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Legal Questions Answered By Griffin & Murphy, LLP

by Prince Of Petworth February 2, 2010 at 11:32 pm 22 Comments

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Photo by PoPville flickr user D©Bloom

Griffin & Murphy, LLP, is a boutique law firm in Washington, D.C. concentrating its practice in real estate law (including development, finance, leasing, zoning and condominium conversions), as well as estate planning and probate, civil litigation, and business law. The attorneys of Griffin & Murphy, LLP are licensed to practice law in the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia. Griffin and Murphy, LLP was founded in 1981.

Please send any legal questions relating to real estate, rentals, buildings, renovations or other legal items to princeofpetworth (at) gmail (dot) com, each week one question will be featured. You can find previous questions featured here.


We have a nuisance home that is right next door to our home. The owner bought this home at a city tax auction and has let it sit vacant for over 10 years and has not renovated it or even attempted to fix problems that are affecting the connecting homes. The owner has been charged the vacant tax rate by the city for the home, but that doesn’t seem to affect him at all. This house sits in between my house and the house on the corner. We have both tried to contact the owner to see what he plans to do with the home or at least find out when he will address his house’s problems that are affecting our homes. We have received no response from him. We tried to get the city involved, but if he pays the taxes the city doesn’t care. Other than suing the owner, which I am sure will cost time and money on my part, do we have any other recourse? (Note: The property’s address has been removed from the question by PoP.)


Not all problems have easy or speedy solutions, especially if you have to rely solely on governmental authorities to use scarce resources to come to your rescue. Nevertheless, you have taken the right approach by first contacting the property owner and then going to the city when you received no response. If you were informed by someone in the DC government that they cannot do anything as long as the property owner continues to pay his taxes, then I would call back and try to speak to someone else because that is incorrect. This property appears on the vacant property list maintained by DCRA, so they are aware of the property. I would contact them to let them know that you believe this property is insanitary, outline the specific problems you and your neighbors are experiencing, and copy your councilmember on any correspondence. Your local ANC may also be able to help you.

We checked the tax records and this property was formerly taxed at the Class 3 rate because it is vacant. Unfortunately, because the Class 3 rate will only apply to “blighted” properties in Tax Year 2010, it may be even more difficult to get this owner motivated to clean up the property if it is not deemed to be blighted and is taxed at a lower rate going forward. Continues after the jump.

In order for a property to be considered blighted, either DCRA or the Board of Condemnation of Insanitary Buildings must make a determination that the vacant property is unsafe, insanitary or otherwise threatens the public health, safety or general welfare of the community. In reaching this conclusion, those two governmental bodies are allowed to consider the following factors: (i) failure to keep the building openings weather-tight and secured against the entry of birds, vermin and trespassers; (ii) failure to keep the exterior walls free of holes, breaks, graffiti and loose or rotting materials; (iii) failure to keep all balconies, porches, awnings, stairways and appurtenant structures in safe and sound condition; or (iv) the structure is boarded up. This property is currently boarded up, which will help your case. When you contact DCRA, let them know that the house is boarded up and any other circumstances that would persuade them to consider this a blighted property.

Additionally, you might be able to sue your neighbor for creating a private nuisance (a common law tort) if your neighbor’s failure to maintain the house is interfering with your use and enjoyment of your property. However, your neighbor will only be liable if the interference is intentional and unreasonable, which means that there is a certain amount of nuisance that will be considered reasonable. Successful private nuisance cases typically involve the occurrence of extreme noise, light, odor, pest infestation or vibration.

On the bright side, we looked at the tax records for this property and it appears that the owner owes over $33,000.00 in property taxes, so you may have the chance to buy the house in the near future at a tax sale auction or someone else may buy this house and fix it up.

This response was prepared by Mark G. Griffin and Patrick D. Blake of Griffin & Murphy, LLP. The material contained in this response has been prepared for informational purposes only and should not be relied upon as legal advice or as a substitute for a consultation with a qualified attorney. Nothing in this response should be considered as either creating an attorney-client relationship between the reader and Griffin & Murphy, LLP or as rendering of legal advice for any specific matter.

