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Development


DC has way more vacant properties than it thinks

Editor's note: While this post has two authors, it's written from David Sheon's perspective.

The official count of vacant and blighted properties in DC is about 1,200, but in reality, there are likely many more. The reasons for the discrepancy? A number of loopholes in the system for counting these properties, and not enough staff to close them.


This vacant house might look like it's under construction, but it hasn't been touched in years. All photos by the authors.

When I first became an ANC Commissioner, I knocked on every door in my district and asked my constituents what they wanted to see different. Then, I tallied their concerns to see what issues rose to the top. The results surprised me: Issues related to vacant and blighted (which basically means it's a threat to health and safety) houses ranked second on people's list of concerns, after traffic safety.

After being elected, I compiled a list of vacant properties in my neighborhood. In my 12-block district, I found seven clearly vacant homes. In many cases, these houses were literally falling apart, full of garbage (a broken down pick-up truck from a long-abandoned construction project on one) and overgrown weeds. Neighbors confirmed the properties didn't seem to be in probate (when a property is tied up in court because the owner passed away and it isn't clear who now owns it) but had been vacant for years.

These properties aren't only eyesores; they're a threat to public safety. On many, unsecured doors and windows attract crime, but without actual residents in the houses, there fewer eyes on the street. They also deter investment.

Unfortunately, DC's system for identifying these properties, assessing penalties, and putting properties back into productive use is fundamentally broken.

It's hard to get a property officially registered as vacant or blighted

The road to remediating vacant and blighted properties starts with DC's Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA). There, the Vacant and Blighted Enforcement (VBE) Unit is tasked with inspecting vacant and blighted properties and then assessing an appropriate tax rate. The idea is to raise taxes on buildings that aren't being put to use as a way to encourage the owners to sell or fix their properties.

For vacant properties, the tax rate is five percent. For vacant and blighted properties, the tax rate is an even higher 10 percent. But this is where things get really tricky, as there are a number of loopholes that prevent these taxes from being assessed.

For example, once a property is identified as vacant, a property owner can get a permit to do work on the house. The property then becomes exempt from the vacant property tax even if no work has been done. For instance, long time neighbors of one vacant property told me they had never even heard a hammer in the vacant house, even though a work permit kept the vacant building tax from applying.

Another loophole involves putting the property up for sale at a price that is several times the fair market value. The "for sale" status will also earn the property owner an exemption. At one property near my house, which was falling apart, the owner listed it for sale with a price as though renovations had been made. In the condition it was in, the price should have been about $300K however he was listing it at nearly $900K. Clearly no one was going to buy it, but this way he avoided vacant building tax.

Owners can also set up anonymous Limited Liability Corporations (LLCs), often named for the property's address, that don't actually tie back to a person. That can make it impossible to go after individual owners to recover taxes owed or penalties assessed to the LLC. One example of this are the properties owned by Insun Hofgard, who WAMU's Martin Austermuhle reported on last year. Most of her properties, including those that remain unfinished and now blight Kennedy Street, are registered under individual LLCs.

Finally, vacant lots are also exempt.

Even when the VBE does identify properties as being vacant, the law requires the unit to reinspect the property every six months and reclassify it as either vacant or vacant and blighted. The VBE is not sufficiently staffed or resourced to handle this task, and properties routinely fall off DCRA's list, even when what got them on it in the first place hasn't changed.

Why would a property owner want to keep a property vacant as long as possible? As long as DC property values are going up, the longer the owner waits, the more profitable it will be.

In our experience, the system is broken

Since 2013, my neighbor and co-author, David Gottfried, has worked to identify vacant and blighted properties and to ask DCRA to classify them as such.

Every six months, David has followed up with DCRA to ask about keeping properties on the list and applying the appropriate penalties. Despite his efforts, the properties on his own list, which were clearly vacant and often unquestionably blighted, just slipped through the cracks. On my end, only three of the seven vacant properties that I identified in my neighborhood were on the city's list.

Simply put, it's very difficult to get a property classified as vacant, or keep it that way. Even when neighbors keep very close watch and follow up diligently with city agencies, DCRA is too often failing to adequately identify vacant properties and penalize their owners. Our experiences lead us to believe that the actual number of vacant and blighted properties is much higher than the 1,200 properties on DCRA's list, and could be as high as 5,000.


