- The Washington Times - Friday, June 29, 2007

The number of vacant properties blighting the District’s neighborhoods remains unknown after months of surveying, officials from the District’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) said yesterday.

Officials have registered 2,148 vacant houses, but DCRA acting Director Linda K. Argo said it is still not clear how many unregistered abandoned homes are in the city.

Some of the homes have become dumping grounds for trash or the sites of drug transactions.

D.C. Council members Mary M. Cheh and Harry Thomas Jr. toured some of the city’s most dilapidated properties yesterday to better understand the lingering problem of abandoned homes and generate solutions.

“This is one of the first signs of distress in a neighborhood, where people just feel like you don’t care,” said Mr. Thomas, Ward 5 Democrat, after looking at a home in the Trinidad neighborhood in Northeast that had broken windows, a 3-foot-tall lawn and mattresses and tires piled in the backyard.

The back doors of another home hung open, inviting children to play over the broken glass left by drug dealers and prostitutes who used the house to conduct illegal business.

“At some point you need to create an aggressive program … to solve this problem,” Mr. Thomas said. Sixteen percent of the city’s registered abandoned houses, or 351 houses, are in his ward.

Ward 6 has the most vacant properties with 431. Ward 1 has 365 vacant properties.

Officials said one abandoned home, especially when it’s part of a column of row houses, breeds more vacant properties.

Mrs. Cheh, Ward 3 Democrat, will hold a hearing Tuesday to discuss solutions in her Committee on Public Services and Consumer Affairs. She plans to team up with DCRA to create a comprehensive inventory of all abandoned properties, to register those properties that are outside the system and to create better incentives for owners to clean up their properties.

As the council members walked amidst overgrown weeds and viewed caved-in plywood, they said the city needs to put more pressure on delinquent owners.

DCRA currently forces these owners to pay five-times higher taxes than regular owners.

Owners must pay $5 per $100 of assessed property value of an abandoned home, as opposed to 86 cents on the same assessed value of an inhabited property.

Mrs. Cheh said the “prod” of higher taxes is not enough of an incentive to some owners to renovate their homes and create more productive residential areas. Many of the homes are owned by real estate speculators in Maryland or Virginia awaiting a boom in the housing market.

“You have these developers who are waiting if they think it’s a rising market,” Mrs. Cheh said. “It’s a cost of business if you have to pay a little bit of extra taxes.”

The agency can also fine owners who do not maintain a “habitable” property with “clean, safe and sanitary conditions,” according to the maintenance standards.

DCRA issues a notice of condemnation for those properties that appear unsalvageable, and owners must appear before the D.C. Board for the Condemnation of Insanitary Buildings to prove otherwise.

Mrs. Argo said increasing the number of notices is a way to force owners to take responsibility.

D.C. regulations on abandoned and dilapidated properties grew stricter in December when a cap of three years was placed on how long an empty home can be exempted from the higher tax bracket.

Before then, property owners could get exemptions for many years by claiming, among other things, that they were making renovations, Mrs. Argo said.



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