Elissa Silverman wants to rout vacant and blighted properties from D.C., especially those that are owned by the District and concentrated in low-income neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River.
To that end, a new bill the at-large councilmember proposed today aims to reform a city program designed to dispose of empty houses it has obtained. The Department of Housing and Community Development owns more than 150 lots, single-family homes, and multi-family buildings, most of which are located in Wards 7 and 8. The department attempts to ready them for redevelopment, but residents have long criticized it for not disposing of the deteriorating properties quickly enough.
“Unfortunately, that’s just not what is happening,” Silverman says in a statement. “It is time to get the District out of the business of owning blighted properties, and that is what I hope to accomplish with this bill.”
The legislation would follow a model established by federal housing officials and would require DHCD to competitively solicit for licensed real-estate brokers “to perform the functions of disposing the properties through sale, donation, or other means.” These brokers would also have to maintain the properties so they do not qualify as “vacant” or “blighted” under D.C. law.
DHCD has only offloaded a handful of these properties since Mayor Muriel Bowser took office, Silverman says. The District has owned some of the properties for almost two decades, and the DHCD program they fall under has had an annual operating budget ranging from $4.7 million to $6.4 million in recent years. Silverman admits that it’s not yet clear whether her legislation would lower costs for the District.
A spokesman for Bowser says the administration has put significantly more vacant D.C.-owned properties in the disposition pipeline than previous administrations, noting that it takes between nine and 18 months to pass them off to developers. Just over half of these properties in DHCD’s portfolio are somewhere in the disposition process, and most were inherited by the administration. “The goal is to get all of them disposed by the end of year,” the spokesman adds.
Per the legislation, any existing homes would have to be occupied within one year of their disposition, while any lots would have to be developed within two years. If a buyer intends to sell or rent a given property to households that make no more than 120 percent of the area median income (or nearly $130,000 for a family of four), DHCD would be required to make city financing available.
Silverman says the legislation is not about allowing Realtors to flip homes for windfall profits—rather, it’s about leveraging their marketing expertise. “This bill would not change [the] focus on turning these properties into affordable or mixed-income housing,” the councilmember explains. “Nonprofit developers … would still be able to acquire properties at an affordable price, and homeowners and developers would still be able to tap into existing affordable housing supports such as [the Home Purchase Assistance Program].” She says Realtors could dispose of properties “faster and better.”
This isn’t the first time Silverman has sought to address vacant properties in the District. Last year, she championed a bill intended to offer owners of such properties incentives to put them into good use. The legislation increased fines and shortened tax-exemption windows and became law last month.
Today’s bill also comes as the D.C. Council and DHCD are in a stalemate over four blighted homes in Anacostia that the latter administers. It’s unclear what will happen to the properties, which the council authorized the nonprofit L’Enfant Trust to redevelop at no cost to the city. The agency instead wants them redeveloped by one of the groups that participated in a recent competitive bidding process. A Wilson Building staffer notes that Silverman’s bill “isn’t in direct response” to the conflict over those houses.
Councilmembers David Grosso, Jack Evans, Robert White, and Trayon White co-introduced the legislation. Councilmember Anita Bonds, who chairs the housing committee, also co-sponsored it.
This post has been updated with comment from the mayor’s office.