Another vacant property. Here, renovations are now underway—it'd be nice if that were the story more often.

Let's give DCRA what it needs to close the loopholes

This is an important issue for the health, safety, and well-being of our communities. It is also an issue of basic fairness. Negligent property owners who degrade our communities and jeopardize our security should face stiff penalties for their actions.

We need to adequately staff and resource the VBE, remove the burden from community members and DCRA to classify and re-classify properties, and place the onus squarely on the property owners by making them show the city that a property is no longer vacant before a property is removed from the list. We also need to pierce the corporate veil afforded negligent homeowners who use LLCs, so that DCRA and relevant agencies can appropriately penalize negligent homeowners.

Some of these fixes are hard and will take time, but with others, a small change in the law could go a long way. A little bit of political will and leadership could go a long way towards making our communities safer, more attractive, and more pleasant places to live.

We'll discuss pending legislation around vacant and blighted properties in an upcoming post.

Government


In its attempts to provide affordable housing, DC has struggled to set clear goals

In 2006 and 2012, DC set clear numbers for how many affordable housing units either needed to be built or needed to be preserved by a specific date. In both cases, there wasn't enough data to actually track progress, and the goals fell by the wayside. Today, there still isn't a plan for providing affordable housing for everyone who needs it.

Advocates and District officials often find themselves jumping from crisis to crisis. At Museum Square, for instance, residents are scrambling to prevent landlord Bush Companies from evicting half of Chinatown's remaining ethnically Chinese population, after tenants (and many District officials) were notified of Bush's plans via demolition notices.

As the DC Fiscal Policy Institute wrote in a 2015 paper, "While there have been some very important successes, the lack of a coordinated, proactive policy for [affordable housing] preservation has led to many missed opportunities, resulting in the loss of whole communities to sale [and] large rent increases."

Meanwhile, too many DC residents don't understand how big the problem of affordable housing is. They hear about crises like Museum Square, but are left to cobble the bigger picture together through disparate facts like "there are over 70,000 families on DC's affordable housing waitlist," or "there are effectively zero market rate units left in DC that are affordable for low-income workers."

Here is an overview of the District's past targets, and some ideas for new ones.

There have been attempts to set clear goals and stick to them

Two-dozen representatives from District agencies, local housing nonprofits, and research organizations helped author a 2006 report that then-mayor Anthony Williams commissioned. At the time, developers were starting to pour money into new projects west of the Anacostia River; DC's housing problem in Wards 1-4 was less that development dollars were scarce, and increasingly that the new projects were raising rents, making it hard for low-income families to stay.

District leaders and the authors of the 2006 report were beginning to realize this, and they set these goals:

  • Produce 55,000 new units by 2020.
  • 19,000 of those units should be affordable (7,600 below 30% of AMI; 5,700 between 30-60% of AMI, and another 5,700 between 60-80% of AMI).
  • In addition, preserve 30,000 currently affordable units.
  • Adopt a local rent supplement program and reach 14,600 households.

Of course, goals don't matter if nobody takes them seriously.

In 2007, Mayor Fenty appointed Leslie Steen as "housing czar" to implement the 2006 plan. She was supposed to cut through red tape and coordinate the many District authorities that touch on affordable housing, including DCHD, DCHFA, DCRA, DMPED, and DCHA. But she ended up being marginalized within the administration, and ultimately resigned in frustration.

In 2007 and 2011, Alice Rivlin wrote two follow-up reports; she praised the District's progress on some fronts, and basically threw up her hands on others; in 2011, nobody had the data to track progress towards the 2006 targets.

Another report was released in 2012 under the auspices of the Grey administration, and laid out these goals:

  • Preserve 8,000 existing affordable units.
  • Produce and preserve 10,000 net new affordable units by 2020 (I couldn't find a detailed AMI breakdown for these 10,000 units).
  • Support development of 3,000 market rate units by 2020.

Grey made a public commitment to reach the "10 by 20" goal, but since 2012 talk of these goals has faded. The Coalition for Nonprofit Housing and Economic Development has worked hard to get the District to commit to an investment goal: $100 million a year in the Housing Production Trust Fund. But Mayor Bowser has yet to adopt specific goals for the number of affordable units she wants to preserve and produce.


