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DC agency admits some building owners may be 'gaming' the tax system. Here's how

DC Council chairman Phil Mendelson demands answers from DC Consumer & Regulatory Agency director during Monday's hearing.

WASHINGTON — Rundown empty houses and apartment buildings. DC’s council chairman says he’s had enough. He’s seen WUSA9 coverage these past years and held a hearing demanding answers from the agency responsible for building inspections.

DC Council chairman Phil Mendelson highlighted four run-down homes and apartment buildings WUSA9 showed you last month.

The big question, why had DCRA, the government agency responsible for inspecting these empty buildings keep going back and forth on placing blight tax penalties on those building’s owners?

Vacant versus blighted. Vacant simply means empty. When it comes to DC property taxes, owners of vacant buildings must pay five times what the average DC homeowner pays. Blight means "property in a deteriorated state." Simply put, it’s falling apart. Owners of blighted properties must pay ten times the tax most average homeowners pay.

DC Council Chair Phil Mendelson questioned DC Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs Director Ernest Chrappah about a blighted townhouse on 13th St in Northwest needing braces to prevent even more damage to neighbor’s homes.

Credit: Haleigh Purvis
Neighbor Mamie Preston shows a collapsing home on 13th St NW DC

"I find it embarrassing that it has been reclassified by your agency 11 times, but at no point, despite moving to have it condemned, have you simply retroactively reclassified it as blighted back to 2018," Mendelson said.

"I understand the sentiment at where you're coming from around this particular property and there's no excuse for the errors that have been made which surfaces based on some of the questions you asked," Chrappah answered.

Credit: Haleigh Purvis
DC Council Chairman Phil Mendelson tours a vacant home on 18th St NW

One issue according to DCRA letters to Mendelson is that when the agency does flag properties as blighted, building owners often appeal and pull permits for construction work. That protects those property owners from higher taxes. 

But neighbors and our observations show that little repair work is actually done to those properties during the appeal time.

Credit: Nathan Baca
The vacant building on 1000 C St NE, Washington

"We know that some property owners are intent on gaming the system and we look forward to working with you to tighten those loopholes that allow them to get away with things like that."

RELATED: DC Council chairman demands action on long-crumbling buildings

It’s gotten to the point that neighbors started an anonymous Twitter account posing as one of the blighted buildings on C St N, mocking the lack of DCRA action over the years. 

RELATED: DC neighborhood taking stand against vacant buildings

DCRA’s Director admitted needing to do a better job but added that progress has been made. "It used to take 38 business days to get a vacant property inspected. It now takes four days," Chrappah said.

Based on reporting from WUSA9 reporter Delia Goncalves, the DC Council overrode a veto by Mayor Muriel Bowser this past February and decided to split up DCRA into two agencies. 

The council believes a separate DC “Building Department” would focus more on blighted buildings. The council still has to find the money in the budget this summer to make that split happen next year.

To submit a complaint about a DC vacant building in your neighborhood, click here to report it to DCRA.

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