DC leaders plan to tackle blighted condo

By Deborah Goonan, Independent American Communities

The latest media report of a rundown, nearly abandoned condominium comes from WJLA (ABC7) in Washington, DC. It has all the hallmarks of a condemned building: no utilities, broken windows, trash and debris piled up everywhere, abandoned cars, and a few stragglers and squatters still living in these horrid conditions.

The reporter interviewed one condo resident who has been living without electricity and running water for more than a year. He says the bank owns his condo.


Abandoned condominium in Southeast DC described as war zone, city leaders step in

by ANNA-LYSA GAYLE/ ABC7Saturday, May 20th 2017

WASHINGTON (ABC7) — City leaders are stepping in to address an eyesore in Southeast D.C., after a condominium was abandoned.
“It was something that we should never have in D.C., which is that kind of long term neglect of a building,” said Deputy Mayor for Public Safety and Justice Kevin Donahue.
For months Nikki Peele drove by the condominium which she describes as more than just an eyesore.
“It looked like a war zone, because it looked like a place no one cared about,” said Peele. “Broken windows, feces, household items piled three or four feet high….the burned out cars. It literally was a place that people had not only forgotten about.”

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When I see reports like this, it is fascinating to analyze what people say about the distressed community. Note the comment above that describes the unidentified condominium as a “war zone” and “a place no one cared about.”

D.C. Deputy Mayor for Public Safety and Justice, Kevin Donahue, seems surprised to discover “long term neglect of a building.”

His plan is to attempt to track down the condo owners and impose fines for multiple code violations.

Good luck with that. It should be rather obvious that people who walk away from properties they own – and allow the bank to foreclose – are not going to suddenly fork over large sums of money to clean up and repair a blighted multifamily condo building.

Bank owned units are a different story, and the City should have been on top of this problem long before the building was condemned, reportedly about 18 months ago.

But city leaders and many neighbors looking at blight and havens for crime from the outside tend to focus on the  condition of the property, more so than the people who once lived, or continue to live, in squalor and dangerous conditions.

Why do we have so many places in America that no one seems to care about?

The primary reason for neglect of condo association property comes down to money. Either the money collected from condo owners is mismanaged, or there simply isn’t enough of it to address necessary upkeep and repair.

When owners purchase these so-called affordable condos, either to live in or to rent to tenants, the vast majority of them are unrealistic about the true cost of ownership.

The condo purchase price seems reasonable. And, at first, the monthly assessments fit within a tight budget.

But then life happens. The building needs a new roof or a new heating system. Utility rates increase substantially. The parking lot floods when it rains. A blizzard dumps two feet of snow, and it costs a fortune to have it all hauled away. In almost every case, there is no money set aside in a reserve fund to cover these costs. Condo owners are hit with one or more special assessments on top of their already strained household budgets.

Or the condo association is not adequately insured against catastrophic loss such as fire, flood, or damage from wind or heavy snow loads. Owners find out about that after the fact. Too late.

At the same time, the economy may turn sour. A local employer lays off dozens of employees that live in the condos, making it difficult to collect condo assessments or rent payments.  Utility payments fall behind. Maintenance is neglected, because there is not enough money to do it.

The cycle is predictable, and it occurs all over the U.S. – and in cities around the world.


When people stop caring

But this pervasive cycle is not so much a matter of people not caring about the property. It is more about people and their government leaders not caring about those who struggle to afford to put a roof over their heads.

When people struggle to survive, and they happen to share financial responsibility for common property, there is bound to be conflict. When it comes down to buying food, new shoes for the kids, refilling prescription medication, or paying higher condo assessments, hard choices must be made.

Condo associations built on a foundation of a spare budget, with owners living paycheck to paycheck, or on meager retirement or disability benefits, are particularly vulnerable to economic failure. And that leads to abandoned units, blight, crime, and squatters.

Even fewer outsiders care about the condo owners who had hoped to make a better life for themselves “investing” in a relatively cheap condo in order to collect rent to supplement their modest incomes.

That is understandable, because, unfortunately, some landlord owners care only about collecting the rent, and do not appear to care about maintaining a safe and healthy place for their tenants to live. In turn, the tenants see no reason to care about maintaining an apartment with leaky plumbing, a toilet that won’t flush, or without a working heater or stove for cooking.

When a few people stop caring, more follow suit. It is a domino effect.


Off to a bad start

Looking at the bigger picture, there is a lack of administrative and social support for condo associations and their residents. Owners and their condo association board are faced with obstacles that seem insurmountable, with no direction or public assistance from city leaders.

Imposing fines on struggling condo associations is not administrative support. It only serves to punish the victims of a poorly conceived housing plan.

Many affordable housing condominiums – like this one in DC – were doomed to failure from the start, because no one in the planning stages created a realistic long-term budget and maintenance plan for the project. Not the developer. Not the local Housing Authority or non-profit agency that provided funding. Not the construction lender. Not the insurer of the project. Not the local planning commission.

In other words, it appears there was a conspicuous lack of caring about the future of both the property and the people who would ultimately live in this Southeast DC condominium.

In the short-term, however, nonprofit agencies and government leaders were able to congratulate themselves on filling a need for affordable housing.

Fast forward to today, following years of neglect – after the city left the condo association on its own to figure out how to survive.

Suddenly, Kevin Donahue is presented as a caring hero from the city of DC, stepping in to save the day. But it may be too little, too late.

It would have been far more caring and economically realistic to prevent abandonment, blight, and crime, rather than reacting to the crisis years after the fact.



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