Thursday, June 13, 2013

How does the city deal with abandoned building owners it can't find? Answer: it's tricky

The City Paper has an interesting article today on how the city deals with abandoned buildings, especially those where the owner can't be found. And in short, it can't do a lot.

That's not to say the city doesn't try. The article talks about the process for finding homeowners (they send letters to the owner's address and visit the building) and if nobody responds, the city's Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs can declare it vacant, which means the owners pay $5 per $100 of assessed value (the normal rate is about $0.85 per $100). If the building is in bad shape, the city can declare it blighted at $10 per $100. That's a steep rate, and it does result in some owners either paying or fixing it up.  The Office of Tax and Revenue handles the tax part.

DCRA will make sure the blighted buildings are not dangerous, by sending the abatement team (whose funny nickname is the A-Team) to cut the grass, make sure windows are boarded up, and the like, and then they file a lien against the owner for the amount of money it cost to do that.

However, that assumes people pay. The article says the city has a list of 698 owners who it can't find or are deceased without heirs. But due to the legal limbo if a house hasn't gone through the probate process, there isn't a whole lot the city can legally do. You don't want to seize a building when you aren't sure who actually owns it, or they're fighting over it. (Or, do you? Maybe it would get some of these problems fixed faster, like the saga of 1483 Newton Street NW where groups of heirs are fighting.)

Since there isn't much to be done and the people can't be found or won't respond, that often means that liens and tax bills keep piling up, so the house wouldn't be very attractive for a tax sale. Tax sales are fairly rare anyway, and rarer still are those where the city will just give away (or sell very cheaply) houses with big outstanding tax and lien bills. The city's Department of Housing and Community Development can seize houses too to use as public or discounted housing, but that hasn't happened yet this year -- they currently are more focused on getting the properties they already own developed.

And not having owners around means a lot of the taxes levied aren't collected -- only $3 million of the $10.3 levied last year were actually obtained by the city.

So, what's to be done? The City Papers suggests merging these various functions into one office, rather than three that currently handle it (and there's also the Department of Public Works, which handles vacant lots separately) and also passing some laws giving the city more enforcement.

It's a tricky problem, and while it sounds like the city isn't doing a lot, that's not really true -- they do work hard to identify, tax and keep vacant buildings safe (just see the map I published a bit ago with how many there are in Ward 1 alone) but the enforcement is where it gets tricky.

What do you think? Any suggestions?


  1. i thought 1483 was sold recently

  2. I was walking by a few days ago and there were a team of folks with hardhats talking about next steps...


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