Wednesday, July 4, 2007

A Capitol Hill resident said he notified D.C. government officials about 70 vacant and derelict properties in his neighborhood, but he has received little response.

Advisory neighborhood commissioners from across the city testified yesterday before the D.C. Council’s Committee on Public Services and Consumer Affairs to tell the story of abandoned houses that blight their blocks.

Government-owned properties were among those that local residents said have been vacant for a long time.

I’ve got a dog, I walk a lot, and the same properties have been vacant for years now, said William Schultheiss, an advisory neighborhood commissioner in Northeast.

Residents complain that the houses often become dumping grounds for trash or the sites of drug transactions.

Community members cataloged 320 vacant properties in the north half of Ward 6 over the past two months. Mr. Schultheiss said close to a third of those properties are not accounted for by the list of vacant properties compiled by the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs.

The agency’s acting director, Linda K. Argo, said 2,148 houses are registered as vacant in the city, but the total number of unoccupied houses remains vague.

Mary Cheh, Ward 3 Democrat and chairman of the consumer affairs committee, said identifying the number of vacant properties in the city was crucial to rehabilitating them.

I feel insecure trying to solve a problem when we don’t know the full dimensions of it, she said.

Consumer and regulatory affairs officials began compiling an inventory of unoccupied properties in April. The agency sent notices to about 1,800 property owners of unregistered, vacant houses.

Nearly 1,400 owners did not respond or register their houses. Owners deemed delinquent will face a $2,000 fine and a higher tax rate of $5 on $100 of assessed property value, as opposed to the current tax rate of 86 cents on the same assessed value.

But Mr. Schultheiss said the tax deterrent has not been applied fully or effectively. Only 15 percent, or 48, of the owners of vacant houses in his neighborhood are paying higher taxes, he said, based on his own public-records search.

In addition, he said 23 of the unoccupied houses his task force cataloged are receiving homestead or senior citizen deductions on their property taxes, even though people are supposed to live in the houses to receive those tax breaks.

Mrs. Argo said consumer and regulatory affairs officials will inspect all vacant buildings in the District by Oct. 31 to create a comprehensive and transparent database. The agency will then “make timely referrals” to the office of the attorney general for further enforcement, which can include criminal prosecutions of owners for noncompliance.

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