Mayor Bowser announcing affordable housing initiatives in January of last year. Photo by Ted Eytan on Flickr.

Setting numerical goals might be worth another look

If we establish another set of city-wide goals, they must be clear, and we must be able to track progress towards them. Such goals could accomplish at least two things:

  • Helping focus our collective efforts. Once we've agreed on a set of targets, we can get creative with solutions. Maybe it's up-zoning some parts of Ward 3; maybe it's strengthened Inclusionary Zoning, maybe it's more preservation and accessory dwelling units. (If we set respectable goals, it'll probably require some combination of all of the above).
  • Having a clear, public goals can help District residents hold their government to account. We could ask, "Why are we missing our targets?" We cannot ask that question now.

Here's an example of a measurable goal, just as food for thought: "The District should have no net loss of affordable units, relative to our current stock and distribution of affordability."

So if we have 40,000 units affordable to people who make below 40% of Area Median Income, we should still have that many in 2030. That's a clear goal, which the public could use to hold their representatives accountable.

An equally clear, less conservative goal might be, "The District should ensure that 30% of its total rental units are affordable to people making below 40% of AMI."

Today we're closer to having the data to track progress towards city-wide goals. The Urban Institute, in conjunction with the DC Preservation Network, has compiled currently available records (you can find a report from December here). The city's trying to improve its own data collection.

Clear goals and stringent data collection have helped the District come close to ending veteran homelessness. As Kristy Greenwalt, head of DC's Interagency Council on Homelessness, told the City Paper, "In the past, there was no systematic approach. We're in a very different place now, so we can actually track what's happening and why."

Goal setting alone can't build or preserve housing, and planning isn't execution. But without precise goals, it's hard to know if we're falling down or making progress—ensuring that new people can move to DC, existing residents can stay, and low-income people can live close to good jobs, schools, and public amenities. A comprehensive, strategic solution to our housing crisis begins with knowing what it would mean to win.

Development


Want to add a small apartment to your house in DC? That will soon be allowed.

It used to be that many homeowners in DC weren't allowed to build a small apartment, called an accessory dwelling unit (ADU), onto their property. Under DC's new zoning code, they will soon have the right to build some without seeking special permission.


Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

An ADU could be a basement or attic apartment, or an apartment over a garage or small cottage in the backyard. The important thing is that you can rent an ADU to a tenant. Allowing ADUs to go up more freely is one of the biggest changes of the new zoning code, which will take effect starting September 6.

In DC, households are shrinking from large families to singles or couples, while demand for housing is rising. Allowing homeowners to rent out parts of their property can help alleviate this demand, while providing income to offset the increasing cost of property.

Apartments have always been relatively easy for homeowners to add in higher-density row house zones—consider the classic DC "English Basement." Under the old zoning code they were allowed with a special exception, but now they are allowed by right in residential neighborhoods.

A big change under the new zoning code is making it easier to build new apartments in accessory buildings and inside houses. In the past, the lowest-density R-1 zones were the only place homeowners could build them, and even in those cases, they had to be occupied by a "domestic," meaning a family member or servant—a rather outdated stipulation.


Image from the DC Office of Planning.

Also, a apartment in an accessory building (a separate building on the property, like a garage) required a variance, meaning the owner would need to prove that they have a unique condition or situation that would make it a burden to comply with existing regulations. That was pretty much impossible, since accessory buildings were not allowed.

If the accessory building is already on the property, then homeowners can add an apartment by right. If the accessory building isn't there yet, the homeowner only needs a special exception, which neighbors can only stop by demonstrating that the building would be an undue burden on them.

These apartments are subject to conditions, such as those found in the building code that make sure there is enough living space and that the space is safe. The homeowner has to still live on the property, and there are a number of other conditions as well.

Under the new code, buildings can house a garage, artist studio, or storage area in addition to the apartment. They can't have a roof deck, perhaps because there's more of an argument that those are burdensome to neighbors. Apartments in accessory buildings also have to have dedicated access to the street.


Image from the City of Minneapolis.

How to make an ADU work on your property

Other things to consider with an ADU? First, keep in mind that only three people are allowed to live in the unit, with an additional three in the main home. Additionally, to rent out the property, homeowners need a Residential Rental Business License from the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs.

