Last year, the D.C. Council passed a blight-fighting measure that jacked up property taxes for landlords who neglected vacant properties. But the bill only governed properties within city limits — and, that, it turns out, is problematic in the nation’s capital, which is full of embassy properties not technically located in the city, or even on U.S. soil, and exempt from property taxes.
Now, both city and federal government leaders have decided to take aim at those untethered properties, if they’ve fallen into a state of disrepair.
The city’s effort will involve some good, old-fashioned public shaming. D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson filed a bill Tuesday instructing the city to make a list of dilapidated properties owned by foreign governments and then publicly release it, the Washington Post reports. The city’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs would make a new list every six months under the regulations set forth in the bill, and then seek the federal government’s help.
And the federal government may be willing to help. According to the paper, the State Department has responded to a plea from Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District’s congressional representative (who is not allowed to vote), indicating in a letter that it will “aggressively engage” foreign countries with blighted properties.
The problem of crumbling embassy buildings goes back at least a decade. In 2008, the Post detailed the “paint-peeled columns and boarded-up windows” of a building owned by the United Arab Emirates, and the hip-high grass and missing front doorknob of a building owned by the Pakistani government. Some governments had simply left old residences in favor of new ones. For others, the decay was essentially a visual metaphor of political turmoil — like the empty brick house with dead leaves piled out front and a collapsed garage roof referred to by neighborhood children as the “haunted house.” It belonged to the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, which was dissolved in 1992, and while U.S. diplomatic properties were supposedly distributed among the six countries that succeeded the republic, the deed was apparently never transferred. The minister counselor working for the government that supposedly owned the house told the Post that he simply didn’t have a key.
Currently, the city is receiving complaints about buildings in the Sheridan-Kalorama area in Northwest Washington. Some modern-day offenders include the Egyptian Embassy’s building on 16th Street NW (which recently awarded a contract to renovate the property), the Iraqi Embassy’s property on Woodland Drive NW (which was recently given a deadline to begin renovations unless it wanted to have the building’s diplomatic status removed) and a Serbian building on R Street NW, also vacant since the breakup of Yugoslavia. A Sri Lankan Embassy building on Wyoming Avenue NW has also been a subject of recent complaints.
By publishing a list every six months, the city hopes to keep detailed tabs on where each building is at — whether foreign governments are actively working on renovations, or own buildings in danger of losing their diplomatic status, at which point the city could potentially do something about them.
“When buildings fall into a visible state of disrepair,” Norton said in a statement, “it hurts our neighborhood not just by depressing nearby property values, but also increasing health and safety risks. Taking a two-pronged approach at the federal and local levels will hopefully lead to action.”
Rachel Dovey is an award-winning freelance writer and former USC Annenberg fellow living at the northern tip of California’s Bay Area. She writes about infrastructure, water and climate change and has been published by Bust, Wired, Paste, SF Weekly, the East Bay Express and the North Bay Bohemian.