What’s Needed: Community Vacant Property Database

Shiloh PropertiesLike 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.

The Problem

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 Solution

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

Author: Rob Goodspeed


  1. The DC Office of Planning has the DC ATLAS GIS already setup . . . and RSS feeds of datasets are available on dc.gov . . . request that this one be added.

    Why not make a direct request of Councilwoman Cheh who held vacant property hearing and cc the Office of Planning as well the Director of the Office of Property Management with a specific suggestion ?

    Or have you done something to this effect already?

  2. Actually, the database has too many properties, inaccurately reported as vacant, and the city has long failed to keep accurate records of properties that have been turned over, even when it’s through one of its own programs. The records used to be all paper, but were mercifully turned electronic during Williams I. Unfortunately the sheer number of city officials without real property experience or an ability to understand how to even get to the addresses they were looking at without MapQuest resulted in gross inaccuracies in reporting.
    has been rife with problems, mostly because unlike the truly innovative Homestead program, which it was designed to replace, its propagators never understood how to acquire clear title to the properties they took in a quick and effective manner. Paired with unrealistic expectations of for-profit developers (that is, cross capitalizing disparately located properties to create market and affordable rate housing), the program’s yield has been a mere trickle, mostly because the one that work well– the truly innovative (nonprofit) MiCasa, Inc– aren’t big companies with a big pipeline of deal flow.

    What would be effective is a good database, a clear funding stream, and the expertise to acquire, catalog and dispose of the properties through more than one programmatic initiative aimed at different income levels.For example, using the Homestead model for moderate income single family homeownership and multifamily affordable housing development; and the Home Again model for moderate income single fam, if they’re not interested in being DIYers. This would greatly assist the housing pipeline as more affordable units come online through MIZ and publicly held parcels, creating a much more realistic and viable housing pipeline in the city. And then . . . we could get DCRA to work fluidly, we’d be cooking with gas.

  3. Also, I don’t know when you started to think about the vacant building problem, but the sheer volume of vacant property in “Shaw” is phenomenally smaller than it was in the 80’s and 90’s, thanks to reclamation programs like Homestead, the scattered site initiative, and the work of nonprofits like Manna.

  4. To the first commenter, no I have not contacted them yet. Although I will I just can’t see the city setting up a fully open, public system like the one I propose. I think if you let the people be the “eyes and ears” we’d be surprised by the amount of data collected.

  5. I support your idea. It may not be that difficult to do for a talented programmer. Shawington.com has a nice interactive map. But it takes volunteers to go out and take pictures of each property.

    The ultimate goal should be to provide some sort of accountability. City officials (DCRA and OTR) are to blame for the lack of enforcement of the Vacant Property Maintenance Standard, the under-assessment of vacant properties, and improper tax exemptions and deductions. The recent legislation has removed some of the loopholes but the laws (flawed as they were) were not being enforced previously.

    Owners have blatantly abused tax deductions; many claiming senior citizen homestead deductions on vacant buildings. The Office of the Inspector General has investigated and recommended administrative changes but no single individual is held accountable for not doing their job.

    I have several letters from the former lead inspector for ward 2, Charles Mason, claiming that there were no housing code violations at several vacant properties. The properties were clearly non-compliant and were soon thereafter condemned (after many emails and calls) by the Board of Condemnation.

    DC does not even know how many vacant properties exist. It seems to me that if OTR is capable of raising assessments on thousands of law abiding owners drastically, they should be capable of properly taxing vacant buildings.

  6. With all respect, Tania, there are many, many vacant properties that are not on the official list. It took me a full year and dozens of e-mails and phone calls to get one at 509 O Street onto the list, both because the DC agencies concerned are not particularly responsive and because the process is skewed to favor the delinquent owner.

    A more comprehensive database might help, but only if DCRA and OTR were motivated to actually do something about the properties. As it is, even getting on the vacant properties list doesn’t necessarily mean anything, because OTR may not pick it up and apply the Class 3 tax rate. I can point out (and did to Mary Cheh) at least 5 properties within a block of my house that are on the vacant property list but still taxed at the Class 1 rate. One even has a homestead exemption on it! Even if Class 3 is applied, it may not provide any incentive to improve or sell because the taxable assessment is only a ridiculous fraction of the market value of the land alone. As far as I know, there is nothing that can compel an owner to sell a vacant property as long as he/she pays the tax on it. In some cases, even if the tax payments are grossly delinquent, the property somehow doesn’t get on the tax sale list.

    I’ve posted some suggested changes that I think might make a difference on my Fifth and Oh blog, but it really all depends on getting some real pressure from the Mayor and Council on DCRA and OTR to do their job.

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