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I know it seems like the District has vacant properties like chickenpox (the kind that doesn’t make you immune after you first catch it). Indeed, there are nearly 3,000 properties currently registered as vacant around the city, and yes, they’re concentrated in Ward 7 and 8.
But we’re actually better off than many places, like Detroit, Mich. and Gary, Ind., where more than one out of every five buildings is vacant. In areas hit hard by the collapse of manufacturing and a mass exodus of residents, cities are “right-sizing” themselves for a smaller population.
Last week, urban planners and community activists got together in Cleveland for a whole conference on reclaiming vacant properties. From the schedule and the coverage, it appears that discussion focused on things like urban farming, land banking, and federal investment in the form of the Neighborhood Stablization Program. I read the report from the Center for Community Progress, expecting a host of best practices that could be utilized in D.C.
There were a couple good ideas out there. New Jersey, for example, passed legislation to hold lenders who initiate foreclosure actions legally responsible for maintaining properties from the beginning of the foreclosure process if they are abandoned by their owners. Baltimore has code enforcement attorneys who launch civil and criminal prosecutions, issue citations, and act as receivers for vacant properties going up for sale.
But there was little mention of the tack D.C. has taken in bringing vacant properties back: Taxation. The rules that went into effect October 1 mean that keeping a house vacant will cost landowners a lot more in property taxes, unless they get exemptions. That, combined with a gradually improving Property Acquisition and Disposition Division and efforts to involve neighborhoods in policing their vacants, are a powerful combination.
From some cursory research, the only other vacant property tax program I can find is in Louisville, Ky. A proposal to instate one in Baltimore died earlier this year. Higher tax classes for vacants don’t appear in policy briefs on the subject. It seems like a strange omission in the toolbox of strategies to bring blighted properties back to live.
There are problems with taxation as a tool: It can unduly burden landowners who weren’t redeveloping their properties because they didn’t have the money in the first place. But that’s why DCRA and the D.C. Council have made adjustments—the new version has the right version of flexibility and consequences. I’m impressed with D.C.’s willingness to stick with the strategy, and looking forward to seeing how it works.