There's also the question of how to actually build it. Few people have the experience or skills to construct an apartment or small building by themselves. With labor and materials, how much will it cost? How can you make sure that the rent you are charging will cover the cost of your financing and provide rental income?

Especially when building an accessory building, there are many that first time builders may not consider. Because even a small building requires a foundation, four exterior walls, and roof, they will be considerably more costly than an interior apartment.

Other costs include an architect's fees, as well as fees to tie into utilities. And, while its tempting to save 8-15% and not hire an architect, you don't want to skimp here; an architect's job is to make sure buildings are up to code and therefore legally rentable. With so many conditions in the new zoning code, you want to be certain you're meeting them.

Financial feasibility is also a major concern. Financing can come from banks either through loans, or refinancing the property, or it can come from friends and family. If a bank is making the loan, then the repayments may be higher, which may impact the rents that need to be charged. Its important to understand the rental demand in the neighborhood, and compare the prices being charged to the desired rent for your unit. Make sure the market can bear your rents.

If you are interested in learning how to use tools like financial modeling for rental properties, and in talking through financing options for small real estate projects like accessory units, consider attending the Small Developer Bootcamp in Silver Spring from Friday, May 13 to Saturday, May 14. This training designed to teach people how to build the kind of small real estate projects that make cities better and it is sponsored by the Incremental Development Alliance.

Correction: The initial version of this article suggested that the zoning changes were now in effect. They take effect September 6. Also, this article initially reflected an earlier proposal for the zoning update which would have allowed apartments in accessory buildings by right under some circumstances; the final version requires a special exception hearing.

Correction 2: My bad. I totally messed up this correction. I incorrectly thought that the DC Office of Planning had taken out the by right permission to build an accessory apartment in an external building. This is wrong. Well, it's right and wrong. OP did try to take that out, but this was one retreat that the Zoning Commission rejected and asked OP to reverse. I therefore incorrectly corrected this article. Emily Brown's original was more accurate, and has been restored (with a few minor edits).—David Alpert

Government


DDOT director and chief engineer are leaving

A source in the DC government just passed along the news that District Department of Transportation (DDOT) Director Terry Bellamy and Chief Engineer Ronaldo "Nick" Nicholson are leaving the agency.


Bellamy and Nicholson are the two men in ties. Photo by DDOT DC on Flickr.

We don't yet have information on exactly when they will leave, or where they are going. This is another step in what is likely to be a long string of high-profile departures. Nicholas Majett, head of the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs which enforces regulations, is also stepping down.

Under Bellamy's leadership, DDOT has not made progress on a lot of important initiatives—cycletracks, bus priority, residential parking, trails, and much more. Still, will this mean DDOT will achieve even less for the remaining nine months of Mayor Gray's term?

A lot will depend on who Gray picks to run the agency in the interim. He chose former planning director Ellen McCarthy to run the Office of Planning after Harriet Tregoning. McCarthy has had the job before, and knows the lay of the land (literally and figuratively). She did a good job under the Williams administration.

Planning will at the very least keep moving along in a positive way for the rest of 2014, and maybe McCarthy can spearhead some important initiatives that wouldn't have gotten as much attention otherwise or which are more politically palatable in a lame duck administration.

Is there a similar figure for DDOT?

Overall, having the primary on April 1 was a bad idea, and not just because of low turnout, which Gray cited in his concession speech. Despite Gray's statements that he will keep working hard to improve the District for the rest of his term, many of his political appointees are already looking for new jobs.

Government


Social media kills bad policy against photographing permits

DC permit officials wouldn't let people take photos of building applications. Instead, people had to wait several days and pay to have copies made. But after several people including staff for Councilmember David Grosso reached out to officials through Twitter, this policy is no more.


Photo by Scott Beale / Laughing Squid.

In May, I learned that the owners of a house across the street in Trinidad were going to add a pop-up. I wanted to see some details of their plans. Matt Ashburn offered (via Twitter) to go on his lunch break to look at the plans.

But Eric Fidler warned us that DCRA doesn't allow people to take photos of plans. Helder Gil, DCRA's Legislative and Public Affairs officer, said that he should be able to. Gil gave Matt the name of the head of the permit division, just in case a problem cropped up.

