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Housing


Help us map out DC's vacant buildings

DC doesn't have an accurate count of how many vacant buildings it has, which means lots of missed opportunities for more tax revenue or new housing. We've created a map of the vacants the city knows about. Tell us about the ones that are missing, and we'll send the full list to the DC Council before it votes on a law to fix the counting problem.


Photo by NCinDC on Flickr.

We've written about problems with DC's system of accounting for vacant buildings and enforcing the regulations aimed at them a couple times over the past few months. It's a mess of loopholes where owners can skirt detection and penalties by doing things like applying for work permits but not doing any actual work for years.

In a place like DC, where space for new housing is at such a premium, this is infuriating.

DC's Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs publishes lists every year showing which properties it has officially designated vacant and blighted (which means a building is a threat to health and safety). When a building goes on the list, its owner has to pay higher tax rates of 5% for vacant buildings and 10% for blighted.

While the agency's count is far from complete (which is a significant part of the problem), we thought we'd start by mapping out what it has provided:

Map by Thad Kerosky (@thadk).

Remember, these are not "For Lease" buildings, vacant lots, or buildings under construction. These are buildings that 1) have no occupants, and 2) have an owner who is not actively pursuing construction or new tenants.

DCRA most often investigates a building after receiving a report from a neighbor or agency, though many people will tell you they have filed reports repeatedly with little reaction from the agency.

Get out your red pens... we can correct this!

On Thursday, July 14th, the DC Council's Committee on Business, Consumer, and Regulatory Affairs is having a hearing on a series of bills that would fix many of the problems with DCRA's current system. Greater Greater Washington would love to submit testimony in support of that legislation, but we need your help.

If you know of or suspect a vacant building nearby, use the search function above to see if DCRA has already classified it as such. If it hasn't, fill out the form below and help us collect further evidence that this system needs fixing.



Bicycling


DC could end its most unjust rule of the road now. Ask the DC Council to delay no longer.

A man named Kevin Washington was riding his bike on 19th Street NW toward M Street NW. As far as anyone knows, he was obeying every traffic law. He was in the street; he was in the right lane; he wasn't speeding.


Photo by Pedal_Power_Pete on Flickr.

A trash truck was in the middle lane, the one to his left. Suddenly, it turned across his path and hit him.

In a subsequent lawsuit, DC's highest court ruled that even with all of these facts, he still couldn't get any compensation from the truck driver's insurance, because he "was aware of the truck," and should have known that "when the truck reached M Street on a green light and proceeded into the intersection, it would either go straight ahead or turn onto M Street."

"The bicyclist, for his own safety, was obliged to pay close attention to the movements of the truck, and to anticipate the possibility that it might turn right, toward the bicycle."

In other words, it's person's fault if he gets hit while on a bike, even if he is doing nothing wrong, just because he should have realized that there was some chance another vehicle could have hit him.

This colossally unjust ruling was from the late 1980s, but insurance companies have been using the same principle in denying claims to this day. Shane Farthing posted a 2014 letter from Geico denying compensation to another person riding a bike for "failing to keep a proper lookout" when a driver veered into the bike lane.

This wouldn't matter in most states. But DC has a "contributory negligence" rule, along with only four states (including Maryland and Virginia). There, even the slightest fault from a person biking or walking (or driving) makes him or her absolutely ineligible to collect any money at all from the driver's insurance. And, as the court case above shows, courts have decided that even basically no fault is still at least a tiny bit of fault.

On Tuesday, the DC Council will consider a bill to end this phenomenally unjust law. Instead, if a person on a bike or on foot isn't more than 50% at fault, he or she can still get compensation.

Two weeks ago, the bill was supposed to come up for a vote, but a last-minute concern from Kenyan McDuffie (ward 5) derailed it (de-sidewalked it?) It's important for the DC Council to pass this bill now; an earlier version also fell apart at the last minute two years ago.

The insurance industry is fighting it—little surprise, since right now they have a law that lets them not actually do anything about some serious injuries. And AAA Mid-Atlantic is fighting it, too; it's an insurer as well as a driving lobby organization. And in contrast to many other AAAs around the country, our local chapter lacks the kind of humanity that would yield basic empathy toward those seriously injured and unable to get their medical bills paid.

