- The Washington Times - Monday, April 17, 2000

Mayor's priority to fix buildings

Mayor Anthony A. Williams has made a priority out of redeveloping the thousands of rundown and vacated buildings in the District, but the city government has not set aside enough money to fix the problem, officials said.
"There is tons to be done … and the biggest issue is money," said Lloyd Jordan, director of the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs. "We are living off shoestring budgets to try to get this done."
And nobody likes rundown buildings, particularly not the businesses near them, said Charles McMillion, chief economist at MBG, a D.C.-based business information firm.
Over the last year, the department has identified 4,800 vacant properties in the District.
Since October, 752 commercial and residential buildings have been cleaned, repaired, or boarded up. Of those, 265 were worked on not by property owners, but by DCRA inspectors.
After all that work, fully 98 percent of the 752 buildings needed more repair. In the same time, 41 building were demolished, accounting for a third of all torn-down properties last year.
While the problem of blight has grown over the years, the DCRA's budget has steadily declined. The agency's roster of housing inspectors also has dwindled from 161 in 1991 to just 28 today.
Mr. Williams wants to see that change, and has asked the city to hire 24 more housing inspectors and increase DCRA's budget in 2001.
In mid-March, Mr. Williams announced a plan to force owners of rundown and unsanitary apartment buildings to make repairs, or face shutdown and criminal prosecution.
A week later, city police arrested two landlords of a Northwest residential building who were charged with 207 housing violations. They were cited and inspected twice in February, but did not make repairs.
And on Friday, another Northwest landlord was arrested for 432 violations on a residential property.
The blight abatement process begins with a tip-off call from a neighbor, usually, who complains about trash, broken windows, or other visible damages to a property.
When inspectors go to buildings they never know what to expect: Boards with nails sticking out, glass from broken bottles, and soft plight wood floors that may sink are common scenarios.
If a property is found to violate city building code, owners are issued a citation to which they must respond in 15 days. If the repairs are not made in that time, owners are fined and issued a new citation.
"It's too many notices and too much time for [anything] to happen, but that's the law that exists," Mr. Jordan said.
Complaints more often come from apartment buildings, where common violations include peeling paint, trash, broken windows or smoke detectors, and rat or roach infestation. Other buildings, however, have structural defects, such as sinking roofs.
DCRA spokeswoman Jacqueline Wallace said owners of blighted properties receive on an average five or six violations, each for up to $500.
With commercial properties, on the other hand, most common violations include construction without the proper permits and zoning violations.
"What happens in most cases is that the owners do make repairs," said Ms. Wallace. "But it's an ongoing process. You can't make a few repairs one year and not make any other in the next two years."
When dealing with vacant properties the blight abatement process is slightly different. Once violations have been identified, DCRA advises owners that properties must be secured.
Vacant buildings do not have to be in good condition, according to city laws: They just have to be boarded and locked up.
Open vacant properties, Ms. Wallace said, are often used as shelter by homeless people, or are used for illegal activities and are vandalized.
If the owners don't respond, inspectors board up the properties themselves. But there is only so much they can do with a tight budget, Mr. Jordan said.
There are other obstacles too.
"The whole idea is to get these buildings back on the market, and it's a long process," said Ms. Wallace. "It's very frustrating sometimes because we can't find the owner, he has moved, walked away from the property … or they didn't register the new owner."
If owners don't comply with citations, they are asked to demolish their properties. If that fails as well, the city takes charge.
At the end, the District pays for the demolishing or fixing of a building, and the costs are added to the owner's tab, which is seldom paid.

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