At DCRA, Matt asked an employee at the file room to see the plans and permit application for the house. The employee asked him to sign in with his name, addresses of concern, and documents he'd like to view, but said he couldn't see the plans that day. "If I [pulled plans immediately for someone in the office], I'd be working all day," she said.

Matt had to fill out another form with his name, phone number, and the permit numbers, and wait for a phone call in 1-3 days telling him when he could come back. In the meantime, he could see the permit application.

But when he tried to take a photo of it with his phone, he was told he wasn't allowed to take photos. Instead, he could pay the employee to make copies. "That's the policy. No photos of the paperwork," she insisted.

When Matt protested, the employee eventually offered to make free copies of the application to get rid of him. But then, the records manager, a Mr. Mason, refused.

Mason confirmed that all these records are public documents and that the public is allowed to view and hold them, but not to photograph them. "What a wonderful country we live in," he told Matt. Matt would still have to buy copies of the application from DCRA and copies of the plans from Blueboy Printing, a private print shop, because DCRA can't copy large pages itself.

Matt said he just wanted to take a quick photo to avoid the hassle. "That's just how it is," Mr. Mason replied.

Meanwhile, on Twitter, Aaron Pritchard, Councilmember Grosso's chief of staff, saw our tweets about the issue and sought clarification from DCRA.

Gil jumped in. He made it clear that the director of DCRA was unhappy with the situation, and had asked the permit records department to stop enforcing it. Citizens could now take photos of permits, and that was that.

A few weeks later, I tried it for myself. I went to the permit office one Friday and asked to see the plans for the same house. Since the plans were off-site, I had to ask them to pull the plans, and an employee told me I could call back on Tuesday to see if they were available. When I did, I learned that I could come in the next day to see the plans. (They weren't, as it turned out, and I had to come back twice before they were finally available.)

The same employee strongly encouraged me to take photos if I wanted to have a record. Thankfully, that part of the policy worked the way it should.

As for that pop-up, here's what it will look like:

It appears that the new owners will replace one of the second-floor windows with a door, while the porch roof will become a deck. The plans don't specifically say what materials they will use for the addition, but it appears that it will be something like vinyl siding, as opposed to brick like the rest of the house.

Since my neighborhood isn't designated as a historic district, there's no process that controls the materials or design of building additions in my neighborhood, except that they have to meet zoning. But we were able to change one problematic city policy with help from social media.

Government


Scrap the food truck regulations

DC food trucks have grown in number and quality over the last several years, and are now a lunchtime staple in the District's business corridors. But new regulations would directly undermine food trucks, giving DC workers fewer options and lower-quality food.


Photo by tedeytan on Flickr.

Food trucks have been in a state of legal limbo since they first started selling lunches in 2009. Current regulations were meant for other mobile businesses, such as hot dog stands and ice cream trucks. They are not designed for modern food truck practices.

While food trucks register with the District, are inspected for safety and cleanliness, and pay the same 10% tax on sales that restaurants do, many other issues have yet to be settled. For example, food trucks regularly receive expensive parking tickets because they often need to stay at a given location for more than 2 hours.

The currently-proposed regulations are their fourth revision. Rather than focusing public safety, they micromanage when and where individual food trucks can operate. But food trucks have been successful in large part because they quickly respond to consumer needs by changing menus and locations.

Most of downtown would be permanently off-limits under the new regulations, aside from a handful allowed to operate in designated "mobile roadway vending locations."


Locations where food trucks would be allowed or prohibited downtown.
Image from the DC Food Truck Association.

The regulations themselves do not create a single MRV location. Instead, they allow DC's Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) to propose locations and the number of food trucks that can operate in each one, subject to review by the District Department of Transportation.

The regulations also allow the director of either agency, on his or her own, "the discretion to propose, modify, or remove a designated MRV location at any time." This does not protect consumers from any actual harm. Given how popular food trucks are, it's not clear which, if any, public interest is being addressed by the regulations.

Helder Gil, DCRA's legislative affairs specialist, has stated that the regulations are an attempt to "find something that works for everyone." This is a misguided goal. Many restaurateurs would prefer a downtown free from competitors, but it makes as much sense to give restaurants input on where food trucks can operate as it does to give food trucks control over prices restaurants can charge.

In heeding the concerns of restaurants, DCRA has strayed from the traditionally-accepted role of crafting regulations to preserve public health by attempting to control competition between businesses.