Please ask the DC Council to change this law immediately using the form below. Thank you!



Housing


This new law would mean a better count of DC's vacant buildings

DC probably has a lot more vacant and blighted properties than its official count says, largely because of loophopes in the counting system. A bill before the DC Council is aiming to change that.


Residents proposed ideas for ways a long-vacant property could be put to better use. Photo by Myles Smith.

In February, Elissa Silverman introduced the Vacant Property Enforcement Amendment of 2016 to work in tandem with a similar piece of legislation she introduced in 2015. Both would shift the burden of proof from DC's Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs to the property owner, meaning it'd be on the owner to show that a buildint isn't vacant rather than on the city to show that it is.

This change would make building owners much more accountable, as well as strengthen DCRA's ability to enforce existing vacant and blighted properties laws.

First, a quick recap of the current situation

Under current law, properties determined that DCRA's Vacant and Blighted Enforcement Unit determines to be vacant are taxed at elevated tax rates of five percent of assessed value if vacant and 10 percent if the property is found to be blighted.

But the process for classifying a property as vacant or blighted and then maintaining the property's classification is onerous; District law states that the Mayor is the only person in the city who has the authority to list a building as blighted, and there are a number of loopholes in the law that allow negligent owners to avoid elevated tax rates.


A vacant building at 824 Kennedy Street NW. Photos by the author unless otherwise noted.

Every six months, DCRA has to reassess the property and determine that it is still vacant and/or blighted. That means that when a building goes onto the list, chances are high that it will revert to the normal non-vacant, non-blighted tax rate even if the owner does nothing at all.

We estimate that there are as many as 5,000 vacant and blighted properties in the District, a number far too large for the small staff of DCRA's Vacant and Blighted Enforcement Unit to keep a handle on.

Silverman's bills do four things:

It reduces from three years to two years the maximum amount of time a vacant property can qualify for an exemption from higher taxes.

  • Currently, property owners can get exemptions from higher tax rates for up the three years by filing for work permits that cost a fraction of the potential tax penalty. In practice, these exemptions can last much longer than three years, as David Sheon and I have documented in a number of cases. There is no requirement that any actual work be done to earn the exemption.

This vacant building at 5112 9th Street has been vacant for three years, but it regularly falls off the list and its owner doesn't get taxed at a higher level consistently. Neighbors complain of loiterers and drug activity on the property.

It shifts the burden of biannual proof that the building is vacant or blighted from being the responsibility of DCRA inspectors and onto homeowners.

  • As the law stands, DCRA has to inspect every one of the 1300 properties on the list plus any new properties every six months. This bill shifts the burden off of DCRA and onto the owners of vacant properties by making them demonstrate with utility bills that the properties are no longer vacant.
It raises fines for failing to register vacant properties or allow DCRA to inspect them.
  • Accepting a fine is often easier and less expensive than registering a property as vacant. This bill reverses those incentives, making it easier for DCRA to maintain accurate lists with up to date information and to take enforcement actions when necessary.
It provides positive incentives by allowing an owner of a vacant property who follows the law and fills the vacancy within a year to receive a rebate of one year of vacant property taxes.
  • There is currently no mechanism for reimbursing owners of vacant and blighted properties who remediate blight and fill vacancies. This law will provide a strong incentive for owners to move quickly and do the right thing.

A vacant building at 615 Jefferson Street NW. Note the stop work order in the window.

The DC Council will take the next steps in July

The Council has scheduled hearings on the proposed legislation for July 14. Hopefully, we'll see the bill brought up for a vote following the hearings.

While this bill does not address all of the loopholes, it does fix the most obvious flaws. We are pleased to see this development, and urge Council to add the additional amendments needed to address the above listed issues.



Bicycling


DC Council postpones fixing an injustice to pedestrians and cyclists because Kenyan McDuffie's dog ate his homework

I'm on vacation in Copenhagen, but am writing a post anyway )using a Danish keyboard where the punctuation is all in a different place= because I'm sufficiently annoyed at Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie. He seems to have just read a very important bill to protect people walking and bicycling at the very last minute, then asked for an extension because it didn't say what he thought it did.


DC's contributory negligence debate wouldn't happen here in Copenhagen. Photo by the author.

