The rest are taxed the same as an occupied home or business in good repair. Most of these blighted or vacant properties are centered in the District’s poorest neighborhoods in Wards 7 and 8, in neighborhoods such as Deanwood and Congress Heights. Other areas with a high concentration of vacant or blighted properties include Columbia Heights, Shaw, NoMa and areas along the H Street corridor.
The District has been aware of the issue since 2017, when D.C. Auditor Kathleen Patterson found that the DCRA had not strictly regulated unoccupied or derelict buildings, frequently granted exemptions to those rules with no justification and utilized poor information systems. The audit, which focused on a case study of 31 properties, found that the lapses led to $1 million in lost tax revenue from those properties that year — and that the city could be losing out on significantly more.
In an email, the DCRA said the department does not have the staffing or resources to meet residents’ requests to evaluate issues with the properties or to consistently inspect the properties to ensure they are properly classified and taxed.
The issue has angered some council members, who are frustrated the city has not taken action on these properties, and nearby residents, who say the blighted parcels are a nuisance and drag down the property values of their homes.
“The issue is not: ‘It was made vacant yesterday, it should be reclassified tomorrow.’ My problem is that it’s been vacant for years and DCRA has been negligent,” said D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D). “There’s no follow-through, no quality control, no mission.”
When the DCRA classifies a building as vacant or blighted, property owners are charged a higher property-tax rate — an incentive to ensure owners keep buildings in good use. Owners can be exempt from the higher rate in some circumstances, such as if they have a construction permit.
Mendelson argued that inefficiencies within the department not only have cost the District tax revenue but also have led to lowered property values, signaled to property owners that little to no consequence follows if they leave their properties unkempt, and removed potential housing units from the market.
The problem, Mendelson claims, lies with disorganization in the department, a lack of record-keeping, frequent inspections that switch property classifications with little or no justification and a lack of communication with the city’s Office of Tax and Revenue.
Even when the DCRA reclassifies a property to reflect its vacant status, the Office of Tax and Revenue, tasked with charging the higher tax rate, is not always informed, meaning property owners still are not bearing the consequence of leaving their properties empty or in disrepair, Mendelson said.
Home values around blighted properties with health and safety concerns often suffer and neighboring properties may be difficult to sell, said Katalin Peter, the vice president of government affairs for the Greater Capital Area Association of Realtors.
Neighboring residents fear that the run-down properties attract bug and rodent infestations and crime. The 2017 auditor’s report described these properties as a “magnet for illegal activity.”
Nicole Phillips, who has lived in her Ward 4 home for 49 years, lives across from a property that has been boarded up. She said squatters frequent the property and find entrances through holes in the exterior.
“I’ve seen neighbors attacked in broad daylight,” she said. “The sooner we can get this resolved, the better.”
Another property, on Third Street NW, is notorious among neighbors for the exposed, weathered Tyvek wrapped around the sides of the vacant home. Holes leading to the basement create a pool of water inside, attracting mosquitoes.
Neighbors often wander over to see how the property has deteriorated or whether squatters have moved in, said longtime resident Rabihah Mateen. The DCRA has deemed the property blighted, but Mateen said nothing has been done to fix it up.
“We’ve been inquiring about this property for years, and DCRA has not given us any definitive answers,” Mateen said.
A representative from the company that owns the property, New Star, said it is not certain it has the funding or desire to finish the project after facing fines and stop-work orders from the city.
The 2017 audit of the DCRA highlighted several key shortcomings and recommendations for the department, and Mendelson raised the issues in two public hearings in May.
DCRA Director Ernest Chrappah said at the hearings that a transfer of data into the department’s new system in December led to properties losing their vacant or blighted status, something that DCRA spokesman Jameel Harris said recently that the department is fixing.
Chrappah testified that his department was working on addressing the problems and that it will make sure properties newly identified as blighted will be charged the higher tax rate retroactively so no tax revenue will be lost. He said that the department plans to conduct inspections within 90 days of an owner filing for a construction permit, to ensure work is actually being done on the premises, and that it is developing new technology to simplify communication with other departments, such as the Office of Tax and Revenue.