  • Mal

    Thanks to Griffin & Murphy for doing this. Great feature! I love learning the intricacies of law as it pertains to issues that I could potentially face.

  • I second Mal: this is a great feature and really contributes to the experience of following PoP.

  • matt

    Let’s say the property is worth $150k, and they seem to owe 33k in taxes. Is there a specific point when the city seizes the property and sells it off?

    • Anonymous

      The city doesn’t seize the property, instead it sells them at auction, starting bid the amount of back taxes owed. After a property is auctioned, and the waiting period has passed the bid winner can start foreclosure on it. http://otr.cfo.dc.gov/otr/cwp/view,a,1330,q,594443,otrNav,|33252|.asp

      A much better system than the city ending up w/ the property and having it rot for 30+ years

      • matt

        OK, but is there a ‘trigger’ for the city to sell the property at auction? Taxes owed as a percentage of current value? Length of time taxes have been owed?

      • ah

        I’m not sure it’s a great system. A better one would have the property go to actual auction and the winner pays the outstanding taxes and acquires title to the property immediately.

        The current system is not used to move property out of delinquent owners’ hands. It is designed to get the tax revenue to the city and put the onus/risk of collection on the auction winner (who gets compensated and has a slim chance of eventually owning the property).

  • ah

    Matt – it’s a long process. The person has to fail to pay their taxes (or be in arrears by making only partial payment) for I believe at least a year. Then it’s scheduled for a tax sale, which now occurs in September (but seems to move around). The tax sale auctions only a tax lien on the home, entitling the buyer to interest and certain fees. They have to wait 6 months before filing to foreclose on the property, and that foreclosure can take another year. During that time the owner can pay the taxes and end the process. So from the point when a person doesn’t pay taxes, it’s a year plus however long to the next tax sale, plus another 18 months, which means at least 3 years. Very few properties actually convey through this process. Most of the lien-buyers are in it for the statutory interest of 18%, and typically buy a lot of the liens.

  • Thor


    what happens to the property taxes during that waiting time. Does the tax lien purchaser have to pay the new taxes?

    • ah

      Sorry — I’m at the limits of my knowledge on this, and have wondered the same thing myself. I imagine that the actual owner is responsible first, and the tax lien holder has an incentive to pay them (and collect the interest). Perhaps if the lien holder doesn’t pay them, then a second person could buy the subsequent tax lien.

  • Raymo in LeDroit

    I am very happy to read how the process for Blighted properties truly goes.

    Such owners are lucky I am not in charge. I would be so harsh. After one year of vacancy w/o active work or processing of permits, the taxes would triple and then triple each year afterwards and on the fifth year, regardless of the amount of taxes owned or paid the property would be eminent domain-ed and taken by the city.

    • Kamantha

      I am the writer of this letter and I agree. It doesnt seem like the city has any process in place to check on the progress of these properties. Like I said in the letter, it seems to me that they only care about the taxes being paid but not the overall effect of this property on the community.

    • ah

      I’m both happy and frustrated by the blighted property law.

      On one hand, it’s a result of the vacant property tax that didn’t work. It didn’t work because DCRA did a terrible job of enforcing it, granting exemptions that it shouldn’t and spending loads of resources on pursuing vacant houses that really weren’t (remember the “sweep” where lots of people who happened to be on vacation had to “prove” that they actually were living in their house)?

      So DC switched, and now is focused on “blighted” houses. Well, that’s good if they actually get tough. I talked to a guy in DCRA who handles this and he at least *talked* tough. But they were doing that before, too, and it didn’t work out so well. It will also depend on how strict they are about what is “blighted”–clearly it’s more narrow than “vacant” but how much more narrow? And will the determination be dragged out in courts or administrative proceedings for years?

      So, I don’t like scrapping an old system that could have worked if done right. But if this gives DCRA the right tools to focus their energy on the worst houses, great.

  • So I suppose that doing something to help the blight process along would also be beneficial to the plaintiff in this case. Unleashing termites in the vacant property might help it along, or flooding it with raw sewage.