A quick history here. Bicycle riders have been talking about the unjust "contributory negligence" rule for years. This rule says that if someone is even 1% at fault for a crash, he or she can recover nothing from the insurer of, say, a driver who hits and seriously injures him or her.

Two years ago, Tommy Wells (ward 6) was chairing the committee with jurisdiction to change the rule, and he tried a bill to change to "comparative negligence," where you can recover in proportion to your fault (if you're 25% at fault, you could recover up to 75% of your injuries). But Councilmember Mary Cheh (ward 3) opposed the bill, as did trial lawyers, because it would interfere with another legal doctrine called "joint and several liability." You can learn more about this here.

But suffice to say, there were two possible ways to fix the problem, and the one Wells was promoting didn't have political support. Cheh promised to write a bill that fixed her concern, and she then introduced it the following year, in January 2015, along with Jack Evans (ward 2), David Grosso (at large), Anita Bonds (at large), and Charles Allen (ward 6 and Wells' successor).

Here's a chart by David Cranor explaining the difference between the two bills, in terms of how much a victim can recover based on his or her fault under current law, the 2014 bill, and the current bill.


Here, the X axis is for how much the cyclist was at fault, and the Y is for how much the driver has to pay. The red line shows how the law works today, the green one explains a 2014 bill that didn't pass, and the purple and blue ones show Kenyan McDuffie and Mary Cheh's proposals, respectively. Graph by David Cranor.

Kenyan McDuffie was now chairing the committee with jurisdiction, and nothing happened for over a year. The committee then marked up the bill on April 21, 2016. The committee report endorses the bill, saying:

The Committee finds, based on the testimony, significant risk of injury, and national trend, that the District of Columbia law should institute a modified comparative negligence standard for bicyclists and pedestrians in the District. Therefore, the Committee recommends that the Council enacts Bill 21-0004, the "Motor Vehicle Collision Recovery Act of 2016."
Suddenly, the bill is in crisis

Monday night (Copenhagen time, anyway), Martin Di Caro broke the news that McDuffie was suddenly concerned about the language of the bill. David Cranor breaks down McDuffie's apparent concern, which is that someone 10% at fault might be able to recover more than 90%. McDuffie wants the purple line in the graph above, where the recovery slopes down to 50% and is zero after that.

But the sloped-line approach failed two years ago. Suddenly it seems we're back where we were then, with some councilmembers willing to support one solution, some wanting another, and not enough for a single solution.

The Washington Area Bicyclist Association says it supports either approach, but is insistent that one of them be enacted. I might not be seeing everything, being in Denmark let alone not privy to conversations between McDuffie and Cheh, but it sure seems like McDuffie, after sitting on the bill for 15 months, suddenly read it for the first time very recently, realized it said something different than what his own committee report endorsed, and got cold feet.

The council has now postponed debate on the bill for two weeks, until July 12.


Photo by the author.

McDuffie needs to get this solved in two weeks

One of my elementary school teachers had a sign with the old phrase, "Lack of planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part." This is like the student who procrastinates on an assignment until the last minute, then needs an extension. Only McDuffie is a very smart professional legislator with extensive legal experience and staff who also have law degrees.

But fine, McDuffie got his extension. It will mean cyclists and pedestrians are in jeopardy for two months more, because the council can't take a second vote until September thanks to its August recess, but they've been waiting years for a fix.

If McDuffie decides to go along with Cheh's approach, great. If he can convince her and a majority of the council to go with another solution palatable to WABA, that's also fine. But what won't be fine is if two weeks pass (during which time there's a holiday, by the way) and then the council is still not ready to move forward. Two years ago, the bill got delayed two weeks also, and instead of then passing, it was delayed more and more and ultimately almost two years.

If that happens because McDuffie wasn't paying attention, this will all be on him, under the "you break it, you buy it" doctrine. It would reflect very poorly on him. Fortunately, he has several ways out of looking bad—just get some dmn bill passed )where the heck is the asterisk on this keyboard=, either Cheh's version or something else that has seven votes.

To stay up to date on how this unfolds, fill out the form below. Meanwhile, I'll go back to walking the streets of Copenhagen, where Danish law places the presumption of fault on the driver in any crash. Hey, how about amending the bill to say THAT instead?



