubled when others plunged. Gaines, who supervises city assessors, told the homeowners to blame the fluctuation (at least some of it) on technology. D.C. assessors are just beginning to use the $6-million computerized property-assessment system purchased by former Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly.
This year, some city assessors used the new computer software to reassess properties that are at least one-quarter larger or smaller than the median-size home in their neighborhoods. The assessors raised or lowered assessments significantly for many of these outliers.
“They’re just manipulating square footage, which seems to me a terribly erratic way of dealing with assessments,” says Ward 3 Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Rosalyn Doggett, who attended the April 19 meeting with Gaines.
Doggett, who lives next to the Naval Observatory and the vice president’s house, says city assessors more than doubled the values of several properties in her neighborhood, much to the chagrin of the owners.
Some who attended the meeting asked Gaines to check on the work of two assessors, Michael Seldin and Carolyn Monk. The homeowners believe that the two assessors may be too quick to raise assessments. This is not the first time activists have questioned Seldin’s assessment methods. In 1992 and 1993, Sheridan-Kalorama residents complained about how Seldin valued their properties.
“This is just another one of the things that’s broken in the city,” says Doggett. “Every time you turn over a rock, you find something.”
Even though she has been Barry’s favorite whipping girl lately, Ward 3 Councilmember Kathy Patterson doesn’t think the higher assessments are aimed at her or her ward.
“You mean, do I think they’re well enough organized to do that?” she says, laughing. “No, I don’t think it’s personal to me. And I don’t think Ward 3 is being targeted.”
She also discounts the possibility of “rogue assessors,” and chalks the confusion up to “information technology problems” in a chaotic agency.
“Obviously, in any line of work, some people are better than other people at doing their jobs,” says Patterson, whose office has fielded about 50 calls from homeowners facing huge property-tax increases. “But I think the Real Property Tax Administration may be a rogue agency, or certainly a dysfunctional one.”
HEY, YOU, GET OUTTA MY ’HOOD
When President Bill Clinton left
a birthday party at H.H. Leonards’ social club two years ago, he made a beeline for the dozen or so onlookers gathered across O Street NW. Photographer Merle T. Stern, who recounted the moment in a letter sent last week to the D.C. Council, said she was a few steps behind the Prez clicking away when she heard an angry neighbor yell at the leader of the free world: “Get off of my fucking flowers!”
According to Leonards’ supporters, Clinton was so embarrassed that he has never returned to the Dupont Circle club.
“That is such a lie! I didn’t use any expletives,” counters radiologist Paul Lubar, who lives across the street from the private club at 2020 O St. NW, and whose flowers were being trampled.
“Believe me, the president heard nothing of what I said,” Lubar insists. “Clinton was out in the middle of the street standing next to his limousine. If somebody steps on my flowers, I certainly have the right to ask them to get off.”
Stern’s account of the incident surfaced during the debate over Leonards’ attempt to win from the D.C. Council the right to apply for a liquor license. Last year, the D.C. Court of Appeals yanked the license granted to the club by the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board. The club’s neighbors bitterly oppose the club’s efforts to get it back (see “When a Neighborhood Gets Clubbed,” 3/15).
Lubar accuses club owner Helyn “H.” H. Leonards of spreading the story in order to discredit neighborhood opposition to her private club/bed-and breakfast/hotel/restaurant/conference center/antique store operating in a residentially zoned neighborhood. (Stern admits she sent the letter at “H”’s request.)
“Is there any stunt that she won’t pull?” exclaims an exasperated Lubar.
Ward 6 Councilmember Harold Brazil has introduced a bill that would facilitate the granting of licenses to Leonards’ business and other private clubs that have been operating in residential neighborhoods for at least three years. Brazil’s proposal would uphold the ban on new clubs in residential neighborhoods that the council approved in 1993.
Since introducing the bill, Brazil has come under fire from Dupont Circle residents opposed to Leonards’ business. He did not attend an April 18 council hearing on his own legislation. At-large Councilmember John Ray chaired the session. LL isn’t quite sure how many other private clubs, if any, would be affected by the Brazil bill. None testified at the hearing, despite efforts by Leonards to drum up allies.
Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans was the only other councilmember present at the hearing. He probably wishes he had stayed away. No matter which side he chooses in this fight, Evans is going to catch hell from a sizable number of his Dupont Circle constituents.
Unity Nation leader Malik Shabazz scheduled an April 19 forum at Bruce-Monroe Elementary School called “Stop the Conspiracy to Destroy the Black Community in Washington, D.C.; Stop the Control Board Madness.” But a few hours before the event began, Shabazz, a protégé of Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan, learned he was being kicked out of the school.
“I’ve used public schools continuously without incident or problem,” Shabazz says. “But the principal at Bruce-Monroe Elementary was told that if he allowed me to have the event that he would be fired.”
Shabazz claims the order came from Ward 1 school board member Wilma Harvey, whose ward includes Bruce-Monroe, and from D.C. Public Schools Superintendent Franklin Smith.
“They were being pressured by members of the Jewish community, mostly the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), and by conservative blacks who are in favor of the control board, and by whites who are in favor of the control board,” Shabazz says.
Shabazz has conducted similar forums in public schools in the past, but not without incident or controversy. School officials and board members were besieged with demands to know why taxpayer-funded public schools were being used to promote such a divisive message.
Shabazz, once an admirer of Barry’s, now considers Hizzoner a key part of the conspiracy, along with Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton. “We believe that they were conspirators to bring the control board in,” he says.
(Shabazz isn’t the only local activist making a stink about the board. D.C. Statehood Party leader Sam Jordan is trying to place a referendum on the November ballot that would let D.C. voters say whether the board should stay or go. And the D.C. Democratic State Committee this month passed a resolution calling on Congress to abolish the control board and give the city all the money it needs to survive.)
Shabazz relocated the April 19 rally to the Gospel Spreading Reception Hall on Georgia Avenue NW. It drew a crowd of some 400 sympathizers, he says. Shabazz is now planning to hold a “Black Power Town Hall Meeting” within the next 30 days, but he is not saying in advance where it will be held.CP
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