- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 24, 2008

Jenifer Simpson has lived in Northwest for more than two decades and never thought that her house off Adams Street — with its lace curtains and wreath on the door — looked empty and abandoned.

But Mrs. Simpson learned this month that city officials had classified the home as vacant. The result? A $13,000 property tax bill — roughly $11,000 more than the amount she normally pays.

“It’s kind of insulting to receive a bill for a vacant property in a house you’ve lived in for 22 years and paid the tax diligently and assiduously,” Mrs. Simpson said. “Did they drive by my house and think it looks like a wreck or something?”

Officials say Mrs. Simpson was one of hundreds of property owners who were swept up in a crackdown on abandoned properties that began last year when the D.C. Council passed legislation transferring the authority for classifying a property as vacant from the Office of Tax and Revenue to the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs.

Vacant properties in the city are charged a tax rate of $5 per $100 of assessed value, much more than the rates for occupied buildings. The D.C. Council next month is expected to vote on legislation that would double the rate to $10 per $100 of assessed value.

Mayor Adrian M. Fenty also last year began an aggressive campaign to identify and track vacant properties. Officials surveyed 180,000 D.C. properties, and 2,452 are currently classified as vacant, compared with just 800 last year.

DCRA spokesman Michael Rupert said agency officials originally classified 900 more properties as vacant but granted exemptions.

He said a relatively small number of those properties were occupied during or after the survey. Some errors likely were a result of wrongly entered data, Mr. Rupert said. Hundreds more houses were granted exemptions because they were either under construction or for sale or lease.

The initiative errantly caught property owners such as Mrs. Simpson, who received a bill due tomorrow for $13,291 and was told by city tax workers that her property had been classified as vacant.

She estimated that she pays $2,000 at most in property taxes each year.

“To get something like this is like unbelievably, amazingly shocking,” Mrs. Simpson said.

Lisa Cook, who has lived in her home on K Street Northeast for more than three years, received notice that her property had been classified as vacant in December.

In March, she received a tax bill for $12,000 and — despite disputing the classification and communicating with DCRA officials — had not yet received a corrected bill from the tax office.

“I have no idea how my property ended up on this list,” said Ms. Cook, 37. “I don’t even know where to begin with how does the city go about doing this.”

Mr. Rupert said the city is trying to identify vacant houses and buildings in order to return them “back to productive use.”

He said his agency sent out more than 4,400 letters and follow-up reminders to notify owners that their property had been classified as vacant, but many residents never responded to the packets. He said many residents also did not fully understand new rules under the legislation that applied to selling their homes or registering a property as vacant if it’s empty for 30 days.

“We are going to increase our public outreach during the next tax cycle to ensure property owners and the real estate community fully understand the new rules and the process for registering their property,” Mr. Rupert said.

Natalie Wilson, a spokeswoman for the Office of Tax and Revenue, said residents who received reclassifications will be given corrected tax bills with a new payment due date of May 16.

Tax officials are in the process of sending out 281 reversals and corrected bills, she said, and both Ms. Cook and Mrs. Simpson have received reclassifications.

“Just make sure you’re firing off these stupid bills to people whose properties are actually vacant,” Ms. Cook said. “I think they are moving in the right direction.”

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