H Street storeowners seek tax relief
Commercial property owners along the H Street corridor in Northeast Washington are asking for retroactive tax relief and a moratorium on property tax sales amid ongoing streetscape and streetcar construction, which they say have devastated business.
Almost a dozen H Street proprietors testified last week at a council hearing on the streetcar line about the financial hardships endured over the past four years, with sidewalks closed, storefronts obstructed and parking options limited.
"My business has gone down 70 percent since this all started," lamented George Butler, who has owned and operated the men's clothing store George's Place for 53 years in the 1000 block. Across the street from Butler, Rob Mason, whose family has owned Mason's barbershop since 1961, has seen sales fall off 50 percent in the wake of the construction.
Much of the construction results from the city's effort to add new landscaping, traffic lanes and wider sidewalks on H Street from Third to 14th streets. Tracks are also being laid for six trolleys that will run from Union Station to Benning Road and Oklahoma Avenue.
Work is scheduled to wrap up late next year. In the meantime, merchants, most of whom own their buildings, say sales continue to decline, while property taxes have climbed.
Anwar Saleem, executive director of H Street Main Street and a neighborhood property owner, estimates his taxes have increased 200 percent during the four years of construction, as values have risen in the face of development. He applied for a six-month tax deferment, under legislation introduced by Councilman Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), who represents the corridor. However, both of his assets, with a total of $20,000 in unpaid taxes, were among the 27 delinquent H Street properties put up for tax sale in September.
"If actions are not taken to retroactively cancel the sales of the last two to three years before court foreclosures take effect, the city will have effectively assisted in the gentrification of this corridor," Saleem said.
To aide these beleaguered businesses, Councilman Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) introduced a bill to establish a streetscape survival fund to support businesses with demonstrated losses resulting from streetscape projects. Relief may come in the form of a grant, loan or tax assistance. About $7 million has been set aside for the fund for fiscal 2011. The bill is now before the Finance and Revenue Committee, but will be reintroduced on Tuesday, according to Graham.