Bicycling


DC's harmful traffic law needs to go, one way or another

If a driver hits you while you're walking or biking in DC, the law makes it almost impossible to collect from the driver's insurance. A bill to fix that is suddenly in jeopardy just hours before a scheduled vote. Please ask the DC Council to move it forward.

As of now, DC's "contributory negligence" law says that if a person on foot or bike who is involved in a crash is even one percent at fault for what happened, they can't collect any damages. The Motor Vehicle Collision Recovery Amendment Act of 2015, which is scheduled for a vote today, would let people collect damages as long as they were less than 50% at fault.

Today, Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie plans to introduce an amendment that would change exactly how much a person could collect, using a "comparative negligence" standard that basically means that a person's claim to damages would be proportional to their fault in the crash. It looks as though Councilmember Mary Cheh would oppose the bill if it includes McDuffie's amendment.

Efforts to end contributory negligence, which really does have harmful effects, have been going on for years. There are credible arguments for both McDuffie's and Cheh's positions on how to word the new law, but we need to pass one or the other.

With or without the amendment, the proposed bill will improve the rights of pedestrians, cyclists and other non-motorized road users on DC's streets. That is very much needed, especially as the number of people who use our streets for something other than driving continues to swell.

Update: Councilmember McDuffie moved for the Council to vote on the bill on July 12, and his motion passed.

This morning, 75 people sent 450 letters to Councilmembers urging them to do away with contributory negligence, one way or another. Thank you for your efforts, and look for more from Greater Greater Washington on how pass the bill as the vote nears.

Bicycling


DC is on the verge of ditching a harmful traffic law

Right now, DC has a law that keeps drivers from being held responsible for damages when they harm vulnerable road users. After years of organizing and effort, the DC Council is about to vote on a proposal to change this. You have a chance to speak up.


Photo by mjmonty on Flickr.

Traffic collisions happen every day. Sorting out who is responsible for the damages afterwards is a complex job that often involves the police, insurance adjusters, lawyers, and even judges and/or juries. In our region, however, a strict legal standard called "contributory negligence" has made things harsh, but simple: If you are even 1% at fault in a collision, you cannot collect any damages.

If that sounds weird to you, you're not alone. The District, Maryland, and Virginia are among the last holdouts in the US to use this standard. Forty-seven other states have switched to a more common-sense standard called "comparative fault," where damages are assigned in proportion to blame.

I shared my own personal story in a a recent post about how I came to learn about this obscure legal topic—the hard way, courtesy of a minivan driver, while I was riding my bike. While I am grateful I survived and recovered, I know I'm not alone, and others aren't as lucky as me with the court system. That's why myself and others have been advocating since 2014 for the District to adopt the "comparative fault" standard for pedestrians and cyclists who are hit by drivers.

Road users who don't have insurance adjusters or legal representation to advocate on their behalf are victimized a second time after a collision when their claims for damages are denied because insurers are confident most victims will not have the evidence to prove they are untainted by even 1% of fault.

Various DC Council members have explored legislation to make this change, but have faced stiff opposition from AAA and the insurance industry, who can afford multiple full-time lobbyists. However, patient and persistent advocacy from leaders on the council and community groups like WABA and All Walks DC have brought us to the brink of victory.

On Monday, the DC Council's Committee of the Whole scheduled the Motor Vehicle Collision Recovery Amendment Act of 2015 for a full Council vote on Tuesday, June 28, 2016.

On top of making it so a person on a bike or on foot who was contributorily negligent in a crash with a motor vehicle would still be able to collect damages if they were less than 50% at fault, the bill makes it clear that it covers people using non-motorized vehicles outside of just bikes (or people on foot), and retains what's called the "last clear chance" doctrine, which says that even if the person who was hit was contributorily negligent, the person who hit them can still be responsible if they had a clear chance to avoid the collision.

If you care about this issue, now is the most important time to let your councilmember know that you support fairness for pedestrian and bicycle crash victims. You can rest assured that they are hearing from the insurance industry, so let them hear from you too.

