Like many U.S. cities, vacant properties are a stubborn problem that continues to plague the District. The city’s official list has over 2,000 properties listed, and it seems likely the actual number is much higher.
An article in today’s Examiner describes how these properties can impact neighborhoods. Despite high demand for both housing and retail, a collection of vacant properties can result in a Catch-22: too many speculators can inhibit investment in a neighborhood meaning few owners make money. Without tenants, the properties decay, attract illegal dumping, are easy targets for graffiti, and a host of other problems.
The city has tackled the problem in various ways. The city’s innovative Home Again initiative has created new affordible housing in some D.C. neighborhoods, but most of the vacant properties are owned by owners waiting to sell out and the project has not met the ambitious goals set by former mayor Anthony Williams. Properties officially registered as vacant with the city are supposed to be subject to higher tax rates to discourage speculation, however the implementation of this law seems to be spotty. (In 1998 city officials complained to the Washington Business Journal the program was an administrative “nightmare.”) Recently the administration of the list was moved between city agencies, but regardless of how it’s run, keeping the list updated is a huge task.
Community frustration has resulted in some attention by city government, but nobody seems to be able to break the deadlock in neighborhoods like Shaw and H Street NE, where commercial corridors are lined with vacant buildings despite a broader revitalization taking place around them.
In my view, solving the problem is fundamentally about information. City officials struggle to keep track of the thousands of properties across the city. Neighbors have little access to information about owns them, and whether they’re being taxed at the proper rate. (Searching the city’s tax database is difficult and hard to interpret). Although citizens lodge complaints with the city about vacant properties, there’s no public record of the complaints and what has been done for each property. Finally, buyers interested in rehabilitating these properties don’t have an easy place to find the owners. Communities are frustrated, owners can evade accountability, and the rats have plenty of places to call home.
No mechanism exists to coordinate they city’s response and leverage political pressure on owners to rehabilitate their properties.
Up to this point, community efforts to catalog the properties and encourage rehabilitation have been local in nature. A blog has popped up dedicated to the topic, one neighborhood association has completed a survey of their neighborhood, and someone made an interactive map. After I posted a map of vacant properties owned by Shiloh Baptist Church on this website, the post has received hundreds of hits and the map has even been used by church members seeking internal reforms. Clearly, there is a huge demand for accurate information, however all these efforts are fundamentally piecemeal.
The city needs a comprehensive, interactive community database of all vacant properties in the District. The database should contain government data, but need not be administered by government officials. It would be seeded by the “official” lists of vacant properties. Each property’s page would list the property’s address, owner’s name and address, assessment value, tax rate and payment history. Each property would have a unique page that would allow visitors to upload photos, as well as post comments reporting any information relating to the property: reports made to the city, crime, graffiti, dumping, etc. The properties could be categorized or tagged according to their status: for sale, vacant lot, suspected vacant, taxed as vacant, etc. All the properties would be displayed on a Google Map for easy searching. Regardless of the precise tools used, the system should be easy to use (easier than a wiki!) and contain large fonts and a simplistic interface.
Most importantly, the system would allow any user to report a vacant property, post a comment, or extract the entire database of property addresses as a CSV or Excel file.
The National Vacant Properties campaign specifically points out that “A successful strategy to turn vacant and abandoned properties into community assets depends on a good information system. Accurate individual property information, as well as neighborhood-level data enables effective tracking of property conditions and problem properties, and can serve as an early warning system, so that problems can be addressed while they are still manageable.” However, the tools they cite are generally sophisticated systems, and not very interactive. What is needed is a totally public Web 2.0 solution, not yet another locked-down government database.
The Way Forward
It seems to me, that a group interested in developing such a tool would have several choices. While I have pondered the possibility of using existing blog or wiki software, it seems that the problem could require a unique system. Funding could be found from any number of sources. (Perhaps here, here, or here.) While the problem is relatively modest in economically dynamic Washington, many U.S. cities struggle with thousands of vacant and abandoned properties. Should a system be developed here in Washington, the source code could be released for use in any community, or the website be designed to contain many city sites. (not unlike craigslist)
At least one person I’ve described the concept to thought the idea was flawed. Wouldn’t it invite misuse? Who would determine what was vacant? However, with dozens of individuals and groups blogging about properties and creating unofficial lists and maps, it seems a centralized system easily available to all is needed.
What do you think of the idea? Can you help? Post a comment.
> D.C. Government Pages: Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs – Vacant Property, Office of Tax and Revenue – Vacant Real Property
> D.C. Vacant Properties Blog
> Wash. Business Journal: “No teeth in D.C. tax on vacant land”
> Examiner: “Task force tries to take back H Street,” “Group asks city government to help solve vacant properties issue”
> National Vacant Properties Campaign