The District government owns more than 170 vacant homes, apartment buildings, schools and other structures that in many cases have been empty and blighted for more than a decade, according to a list released yesterday by city officials, who said they are moving quickly to sell or find alternative uses for the properties.
The city also is leasing at least four buildings that are empty or that cost the government unreasonably high rent.
The tally comes a day after top District officials expressed embarrassment that the city has spent nearly $2 million over the last seven years to rent two vacant Columbia Heights apartment buildings.
The District government has long had a problem keeping track of its property. But city administrators and D.C. Council members said yesterday that they have been working in recent months to figure out how many empty buildings it owns or rents and what to do with them.
"How can we revitalize neighborhoods in the city if we are one of the landlords that is a problem?" questioned Peggy Armstrong, press secretary for Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D).
The trouble, several city officials said, is the pace of the effort.
"We are on the right track, but I am sorry it has been in fits and starts," said council member Kathy Patterson (D-Ward 3), chairman of the council's government operations committee.
The District has been trying to arrange for more than three years the sale of 300 D.C. Housing Authority-controlled homes, a large share of which are run-down and vacant. The sale of 170 of the homes is scheduled for this summer, said David I. Gilmore, court-appointed receiver for the Housing Authority, but some officials are frustrated by how long it has taken.
"This three-and-one-half-year process . . . has to come to an end," said council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1). "Enough already. You have got to set up a deadline and move these properties by then."
The D.C. public school system has more than 20 surplus properties awaiting lease or sale. But Francis Smith, executive director of the D.C. financial control board, said yesterday that the city must move slowly to make sure it does not give up land it might need in the near future.
"People have thought that we are not moving fast enough," Smith said. "But you don't want to be shortsighted. If you just sell something to the highest bidder without making sure you need the buildings, a year from now you could be looking for land for a school."
The D.C. Office of Property Management yesterday also released a list of a dozen buildings owned or rented by the city that are vacant or being rented at unfavorable terms. These include an abandoned firehouse at 1626 North Capitol St. NW, a vacant apartment building at 1320 Mississippi Ave. SE, a vacant theater at 620 T St. NW and a two-story building in the 2400 block of Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE, said Chief Property Management Officer Kenneth R. Kimbrough.
The city, he said, is also spending an estimated $23 million over 20 years to rent a renovated warehouse at 2146 24th Pl. NE that has an assessed value of less than $1 million. Despite the unusually high rent, only about 60 percent of the building is in use. Other overpriced leases include two office buildings on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE, where the city is paying $30 a square foot or more, he said.
The District has had some successes in selling surplus properties or renegotiating excessive rents. It sold eight surplus school buildings in recent years for more than $7 million. In December 1997, the city renegotiated a long-term lease of a 717 14th St. NW office building, cutting the rent by $5.4 million over the life of the agreement.
Kimbrough, who took over as city properties manager in October, said the list of vacant city buildings -- excluding schools, housing, tax-foreclosed properties and commercial buildings -- is relatively small.
"I expected a longer list," he said, noting that it totals only eight buildings, out of several hundred the city government occupies.
But there was agreement yesterday that a great deal of work remains before the city can claim victory in its struggle for an effective real estate management program.
Kimbrough and other city officials said they hope to find an alternative use for the boarded-up Columbia Heights apartment buildings in the next few months. The city is paying $289,848 a year to rent the buildings at Girard and 15th streets NW. The apartments have been vacant since 1992, when the city shut down a homeless shelter there.
Rep. Ernest J. Istook Jr. (R-Okla.) asked the U.S. General Accounting Office yesterday to determine how the city could have spent $2 million on vacant buildings.
"The District of Columbia still suffers today from incidents of waste and mismanagement that originated years ago," Istook, chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on the District, said in a letter to the GAO.
City officials are trying to find a nonprofit group that, with the District's backing, could buy the buildings from the landlord for less than the remaining $2 million owed on the lease, which expires in December 2006.
Researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.