Politics


Silverman, White, Gray, and White can form a paint caucus on the next DC Council

Tuesday night, three incumbents lost their primaries for re-election to the DC Council: Robert White beat Vincent Orange at large, Vincent Gray unseated Yvette Alexander in Ward 7, and Trayon White took out LaRuby May in Ward 8. Many observers noticed that there's something similar about all of their last names: They're (achromatic) hues.

We supported Robert White and Gray, and from a policy standpoint, this election means a big step up for the quality of the DC Council. White and Gray will likely cast many better votes than Orange or Alexander would, and write better quality, better thought through legislation as well.

But putting all of the serious stuff aside for a moment, after each election recently I've made a graph of the number of elected officials whose names are also on the Photoshop palette.

While Orange, the most colorful sitting member (literally) lost, the three new ones bring the total up to four, the all-time high last achieved in 2011. That's the three victorious challengers plus Elissa Silverman, who came onto the council two years ago.

(Note that these folks haven't technically won election; they all are on the ballot in November. But in overwhelmingly Democratic DC, a Democrat is virtually assured of winning the general election.)

This chart excludes Carol Schwartz, whose name derives from the German word "schwarz," meaning black. She was on the council from 1985-1989 and again from 1997 to 2009, when Michael Brown defeated her for a non-Democratic at-large seat.

Are there any more Quentin Tarantino characters waiting in the wings for 2018? There's often speculation about a comeback for Kwame Brown or Michael Brown (which, let me say, would be a terrible idea). Orange also could seek another seat in the future; it wouldn't be the first time he left the council and then returned.

Politics


For DC Council in Ward 7: Vince Gray

In DC's Ward 7, mostly east of the Anacostia River, former mayor Vince Gray is running to take back his old seat on the DC Council from Yvette Alexander. We hope voters will return him to the council.

While ethical issues from his campaign marred his mayoralty and serious questions still remain, on the policy issues, he was very strong. He was the champion of DC's ambitious sustainability plan and the forward-thinking moveDC plan which called for bus lanes, protected bikeways, and much more. Under Gray, the DC government set ambitious goals for the future, ones we can only hope the District comes close to achieving.

Even before his term as mayor, he was an excellent councilmember and an excellent chairman. Having him back in the legislature will be a major win for DC. When he chaired the council, he charted a constructive course toward DC's zoning update and other long-term planning processes.

Gray was never shy about saying, loudly and publicly, that DC should reduce its reliance on private cars. He's also been adamant that DC needs more housing. In response to a question on the issue, he said,

The District's zoning laws are arbitrary and impose a significant burden on further growth, especially for affordable housing. As mayor, I fought to change our height limitations in order to allow for the development of more high rise buildings to support more residents. As councilmember, I will support zoning changes to make building more affordable units easier and more straightforward.
Yvette Alexander, on the other hand, has been a poor councilmember. She has shown little to no leadership in her ward to improve bus service, despite the fact that large numbers of her constituents ride the bus and transit to many neighborhoods is not what it could be. (Compare that to Ward 5's Kenyan McDuffie, who recently fought for and won funding for a new express bus line on Rhode Island Avenue.)

Alexander criticized bicycling at a rally about the bikeway on Pennsylvania Avenue and told Dave Salovesh that she wanted to keep being able to make U-turns across the lane (a very dangerous maneuver).

She responded angrily on Twitter when we reported her opposition, insisting she supported barriers on Pennsylvania Avenue, but refused to specifically state she supported them in front of the John A. Wilson Building, where the councilmembers park.

Having Gray back on the council would likely mean a big boost for good public policy. We hope Ward 7 voters will choose him in the Democratic primary. Early voting begins May 31, and election day is June 14. You can find out more about times and places to vote here.

This is the official endorsement of Greater Greater Washington. To determine endorsements, we invite regular contributors and editors to participate in a survey about their preferences and opinions about upcoming races. The editorial board then decides whether to make an endorsement.

Politics


For DC Council at large: Robert White

There's no doubt about it: Vincent Orange should not continue as a DC councilmember. There are two people vying to unseat him who would both make excellent councilmembers. In the Democratic primary on June 14, we urge voters to pick the one who has the best chance to win, and that is Robert White.

