United States

DC Del. Holmes Norton: We Can Tax Foreign-Owned Nuisance Properties

The buildings are an 'embarrassment' to the District and the U.S., officials said

D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton said Wednesday that District officials may have the authority to impose real estate taxes on foreign properties that are no longer used for diplomatic purposes and pose "a public embarrassment" to neighborhoods.

The city may be able to tax abandoned properties, Norton wrote in a letter to D.C. officials including Mayor Muriel Bowser.

Taxing such buildings might incentivize foreign governments to keep them from falling into disrepair -- such as one Kalorama townhouse owned by the government of Argentina.

News4's Tom Sherwood visited that building to find it crumbling and overrun with vermin.

"It's just sad to see a wonderful house like that sitting there with nobody in it for 24 years," neighbor Irene Wertzel told Sherwood.

Norton wrote a letter asking Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and the U.S. State Department to help fix the problem, which is complicated because these buildings are covered under special diplomatic rules.

"The offending properties are a public embarrassment to the neighborhoods, to the District of Columbia, to the State Department, and, particularly, to the United States," Norton wrote in the letter. "A growing number of buildings owned by foreign missions in the District of Columbia... have been vacated and fallen into poor condition, posing health and safety risks to neighbors and depressing nearby property values."

Norton asserted in Wednesday's letter that D.C. could act on its own, without the federal government, under laws including the Home Rule Act and local D.C. tax law.

Norton also cited Supreme Court precedent for cities to tax buildings owned by foreign governments that are not exclusively used for diplomatic purposes. In that case, the court upheld New York City's ability to tax a building used by the Indian government to house low-level employees.

The most recent letter was addressed to the mayor, the city council and D.C.'s chief financial officer Jeffrey S. DeWitt, whose office would levy taxes on the properties in question. The chief financial officer's office has not yet issued a response to the letter.

The Northwest Current noted a number of problem properties, including ones owned by Serbia, Sri Lanka, Egypt and Pakistan.

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