It's also clear that restaurants and food trucks can coexist. While food trucks have the advantages of mobility, low overhead, and convenience, restaurants have the advantages of seating, climate control, and larger kitchens. When restaurants and food trucks compete for customers by playing to their strengths, consumers win. When businesses thrive by regulating competitors out existence, consumers lose.

DCRA should completely scrap the latest proposed regulations. Instead, simpler regulations should bring food trucks into a legal status without giving local officials power to stifle competition. DCRA should issue a mobile vending license for any truck that meets the already-existing standards for cleanliness and safety.

These licenses should permit trucks to park in any available spot in a commercial zone, allowing them to operate near their customers. The cost of the license, in the range of a few hundred dollars per month, would bring in more revenue than trucks currently pay by feeding parking meters.

By keeping food truck regulations simple and rule-based, we can ensure that restaurants and food trucks compete on an even playing field. By removing discretion from the regulations, we can ensure that consumers, not competitors or officials, are in control.

If you would like to share your input on the proposed food truck regulations, send your thoughts to DCVendingRegs@dc.gov by 5 pm on Monday, April 8th.

Politics


For DC Council: Elissa Silverman

DC voters will choose an at-large member of the DC Council in a special election on April 23. While there has been fairly little coverage of the race or candidates' positions, the choice voters make in this likely low-turnout election will have a major impact on many important issues to District residents. We believe that Elissa Silverman is the best choice.


Image from the candidate's website.

We believe that our leaders should devote much of our city's monetary prosperity to two goals: economic growth that furthers that prosperity, and efforts to truly help those most in financial need to ensure they are not left behind. Ms. Silverman has a very strong track record in this area.

DC has unfortunately had a recent string of elected officials who have instead funneled money to people with connections to those in power in the city government. Their influence ultimately enriches those in power. Ms. Silverman has a clear commitment to reforming government ethics from her work advancing DC's Initiative 70, the recent proposed ballot initiative.

Ms. Silverman embraces transit, mixed-use zoning, and the need especially to safeguard pedestrians now that the city is more walkable every year. She emphasizes the need to encourage more housing units for families as many of the young people who have moved to the District begin families and want to remain in the District's walkable, bikeable and transit-oriented neighborhoods.

Thanks to her journalism background, Ms. Silverman has demonstrated that she can ask very penetrating questions on policy details. When talking with editors about issues such as the zoning update, for instance, she probed much more deeply into the effects and tradeoffs than other candidates or even many advocates.

She has said that she wants to turn this skill toward oversight of District agencies such as DCRA; this would be an invaluable asset to residents who find agencies often papering over inefficiency. She has advocated reforming DCRA to make it easier for District residents to open businesses as well.

Matthew Frumin scored very well on Let's Choose DC, most often slightly ahead of Ms. Silverman and sometimes slightly behind. Mr. Frumin has made very valuable contributions to the District through his civic efforts, such as building coalitions on the Tenleytown ANC. However, we feel he still faces significant challenges to connecting with voters outside of upper Northwest. This will not only be a prerequisite to win but a necessary component to being an at-large councilmember.

Mr. Frumin also has less detailed knowledge of the District government's operations and major policies outside of a few areas of strength such as education. While being an expert is not mandatory for a new council candidate, with Ms. Silverman in the race, her greater expertise is a strong asset. The winner of this race will have to instantly start participating in budget negotiations and then continue to operate on the council while almost immediately running for re-election in the April 2014 primary.

We hope Mr. Frumin will continue participating on the citywide stage in other ways following the campaign, and has strong potential to be a top-tier candidate in a future at-large race once he has built more connections and experience working with neighborhood leaders citywide.

Patrick Mara has garnered some significant support in DC based on his recent races and repeated endorsements from the Washington Post. David Alpert also endorsed Mr. Mara in his previous race (against Michael Brown, who is running again this year). However, he has not shown the depth that one would expect from a repeated candidate, and did not answer several Let's Choose DC questions.

The Washington Post's endorsement last week largely centered around his views on cutting taxes and school reform. We don't disagree with charter schools or school reform by any means, but feel that education in the District needs more analysis into what actually works instead of blind ideology. Mr. Mara has made education a centerpiece of his campaign, but when pressed, hasn't been able to actually put forth compelling insights on the matter.