Robert White is a good candidate

For a race as important as this, there has sadly been little press coverage and other attention. If you haven't been hyper-engaged in the race, you may know little or nothing about Robert White, which is a shame, because he is a strong supporter of the issues that matter to the Greater Greater Washington community. We endorsed him (along with Elissa Silverman) in the general election two years ago.

White has said he supports rezoning areas such as Georgia Avenue NW, Rhode Island Avenue NE, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue SE to add housing. He wants to ensure that costs don't spiral out of control for middle-class families. "We have to look at all ways to increase housing options in order to push down the cost of housing," he told Edward Russell.

He's spoken in favor of adding more bus lanes, for expanding the bike lane network, and strengthening Metro, including with more funding as needed.

He has considerable public policy experience through working for many years in the office of Congresswoman Norton and then for DC Attorney General Karl Racine. He will understand how to get things done and involve residents effectively in the political process.

White has won the support of the DC Sierra Club, DC for Democracy, the JUFJ Campaign Fund, and councilmember Mary Cheh.

No to Orange

Vincent Orange, the incumbent, simply is not a constructive force on the DC Council. He introduces legislation that is simultaneously overly specific and poorly thought through.

He introduced sloppy (and likely illegal) legislation to stop creation of new housing. Then he jumped on the "tiny houses" bandwagon with a "gimmicky" piece of legislation. He even submitted two conflicting bills about Airbnb.

Maybe it's because we're wonks, but we'd like our elected officials and their staffs to actually be thinking about a policy issue and trying to solve it. Orange doesn't seem to.


Robert White (left) and David Garber (right) images from the candidates. Base balance scale image from Shutterstock.

What about David Garber?

The third candidate in the race is David Garber. We like him a great deal. In fact, he has been an active part of the Greater Greater Washington community in the past. A number of our contributors are his personal friends. He has a strong grasp of policy issues and good values about them.

While an Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner for the Navy Yard area, he consistently supported adding more housing while also fighting for more affordable housing. He posted a really smart series of tweets about this issue recently, which sound just like what we might say.

On transportation, Garber has cheered efforts toward dedicated bus lanes. He told Edward Russell, "I think it's really important that we invest in things like better dedicated bus service and 16th Street NW is a great example of that."

He would make an excellent councilmember, and if he were in a head to head race with Vincent Orange, we would eagerly endorse him.

However, the fact of this race is that there are two candidates who are very strong on our issues. There is little actual policy difference between David Garber and Robert White; meanwhile, Robert White has an advantage on experience and, most importantly, likelihood of winning.

When should you vote strategically?

In the past, there's been considerable debate among our readers, contributors, and editors about whether to vote for the person you like the most, or the one who's most likely to beat a bad alternative.

During Vincent Orange's last race in 2012, Sekou Biddle almost beat him, with 39% of the vote to Orange's 42%. But Peter Shapiro, whom we endorsed, ended up with 11%. If enough of Shapiro's supporters had gone to Biddle over Orange, Biddle could have prevailed.

Other times, "vote your heart" has had value. Sometimes a candidate doesn't win, but getting more votes positions him or her for a later run. In a 2013 special election, we supported Elissa Silverman. She didn't win (Anita Bonds did), but her strong performance positioned her well for the following year's at-large independent contest, where she won a seat.

This contest, however, is somewhat different from 2012. Robert White is genuinely a good candidate, not a distant second best. Some allied groups that supported Shapiro in 2012 are now enthusiastically behind White. There are both fewer (if any) reasons not to support White, and a stronger accumulating consensus in his favor.

In giving their views on the race, several contributors said they liked Garber, but simply didn't know White that well; many said that if White seemed to have the edge, they'd rally to his side. We wish there were a good, independent poll to help people decide (it's very unclear whether to put any stock in this one).

We actually had a whole post written about how we weren't quite yet ready to make up our minds. After more endorsements for White rolled in and evidence mounted that he had the strongest chance to beat Orange, our editors and many contributors agreed that voters would do best to support Robert White.

Early voting begins May 31, and election day is June 14. There is no contested race for any party other than the Democrats. You can find out more about times and places to vote here.

This is the official endorsement of Greater Greater Washington. To determine endorsements, we invite regular contributors and editors to participate in a survey about their preferences and opinions about upcoming races. The editorial board then decides whether to make an endorsement.

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