Chrappah said his team has made some improvements — where it once took 38 business days for an inspection to occur once a request was received, it is now down to four days, he said.
But he said that owners of vacant or unkempt properties can appeal their reclassifications and that the definition of blighted in D.C. code is broad enough for owners to argue that their properties should not be classified that way. The code specifies that a building determined by the mayor to be unsafe, insanitary or a public health threat is considered blighted. That may be applied to properties with holes in the exterior walls, rotting materials or exposed metal or wood surfaces.
Some owners have filed for exemptions on the basis of financial struggles or by providing a utility bill to prove that the building is occupied. Mendelson questioned the DCRA’s enforcement related to those exemptions, stating that the department could ensure the owner is not committing fraud by going through a property’s utility usage record to ensure the building was consistently meeting the threshold to be considered as occupied. He said that if the department did not have the authority to do so, it could go to the council to request it.
Advisory neighborhood commissioners at one of the public hearings complained that residents have not heard back or seen abatement from the department after submitting complaints about properties in their community, which is how the DCRA says it determines which properties to inspect.
“We have the mechanisms in place to enforce a system, but it’s not happening,” said Peter Wood, an advisory neighborhood commissioner for Washington Heights.
Here are some properties that are or have been considered blighted or vacant for years across the District. All of the properties have been reinspected since the public hearings on the DCRA in May, except for 1000 C St. NE, which was reinspected the day of the first hearing.
Ward 3 — 2207 Foxhall Rd. NW
Elevated several feet above marshy untamed grass on what looks like a precarious game of giant Jenga sits a white two-story farmhouse that the District has deemed historic.
The DCRA first listed the property as vacant about three years ago, but neighbor Jeff Dwyer said he thinks the house should be considered blighted. He said he has seen the house fall into disrepair for over a decade after the original owner died. Now the windows are boarded up and pipes stick out of mounds in the yard.
“It’s just sad,” Dwyer said. “We are building an eight-foot fence around our property so we don’t need to look at that property.”
Jason Porcier, who purchased the property in July 2019, said he could not afford to develop it after he was fined $90,000 by the District for removing the wrong tree from the property.
Ward 1 — 3228 Hiatt Pl. NW
Across from the playground and sports fields of the Columbia Heights Educational Campus and Powell Recreation Center, this 22-unit brick apartment complex has plastic coverings over window panes and a crumbling exterior blocked by a twisted gate. The property is classified as blighted in the DCRA system but has garnered a lesser tax rate periodically for the past decade, according to Mendelson’s office.
The property is owned by Ontario Road LLC, led by David Cormier, who in 2008 pleaded guilty to 22 counts of housing-code violations for refusing to correct issues such as rotted floors, structurally unsound walls and ceilings and defective windows, with some violations related to this property.
Cormier would not comment on the previous charges. He said that his plans for renovating the property were stalled by the pandemic but that he intends to following through.
Ward 1 — 2920 Ontario Rd. NW
This 36-unit red-brick apartment complex in Northwest Washington has crumbling bricks, broken windows and a tree branch growing out of the back wall. Under the front awning, chipped paint flaps in the wind. Graffiti lines several window panes, and part of the roof has collapsed in. Across the street is a handful of other apartment complexes and single-family homes.
According to Mendelson, the building was classified as blighted twice before but was never taxed at that rate. The property is now classified as blighted in the DCRA system.
Cormier also owns this multiunit property and said he plans to renovate it as well.
Ward 6 — 1000 C St. NE
The bright-red-brick building on the corner of C Street has drawn the ire of residents and even has a Twitter profile impersonating the building itself. The account has acted as a watchdog for the vacant property since 2016, referring to the owner as “Dad” and periodically checking in on the status of tax payments for the property.
Mendelson said the property had been taxed as vacant for only six months in the past 13 years and was later retroactively charged for 2018 and 2019 after his office inquired about it. The property had been reclassified by the DCRA 31 times in the past 10 years, he added.
The DCRA has listed the location as vacant, and it was reinspected the day of the first public hearing held by Mendelson.
The company associated with the property, 10th and C Street Associates, did not respond to requests for comment.