Michael Brown has a strong commitment to helping the less fortunate, such as his stalwart defense of affordable housing which was very welcome on the council. However, Mr. Brown has repeatedly made clear that he is skeptical of a growing city and is very quick to side with the residents most afraid of change, such as with his response on the DC zoning update at Let's Choose DC or his letter of "concern" almost a year ago.

Mr. Brown was the only candidate to oppose several avenues of ethics reform on that question on Let's Choose. Financial mismanagement problems such as unpaid rent continue to dog Mr. Brown, as did malfeasance by his previous campaign treasurer, even though there has not been any evidence that he himself violated campaign finance laws.

Anita Bonds has not chosen to engage with our community by only responding to one Let's Choose DC question. While we didn't want to prejudge her longtime ties to much of DC's machine power structure, she has not availed herself of opportunities to demonstrate her independence from that machine or policy reasons to support her. She also initially promised to serve as a full-time councilmember, but has since backed off that commitment.

Perry Redd and Paul Zukerberg have valuable perspectives to contribute, and we also agree with Mr. Zukerberg's core message that excessive prosecution of minor drug offenses creates a dangerous environment with too many young people having criminal records at huge expense to taxpayers. We hope both will continue to participate in civic discourse and that the DC Council will take up marijuana decriminalization soon.

Voters considering themselves "urbanists," "progressives," or just "reformers" have seen their votes split in several recent elections, including the last two for at-large council. A number of civic and business leaders have lined up behind Ms. Silverman, including respected top Fenty administration officials like Neil Albert and Victor Reinoso, and we hope that all residents will do the same and elect her to the DC Council on April 23.

This is the official endorsement of Greater Greater Washington, written by one or more contributors. Active regular contributors and editors voted on endorsements, and any endorsement reflects a strong majority or greater in favor of endorsing the candidate.

Disclosures: Elissa Silverman also submitted 4 guest articles to Greater Greater Washington in 2011 and 2012. We had also specifically invited Patrick Mara (after previous campaigns) and Matthew Frumin (before the current campaign) to submit guest posts, in keeping with our general policy of encouraging guest posts from many people active in local affairs. Also, Ken Archer, who serves as Silverman's treasurer, is a Greater Greater Washington editor. He did not vote in the internal poll or write any of this endorsement.

Development


Fire deaths in abandominium raise call for action

Two people died in a fire last week in a vacant low-rise apartment building in Fairlawn. Meanwhile, Mayor Gray pledged $100 million towards new affordable housing. The two together present a clarion call for solutions to the housing problems east of the Anacostia River.


Community activist William Alston-El outside of the former Parkway Guest House, 1262 Talbert Street SE. Photos by the author.

"Marion Barry told Gray the only way he's going to get re-elected, if the Feds don't get him first, is if he plays that affordable housing game," said community activist William Alston-El. "But it ain't a game, it's a matter of life and death. His pledge is too late for them two. [Mayor Gray] needs to come out to the neighborhood and see how people on the lower level are living."

Over the past year, Alston-El and I have toured the Anacocostia neighborhood's extensive portfolio of abandominiums. As dangerous as guns, HIV/AIDS, alcohol, and drugs, the accessibility of vacant properties is a public health concern.

What happened at 1704 R Street SE?

Anacostia High School just down the way, a group of women sit with a child on the front stoop of 1706 R Street SE, next door to the boarded-up middle row building, 1704 R Street SE, where a two-alarm fire took the lives of 2 squatters days before. Yellow tape surrounds the scene. Police cruisers idle across the street as we walk by acknowledging their presence.


Front of 1704 R Street SE in Fairlawn, the scene of the deadly fire.

The smell of smoke and burnt wood is still thick in the air. "It smells like death out here," Alston-El says before explaining his connection to one of the deceased; he boxed with her brother while imprisoned in Lorton. "There aren't too many Toogoods around." We walk around to the alley to investigate.

A large sandy colored cat bounds over a backyard fence and suddenly stops, plopping down in the charred remnants in the rear of 1704 R Street SE. "Get away from here," yells an onsite fire restoration specialist as the feline scurries away. He approaches us and asks our credentials, "We're reporters looking for the truth," Alston-El offers.


Rear of 1704 R Street SE.

At that the man who says he's been "standing next to dead bodies for 10 hours," begins to tell us the circumstances he knows.

