WASHINGTON — The owner of a Ward 6 building that has sat vacant for years was hit with a lawsuit from D.C.'s attorney general on Monday.
According to Attorney General Karl Racine, the owner of 1000 C Street NE "made false claims to avoid paying the higher property taxes" that D.C. imposes on buildings that have been deemed vacant or blighted. Owners of vacant buildings typically pay five times what the average D.C. homeowner pays, while owners of blighted properties pay about ten times the tax most average homeowners pay. DC City Council changed the property tax rates on these buildings in 2011 to encourage owners to fix "eyesore" properties.
The lawsuit claims that despite the building's boarded-up, crumbling exterior, the owner, George Papageorge, claims the building is occupied, and thus avoids paying the higher taxes. Racine alleges the owner has been avoiding the taxes since at least 2015.
According to D.C.'s latest tax records, the owner of 1000 C Street made a payment of nearly $4,000 on March 28, but still owes more than $116,000. Prior to that, a similar payment was made in September 2021, a payment of more than $13,000 was submitted in May 2021 and two payments of just under $3,000 were made in 2019.
In a press release, Racine said more than 3,000 properties are currently vacant in the District.
“Too many District residents are struggling to find safe and affordable places to live, while more than 3,000 homes sit vacant across the city,” Racine wrote in the release. “The Council has imposed higher taxes on vacant and blighted houses to motivate owners to keep properties in use and in good repair. But instead of fixing up, renting out, or selling these homes, some owners repeatedly lie to avoid paying the taxes they owe. That’s not acceptable, and we’re putting owners on notice: if you own a vacant home, you must register it with the District and pay all required taxes. If you try to cheat the system, the Office of the Attorney General will hold you accountable.”
According to D.C.'s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA), the main difference between a blighted building and a vacant building is that a blighted building is a danger to the "general welfare of the community," while a vacant property is merely not occupied. If a property is vacant, D.C. code requires the owner to register it with DCRA's Vacant Building Administration yearly within 30 days of vacancy.
"Failure to register your building can result in civil and/or criminal penalties of $2,000 in fines per violation and up to 90 days imprisonment," DCRA writes on its website.
WUSA9 visited 1000 C Street NE in November 2020 for research on the city's handling of blighted properties. WUSA9 found vacant property stickers, plywood doors and weeds growing from the roof of the property.
"It's really just a sad vision for this area, and I don't know what else we can do." neighbor Sharon Boeson told WUSA9 in 2020. "I've talked to council members, I've talked to DCRA. I've spoken with vacant property offices. I've spoken with other people who know of other buildings around the city. Nobody does anything."
There's even a parody Twitter account dedicated to 1000 C Street, calling out years of delinquent D.C. property tax bills on the property and lampooning the building as an eyesore.
"Pretty much do what I want while the real owner is on vacation," the account's bio reads.
WUSA9 spoke to Papageorge, back in November 2020, and he said he considers D.C.’s treatment of him as “unconstitutional extortion.” Papageorge wrote in a later email that D.C.'s property classification system "is very often imposed with no due process and that property owners' appeal rights are usually stymied (purposefully) and trampled upon by the District of Columbia government."
He declined to say what he would do with the property in the future and did not answer any further questions.
“This is an important step in what should be the final chapter of three decades of a vacant building in our city,” Council Chairman Phil Mendelson said of the lawsuit from Racine. “I’m hopeful that this suit will send a message that the District is serious about fraud and that these LLCs must make an effort to put their properties back into use rather than continue to try to game the system.”
According to Racine's office, the lawsuit is seeking to claim $750,000 from Papageorge in "unpaid property taxes, damages, and penalties."
If you have a vacant or blighted building in your neighborhood you feel officials haven’t done enough to fix, we want to hear from you. Take a picture of it, use our WUSA9 Mobile app and send us the picture on our new “Near Me” feature.