Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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It will soon become harder for landlords to neglect vacant or blighted properties under a bill the D.C. Council unanimously passed today.

The measure—first introduced by At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman and co-sponsored by nine of her colleagues in December—seeks to maintain such buildings at higher property tax rates (5 and 10 percent more than standard for those determined to be vacant and blighted, respectively) until owners affirmatively prove to the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs that they’ve abated issues. Current law requires that DCRA verify that buildings are vacant or blighted every six months, even when an owner has not indicated that they’ve made improvements. This has led to inconsistent enforcement of property laws and consumed inspectors’ time.

The legislation also limits the period an owner can claim an exemption from higher taxes on derelict buildings because of construction to one year for residential properties and to two years for commercial properties. It increases the maximum fine for failing to comply with relevant DCRA orders from $1,000 to $5,000. Finally, the bill mandates DCRA to maintain and publish a list of neglected properties so residents can see how long they’ve remained as such and when any tax exemptions on them are set to expire.

“This bill came at the request of D.C. residents who wanted us to address the issue of vacant and blighted properties in their neighborhoods, [which] can be unsafe and unsanitary,” Silverman said. Such buildings can reduce surrounding home values and encourage crime. Furthermore, as At-Large Councilmember Robert White added, “Each vacant property is a lost opportunity to provide housing for a family that might otherwise be displaced or left homeless.” Mayor Muriel Bowser‘s administration has indicated that it supports the legislation.

This wasn’t the only housing-related bill the council unanimously passed today. Lawmakers advanced one that would give the Office of the Tenant Advocate power to recoup funds it expends to help relocate displaced residents into short-term arrangements and assist them with finding permanent housing. The legislation would apply when a property owner has failed to meet maintenance obligations for circumstances within their control.

Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau, who proposed the legislation in March, noted that in fiscal year 2015, almost 350 tenants were displaced and OTA spent $400,000 (16 percent of its budget) on emergency housing. It’s usually needed after fires, like one that forced two mothers in Anacostia to vacate their apartments in August.

“Most landlords are good actors,” Nadeau said. “This bill protects tenants and [provides] tools to hold neglectful landlords accountable.”

The council must approve both bills a second time before they’re sent to Bowser for signing.