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Rethinking How D.C. Inspects, Taxes Vacant Properties To Address Urban Blight

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In D.C., a proposed law would make it harder for owners to skirt higher taxes on vacant properties.
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In D.C., a proposed law would make it harder for owners to skirt higher taxes on vacant properties.

According to D.C.'s official tally, almost 1,300 properties in the city are vacant or even blighted — and the real number may be much higher. These properties are taxed at a rate six times higher than occupied ones. But unless city inspectors confirm every six months that a property is still vacant, the tax rate goes back down to normal.

That means it's difficult for D.C.'s four inspectors to investigate new complaints because District law requires them to keep checking current vacant properties to make sure they're still empty.

But a proposed law would make life easier for the inspectors, and harder for owners who hold onto vacant properties. D.C. Council member Elissa Silverman has introduced that bill, which aims to streamline the city's vacant-property procedures.

"It basically shifts the burden from the city to keep saying, 'Yes, it's still vacant, it's still vacant, it's still blighted,' to the owner to say, 'Here are the steps that I took that should allow this building to be removed from the vacant and blighted list.'"

Those steps could include showing that the property is leased, or that utilities are turned on — or, for blighted properties, showing they've been brought up to code. Silverman says vacant properties can eventually attract drug users and crime.

"It leads to an increase in public-safety concerns," Silverman says. "It leads to a lack of investment in that area. We want to see these properties put back in use."

David Sheon, ANC commissioner for a section of north Petworth, has been pushing the city for six months to improve its handling of vacant property. Sheon calls Silverman's bill a step in the right direction.

"It's the first piece of a puzzle that has to take place in order to expedite the transfer of property back into use in the neighborhoods," Sheon says.

But according to Sheon, there's still a loophole that lets owners of vacant properties hold onto the lower tax rate by getting a construction permit, which buys them another three years. Silverman says she hopes to address that later.

Six other Council members joined Silverman in introducing the bill. She expects a hearing on it in early 2016.

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