  • pop-up owner

    I would like to add some recent experience in dealing with this exact same problem. I purchased a home next to a boarded up nuisance property. I knew I was in for a fight but I started with a game plan. I tried reaching out to the owner to no avail. Then I started documenting everything. 1) there were negative impacts to each house on either side via water damage when it would rain 2) I documented highschool aged kids climbing on the trash pile in the back and using the area for smoking that crazy stuff 3) when the building was disturbed, ie we had some squatters that would come from time to time and others liked to come liberate radiators one at a time – I called the police and made them document the incidents. The police will tell you that you cannot file a vandalism or breakin and entering report if you are not the owner… but if you keep calling them and insisting they will break down. 4) I delivered all of this information to my council member who facilitated getting Linda Argo’s assistance (DCRA). After a site visit, the city sent a contracted team of workers into secure the home and remove all dangerous elements. The cost of this work was assessed to the owner which pushed him into eventual foreclosure and a bank sale. 5) Thankfully the property sold – I even tried to bid on it to get it remodeled and sold, but was outbid (prob for the best). A great team came in and remodeled it and it is now one of the nicest houses on the block.

    This is not a fast process. I started in April of 08. DCRA was responsive in June of 08 to secure the property.

    There were two months of skirmishes with folks breaking back in (and me demanding police reports to reference to DCRA) and finally in the fall of 2008 was when the city did a full clean-up. In Nov/Dec it went to foreclosure and work began in Jan 2009 with the new buyers. It was turnkey’d to the new occupants in the 3rd quarter of 2009.

    I have to give credit to Tommy Wells, his staff and Linda Argo of DCRA for keeping on the issue and hope your council member would do the same. Wells’ staff is top-notch when they can help and Linda Argo was personally involved in solving the issue.

    Sorry… longwinded put wanted to give you some pointers as I know how frustrating the situation can be.

  • Author of the Letter

    We have been dealing with the issue since 2003 when this person bought the property. Nothing has changed. The only thing that was done by the city was when Hurricane Isabel knocked off the porch roof and tore off the porch (the debris was on public property at that point), the city came and removed the debris and made a plyboard porch and boarded up the windows. Every summer, we have to call to have the city cut the grass. This has been going on for 7 years now.

  • Drew

    I’m not clear on what the actual damage you think is being caused by this vacant house is.

    It’s also frightening to hear how quick some of you are to snatch the property of other people. Is vacancy the crime that you are trying to make it into?

    Takings Clause be damned, right? No.

    • neener

      Tale of two houses:
      1. House was vacant and owner’s children came by every Saturday morning to clean it up and also used it as storage- no blight.
      2. House was vacant directly across the street from an elementary school and a convicted rapist and child molester squatted there, burglarized houses over a two month period and stashed the stolen items in the basement. Man was arrested on suspicion of something like 12 burglaries and one mugging.

      What do you think the actual damage is to a community?

  • Author of the Letter

    My original posting was asking whether there were other avenues I can pursue other than suing the owner (because of the expense and time). The neighbor on the other side and I have experienced flooding caused by a tree on his property, whose roots are growing over the drain in his yard. After 7 years and no progress, I am for increased fines for not rehabbing this house.

    • ah

      Have you reported this to the BCIB (Board for Condemnation of Insanitary Buildings)? It’s part of DCRA, but they can require fixes through “condemnation” that would at least get these problems fixed. “Improper drainage” I believe is specifically mentioned as one thing they can order fixed.

      The process is relatively quick, even if it’s challenged by the owner. But after they survey to determine if there’s an actionable problem, they send a letter to the owner. The owner can request a hearing or correct the problem. If owner requests a hearing, then the board meets and decides what to do, and then can order the fix to take place. The owner then has something like 30-60 days to make the fix, and if not the city can do it and charge the property owner.

      • Author of the Letter

        Yes both of his properties were on the 12/16 agenda of the BCID. Notices were sent to the owner. Have to follow up to see what happened.

  • pop-up owner

    So I would say yes, heavy documentation and take it to your council member and ms. Argo at DCRA.

  • 6th

    Please also understand that it’s not always easy (or cheap) to approve permits to rehab a vacant property. Maybe Griffin & Murphy could confirm whether it’s sufficient to have a single permit for minor work, or if you need an overall building permit approved before changing the tax rate.

    Thank you — very helpful topic/forum!


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