"All indications are that the four-apartment building had been modified by the people who had been living here without permission," he says. "The bottom right dwelling, how you got into it, before the fire, was you opened the door but someone took a piece of plywood and sheeted that off from the inside probably for their own protection against someone injuring them while they were sleeping. That became the cause of death.

"When the fire started in this room here, in the back right, and I mean right because everything in construction is discussed facing the front of the building, so when it started in the back right and really started to spread it's really very difficult for the human mind to run through 1,400 degrees."

I ask if the cause of fire is known. "No, that's under investigation. So they didn't have a way out and were overcome by smoke. Passed out. There was no skin injury when we found them they just suffocated from lack of oxygen. The entire inside of the building is 100% unstable. My job is to structurally support the building so they can do an investigation to answer the question you just asked which is, 'How did it start?'"

Reports from the DC Fire Department corroborate the restorationist's details. "After the heavy volume of fire was knocked down, units re-entered the building, where they located two civilian fatalities. Two firefighters were hurt in the early stages of the firefight and taken to the hospital with non-life-threatening injuries."

According to Alston-El, Toogood was an alcoholic with a bad leg and had been living in the abandominium for three years. "No wonder she didn't make it out. Somebody was firing up their drugs, something went wrong and they dipped out leaving that fire behind."

Police have been canvassing the neighborhood seeking information and any eyewitness accounts of a third party fleeing the blaze.

With a housing crisis, buildings should not remain vacant

Mayor Gray made it a priority in his State of the District address to provide more affordable housing. One place to start is to push for action on existing abandoned buildings the city already owns, or where bureaucratic hurdles are blocking owners' progress.

Take the sprawling Bruxton abandominiums at 1700-1720 W Street SE, still owned by the "DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA SUITE 317" according to tax records. A sign from the Department of Housing and Community Development announces "No Trespassing or Dumping."

City-owned abandominiums, 1700-1720 W Street SE.

In separate colors someone from the neighborhood has spray painted "FUCK" "CRuddy" just beneath the sign. The winter has slowed the ivy's growth which has begun to cover the banner advertising "spacious" 2 bedroom / 2 bath homes "coming soon."

The District has given affordable housing developer Manna the rights to redevelop the Bruxton, but it remains boarded-up and vacant to this day. A Manna staff member commented in March of last year:

SE Manna, Inc. is committed to making this property part of a vibrant Anacostia community. Manna was awarded the property in 2009 through the District's PADD program and began developing the property as the Buxton Condominium. Along the way, Manna has invested over $300,000 in pre-development costs and has encountered several "speed bumps" those in the affordable housing field would be very familiar with, including:
  • Permitting issues dues to lack of water availability;
  • The District's Department of Housing and Community Development terminated our contract on the building, though we were in compliance with all terms. This decision was reversed through the intervention of Mayor Gray, Deputy Mayor Hoskins and DHCD Dir. John Hall;
  • The units were originally priced from $170,000-$205,000. Manna soon realized that the market in this neighborhood could not bear that price, applied and received funding through the Neighborhood Stabilization Program to reduce prices to $95,000-$140,000.
Manna is currently in compliance with all terms required by DHCD and its private lender, including 9 units pre-sold. The Buxton is awaiting DHCD approval to move forward and we are eager to begin this project, and continue to market the available units to qualified buyers.
City needs help reporting abandominiums

Although the city owns its share of abandominiums or has initiated the long and involved litigious process of getting vacant or blighted properties back into productive use, the greatest number of abandominiums are held by tax delinquents, absentee owners, or dissolved companies.

"Because these vacant properties are privately owned, we are bound by very tight statute on what we can reasonably do," said head of the DC Office of Consumer and Regulatory Afair's Vacant Building Enforcement Division, Reuben Pemberton, respected in Anacostia for his responsiveness and attendance at civic meetings.

Pemberton works with 4 investigators. In order to classify a property as vacant or blighted it has to have two inspections.

"We have a lot of eyes out there in the neighborhood. People can send us an email at vacantbuildings@dc.gov or call 202-442-4332 to report a property," Pemberton said. DCRA's Vacant Building Enforcement division performed more than 4,200 inspections in fiscal year 2012 and is on schedule to do more than 5,000 this year.

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