D.C. City Council member John Ray (D-At Large) introduced a bill yesterday that would require owners of vacant and boarded-up apartment buildings to fix them up and rent them or face fines, which could exceed $100,000 a year.
The measure would require owners of buildings with four or more rental units to register all vacant units with the city's Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs and submit detailed plans for reopening the units.
Owners who fail to submit acceptable plans during a six-month registration period would face fines for that period ranging from $100 per unit for buildings with fewer than 10 vacant units up to $500 per unit for buildings with more than 100 vacant units.
Ray's bill, along with similar housing measures introduced by council members Nadine P. Winter (D-Ward 6) and Frank Smith (D-Ward 1) have formed a backdrop for the heated rent control debate that has taken center stage on the council's legislative agenda.
The current rent control law expires April 30. Tenant groups have lobbied for the council to strengthen and extend the provisions in the current law and have been angered by a Ray proposal to extend rent control but lift controls on units as they become vacant.
Ray said the bill is aimed at putting an estimated 9,000 vacant rental units back on the market.
" . . . We have to make it more expensive for an owner to board up his property and walk away from it and less expensive for him to renovate it and put it back on the market," Ray said.
But Tom Borger, spokesman for the Washington Board of Realtors, said Ray's proposal would not succeed in getting units renovated.
"If the owners can't afford the expenses to keep the properties open how are they going to come up with money for penalties," said Borger. " . . . What's that old saying? You can't get blood out of a turnip."
Winter, who introduced a bill yesterday that would establish an Urban Homestead and Homeownership Commission to regulate and dispose of tax-delinquent properties, said she supports Ray's new bill and urged owners of vacant buildings to sell.
"I am sure the real estate community is going to scream," Winter said, "because we all have friends who have been sitting on property for 10 years. But people have no right to keep property in residential areas and allow them to become a haven for drug users or other social problems." Borger, however, said some vacant buildings are unsellable because the liens against the buildings exceed their value.
Ray's rent control proposal also would provide property owners with tax incentives that he maintains would make it financially feasible for owners to place vacant buildings on the market and repair deteriorating properties. But, Ray said yesterday, penalties still would be needed.