Foreign governments, beware.
D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) on Tuesday filed a bill directing the city to make a list of run-down properties owned by foreign governments — and release it publicly.
About the same time, the State Department responded to a plea for action from Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), the District’s nonvoting representative in Congress, and said it was ready to “aggressively engage” foreign countries with derelict properties in the nation’s capital.
The action comes after a spate of complaints about dilapidated buildings from residents of Northwest Washington’s Sheridan-Kalorama area, which is home to many embassies and foreign offices — including about a half-dozen that have fallen into disrepair.
City officials have heard about problematic properties for years but are essentially powerless to regulate the embassies, which are considered foreign soil and are not subject to zoning and building codes that govern other real estate in the city. Foreign embassies and missions are also exempt from property taxes.
Only properties stripped of their diplomatic status by the State Department are subject to taxes and city regulations.
Under Mendelson’s bill, the city’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs would produce a list every six months of vacant or blighted properties still under diplomatic protection and seek the federal government’s help.
Mendelson said his goal is to get embassies to clean up their crumbling properties.
“Let’s be clear this is not about a functioning embassy, rather it’s about abandoned property,” Mendelson said in a statement. “The hope is that this legislation will keep the city safe and clean for the neighbors of these vacant and blighted properties.”
In a letter to Norton last week, a State Department official said that buildings owned by several countries, including Pakistan and Argentina, have lost diplomatic protections.
For example, the Argentine government gave its embassy permission to sell the country’s dilapidated property at 2136 R St. NW and others the country owns in the District, the letter says.
Alan and Irene Wurtzel, who live next to the R Street property, have watched the building deteriorate since 1994 and have found rats in their basement that they suspect came from the vacant building. They said they are hopeful that something will finally be done.
“I think it’s wonderful that we were able to have this interest in it,” Irene Wurtzel, a playwright, said Tuesday. “We’re feeling a little more optimistic than we did.”
In its letter to Norton, the State Department listed other properties that have been the subject of complaints and provided an update:
●The Egyptian Embassy, which owns the building at 5500 16th St. NW, recently awarded a contract to renovate the property.
●The State Department has given the Iraqi Embassy until Oct. 31 to start renovations of its property at 3110 Woodland Dr. NW or risk removal of the building’s diplomatic status.
●Serbia’s building at 2221 R St. NW, recognizable by its facade of peeling white paint, has been vacant since the 1992 breakup of Yugoslavia. But Serbia doesn’t have the money to renovate it, according to the State Department, which is working with the embassy on alternatives.
●The Sri Lankan Embassy plans to use its building at 2148 Wyoming Ave. NW as an annex, and the United States has reinstated its diplomatic status. Without that protection, a foreign government would be taxed at the residential or commercial rate of up to $1.85 per $100 of assessed value or face vacant or blighted rates of $5 and $10 per $100 of assessed value, respectively.
“With the understanding that there are practical limits that interfere with our ability to confidently ensure desired outcomes with respect to these types of situations,” Charles S. Faulkner, of the State Department’s Bureau of Legislative Affairs, wrote to Norton, “please know that the [State Department Office of Foreign Missions] stands ready to aggressively engage foreign missions with respect to these members.”
Norton thanked the State Department and said the city and federal government — which do not see eye to eye on plenty of other issues — should keep pressure on foreign countries to maintain their properties in the District.
“When buildings fall into a visible state of disrepair,” she said in a statement, “it hurts our neighborhood not just by depressing nearby property values, but also increasing health and safety risks. Taking a two-pronged approach at the federal and local levels will hopefully lead to action.”