- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 9, 2000

District of Columbia officials spend $484,000 a month to rent six properties they acknowledge as being vacant or barely used, according to an official inventory of the city's rented properties.

Moreover, the leases for 36 of the 82 properties rented by the city have expired, and seven of those leases expired in the 1980s, the inventory shows. The District spends nearly $400,000 each month on expired leases for properties still occupied by city agencies.

The Washington Times has obtained a copy of the inventory and has examined some of the properties identified in it.

The fire-gutted building at 1480 Girard St. NW, for which the city pays $24,611 a month in rent, is the only one the District acknowledges as vacant. Five others are listed as "underutilized."

Those six rentals account for $484,000 of the $5.3 million the city spends in rent each month.

But The Times found significant empty space in buildings city officials have classified as "utilized." For example, most of the second, third and fourth floors of the four-story "utilized" building at 2100 Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. SE are vacant. The city pays $151,774 a month in rent for that building.

Kenneth Kimbrough, director of the D.C. Office of Property Management, said he is not surprised by what the inventory shows.

"The reason for doing this is what you're finding out," Mr. Kimbrough said yesterday. "This is the District of Columbia. To my knowledge, a report like this has never been done. So here it is, and we're going to find some warts."

Rep. Ernest Istook, Oklahoma Republican and chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on the District, requested the inventory, which the city submitted last week.

The inventory does not include properties that are outside the Office of Property Management's control. Those include the public schools, public housing and the University of the District of Columbia.

R. Donahue Peebles, owner of the King Avenue building, acknowledged that much of the building is vacant and doesn't know what city agency will move in or when. He said he had planned to remodel the vacant office spaces but was told to wait so the new agency could tell him its needs.

He also said it does not matter to him that the offices the District leases have been empty since September.

"They pay me whether they occupy 20 percent of the building or 90 percent of the building," said Mr. Peebles, a friend of former Mayor Marion Barry's now living in Miami.

D.C. Council member Carol Schwartz, at-large Republican, said the Government Operations Committee is working on legislation to govern the city's leasing of buildings and disposal of property.

"That should take care of problems like this," Mrs. Schwartz said. "I hope the executive branch will get its act together and weed out these costly leases and make the process more efficient."

Mr. Kimbrough could not say how long the underused rented properties have been in that condition. His agency, which began in 1998, dropped expired-lease rentals last year that charged premiums for continued occupancy, saving the city about $500,000 a month, he said.

Yet the city's least-productive lease remains unsettled.

The Girard Street building, first leased to the city in 1986, has been empty for years. The two-story brick structure was once used as a homeless shelter, but occupants gutted the west end in a fire and ripped out plumbing and fixtures, Mr. Kimbrough said.

The building has since stood locked and empty and the city pays $24,611 monthly on its lease, which expires in 2006.

Mr. Kimbrough said the city is contractually obligated to return the building in good condition, which means the city will pay about $1 million in repairs.

For now, the building is an eyesore surrounded with broken liquor bottles and trash.

"The children are afraid to walk by that building. I think it's a hazard. They need to fix it," said a woman who identified herself only as R. Harris.

Of the city's 36 expired leases, 22 ran out more than five years ago, the inventory shows. The city pays $399,652 monthly on all its expired leases.

Explaining why the city is paying rent on expired leases, Mr. Kimbrough said the various agencies that rent the underused properties often have several offices and probably are trying to find sites to centralize their operations.

"Before 1997, there probably wasn't money to go out there and make a new lease available," he said, adding that a new lease would give landlords an opportunity to raise the rent, he said.

"Maybe the city said, 'Let's just let this ride.' It's a two-way street," Mr. Kimbrough said.

The oldest expired lease, for an advisory neighborhood commissioner's office in Northeast, ran out in November 1983. The city pays $220 a month for that space.

Other rentals would seem to make little sense, given the empty, city-owned spaces around the District.

For example, the city last year paid Helda and Francisco Rivas $42 a month for three months to rent a small room in Adams Morgan. The Rivas' rental space is around the corner from the Adams Morgan Community Center and Adams Mill Alcoholism Center at 1808 Adams Mill Road NW. The third floor of the building is padlocked and empty.

The Office of Property Management is compiling a list of city-owned buildings similar to its inventory of rented properties.

"If we own it and it's vacant, you can be pretty sure it is in pretty bad shape," Mr. Kimbrough said. That means the city will have to pay for renovations to make the buildings usable.

Staff reporter Mike Cleary contributed to this report.

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