A proposed $1,000 tax on vacant residential buildings in the District could not be enforced and in some cases would penalize the wrong people, the city's top finance and revenue official said this week.
Bob King, acting director of the city's Department of Finance and Revenue, said at a hearing that "with our current budget situation, this tax would be very difficult, or almost impossible, to administer."
There are currently no city records that show what properties are vacant, and the number of residential assessors has been cut by 18, almost half, in the last two years, King said. The assessors cannot look at every property in the city anymore, as they would have to do to administer the tax, he said.
"It's difficult for us to imagine having to go out and determine if property is vacant or not," he told the City Council's finance and revenue committee.
The hearing was called to consider a proposal by David A. Clarke, now chairman-elect of the council, to impose a $1,000 tax on the owner of any residential property that has been vacant for more than three years, in an effort to force owners to put these properties back into use. Properties owned by the city or federal government would be exempt, as would buildings being rehabilitated or demolished.
Along with wasting potential housing, abandoned buildings are eyesores and health hazards as trash and rats collect there. They also may end up being used for criminal activities, such as drug dealing and robberies. By law, they must be boarded up, but the boards often are removed almost immediately. The city estimates that there are about 2,400 vacant buildings in the city, Clarke's office said.
There isn't enough time for the legislation to pass in the current council session, so the bill would have to be reintroduced for the next council session in January. Clarke said he would make technical modifications in it before reintroducing it.
Council members agreed that abandoned buildings present a serious problem for the city and expressed an interest in doing something to bring them back into use. But both members and a number of witnesses found flaws with the tax penalty idea.
"I don't see where this legislation is going to have any impact on vacant housing," said John A. Wilson (D-Ward 2), chairman of the committee. "We'd probably have to spend more money administering it than we would get from" the tax. Later he recanted, however, and said he would give the idea a chance before making up his mind.
Revenue director King called the bill too restrictive, because it ignores situations where there are legitimate reasons for buildings to have been vacant for more than three years. Some may be involved in probate proceedings, for example, and certain kinds of construction financing have not been available in the city for rehabilitation recently, he said.
In addition, it would fall too heavily on converted buildings with unsold condominium units, King said.
He also pointed out that the District already has a law which enables the city to board up or make repairs in any property that is a health hazard and then charge the owner for the expense. The city can put a tax lien on the property, and if the charge is not paid can auction it off at a tax sale.
But council member Betty Ann Kane said this has done nothing to put buildings back into use. Under current procedures, it takes the city 2 1/2 to 3 years before an abandoned building can be sold, giving the owner little incentive to rehabilitate it, she said. If it is sold and still left abandoned, it would take the city another three years to take it over and sell it again, Kane added.
"It is a problem," agreed King. The department is making recommendations to the mayor for submission with the next budget on ways to improve the procedures, King said, but he declined to specify what the proposals are.
Council members also said that the city itself, exempted from the bill, is one of the worst offenders in not putting its vacant housing back into use.
The bill "won't do anything for vacant housing unless we do something about the units owned by the federal and city
Revenue director King called the bill too restrictive, because it ignores situations where there are legitimate reasons for buildings to have been vacant for more than three years. Some may be involved in probate proceedings, for example. . . governments," Wilson said.
"City-owned housing is just as much of a problem and just as much of a concern," agreed council member Kane in response to one of several witnesses who said the city should first take care of the properties it owns.
The last comprehensive survey of vacant units taken by the city showed the highest concentration in Wilson's Ward 2. At the hearing, Wilson said he guessed that 60 to 70 percent of the vacant properties in his ward are owned by the city.
But Sandra Robinson, a spokeswoman for the District's housing department, said the city owns only 300 vacant units and that much of that is currently undergoing rehabilitation.
Robert Graham of Neighborhood Advisory Commission 2C in the Shaw area, which he said has among the highest number of vacant buildings in the city, lauded the intent of Clarke's proposal but said it would be ineffective, because it would be too easy to get around it.
Graham proposed instead establishing vacant buildings as a fourth class of taxable property, with a tax rate much higher than on other properties. Under his proposal, a revolving fund would be established from this tax to pay for fixing up properties. He also said commercial buildings should be included, and the period of vacancy reduced from three years to 18 months before the tax would apply.
Wilson said the idea "has a good deal of merit." He also said that the city could require that persons buying buildings at a tax sale do certain things to it. Maybe the city should take them over and give them away to people as part of a homestead plan, he said at another point.
Representatives of District building owners said a system of incentives for rehabilitating abandoned housing would be preferable to penalties.
John O'Neill of the Apartment and Office Building Association said residential properties "have become millstones around the necks" of owners because they could not be run economically.
O'Neill cited the example of a 57-unit project on 23rd Street SE that was boarded up just last week by the owner because he was taking a $9,000 a year loss on it.
The builders' groups said the city could provide favorable financing to owners to rehabilitate the buildings, perhaps through the sale of bonds by the Housing Finance Agency.