Councilmember Kate Stewart and I have been working on and learning about this issue - the helpful and detailed summary and analysis below was written by Councilmember Stewart
"Background on Vacant and Blighted Property Tax Unfortunately vacant and blighted properties are an issue across our city.  These properties deny the city government needed tax revenues, consume city staff time, erode the value of nearby homes, pose health and safety risks, and negatively impact our neighborhoods.  In 2010, Philadelphia studied the impact of vacant and blighted properties and found that, in addition to the economic toll vacant and abandoned properties imposes on communities, among those most hurt by the damage caused by vacant properties are long-time homeowners, many of them senior citizens-the very people who have helped build a community and help hold it together. According to the US Fire Administration, an estimated 28,000 vacant residential fires occurred annually between 2006 and 2008, resulting in an estimated total of 45 deaths, 225 injuries, and approximately $900 million in property loss each year. 

"Recently, on Westmoreland Avenue, the potential danger of vacant properties became a reality and our community became part of the statistic when a vacant property caught fire. Fifty-five firefighters responded to the blaze and three were injured. Thankfully no one else was injured, but there was property damage to a nearby home. While the city has in place procedures to address code violations, they are not sufficient to address the myriad problems caused by vacant properties.  Dealing with these properties takes a great deal of staff time and it can take years to rectify problems. Years that adversely impact residents and our quality of life in the city. To provide staff with another tool to address this issue the City Council is discussing the pros and cons of a vacant and blighted property tax. Establishing a vacant and blighted property tax to address this housing problem has become popular in many municipalities. 

"What is a vacant and blighted property tax?  This tax allows the city to establish a tax incentive program to encourage property owners to remediate or redevelop blighted properties. The property taxes  are increased on blighted properties and can subsequently decrease once the property is remediated or redeveloped.

"What is a vacant property? Vacant property is vacant.  Thus, a tax would NOT be levied on properties which are currently being used as a primary residence by the owner or renters. 

"What is a vacant and blighted property? Such properties are both vacant and in such a state of disrepair that it affects other properties or safety or otherwise impacts the neighborhood.  

"Where are their regional models for such programs? Washington, DC, Philadelphia and a number of other cities provide examples. An example of one such ordinance can be found here. Advantages: A blight tax could motivate property owners to stabilize and improve the blighted conditions on their properties or sell to others who are willing to do the work. It also allows the city to recover the public service costs associated with blighted properties. If a property is vacant or underutilized, the higher tax may encourage the owner to rent it in order to pay the extra taxes. These actions could subsequently increase the blighted property's value and that of nearby properties.

"Additionally, because blighted properties often demand a higher level of government services (e.g., public safety and code enforcement services) than other properties, the higher tax allows the city to recover some of the costs associated with this increased burden.

"Disadvantages:  Depending on how a blight tax is put in place it could place a burden on low-income individuals, seniors, individuals with disabilities, and struggling businesses that have been unable to improve the blighted conditions due to economic circumstances or other reasons. 

"Programs in place in TP to assist low-income homeowners:  To ensure our policy would not burden low-income or fixed income individuals we need to carefully craft the program as well as explore additional partnerships with organizations that help individuals maintain their homes. One example is the city's partnership with Rebuilding Together Montgomery County, a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization, which utilizes the skills of community volunteers, works in partnership with the community to address the needs of low-income homeowners by providing home repairs that address safety, accessibility, energy efficiency and basic needs. "

Further reading: 


Vacant Properties The True Costs to Communities

http://www.communityprogress.net 

Connecticut OLR Research Report: http://www.cga.ct.gov/2013/rpt/2013-R-0335.htm

Kennessaw: http://mdjonline.com/view/full_story/24893703/article-City-of-Kennesaw-approves-blight-tax--in-unanimous-vote

Savannah: http://savannahnow.com/news/2014-04-30/city-looks-increase-tax-rates-blighted-properties#.U7xJAbEric4

Atlanta: http://saportareport.com/blog/2012/09/atlanta-city-council-moving-forward-on-plan-to-raise-tax-rates-on-blighted-property/

 
 
While knocking on doors during the election campaign, I indicated to many of you that I hoped to have a conversation over the next two years about development and the long-term future of the city.  The quality of our schools should be a big part of this discussion.

One in three homes in Takoma Park include young children and Maryland's schools are among the best in the country.  We currently have 2,008 children in Takoma Park Middle School, Elementary School and Piney Branch Elementary School and another 850 in Rolling Terrace Elementary.  The Middle School is overcapacity today and projected to stay that way through 2018.  Rolling Terrace170 more students today than its capacity of 672 students.  Takoma Park Elementary is overcapacity and projected to stay that way for at least 2 more years. 

During an earlier discussion about redevelopment along New Hampshire Avenue and University Avenue, especially associated with the Purple Line, I asked City staff for some hypothetical projections of what our school population would look like if residential development were fully built out as envisioned in the Takoma Langley Crossroads Sector Plan.  I've attached the document provided by our staff here - it is full of interesting information.
 
responses_to_questions_from_council.docx
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City staff estimate that full construction of projected residential space envisioned under the plan would create housing for more than 6,200 new residents, including 900 more K-12 students.  Obviously that is just a projection and reality never quite comes out that way.  But given the school crowding we already have, where would even another 200 students go? 

For me, our past County Councils have been too focused on development as simply more dense buildings, and not enough on quality of life issues like schools and traffic.  I've also heard others express criticism of the County Council for investing far more in building new and improving
old schools in the upper and western parts of the County and less down here.  I'd like to see us get more investments in school construction before NH Avenue or University Avenue projects start breaking ground.  Especially since many of our schools are already beyond their capacity. 

Are there ways to get more development (like the construction of the new transit center on University Ave and nearby services) including some more housing without creating worse traffic and school crowding?  I hope we can find ways to do so.... and that you will join me in asking candidates who want to be part of our County Council how they are going to deal with questions like these.  Concrete answers rather than simplistic statements like 'transit-smart mixed use development' are at least part of what I hope to hear about from candidates.


*note, these school enrollment statistics are approximate; I've found slightly varying numbers in County, city and online resources. 



 
 
I've tried to keep learning as much as I can about Takoma Park while serving on City Council, but sometimes I wish information was more accessible.  For example, this information about demographics from the U.S. Census. 

Since 2000, Takoma Park has been a 'majority minority' community.  The 2010 census shows that more than 30% of our residents are born overseas, 60% of whom are not (or not yet) U.S. citizens.  Almost half of foreign-born residents arrived in the U.S. just since 2000.  In Takoma Park, 45% of businesses are Hispanic- or black-owned (20% higher than the rest of the county).  Half our population lives in rental housing - 50% of those homes are covered by the city's rent control policies and another 40% are managed by an affordable housing provider.  One-third of our population lives alone.

Takoma Park is going through a baby boom - one-third of homes include a child or teenager under 18.  One in four residents are under the age of 18 and another one in five are between the ages of 18-35.  Although they make up 21% of our population, 18-35 year olds were only 7% of all city voters in 2011.  The chart below shows the city's age distribution from the latest census in green and the age of voters from the most recent city election (2011) in purple.




 
 
Picture
Buildings that have been part of property tax abatement efforts to improve housing and lower costs.
There are lots of ways a City government can help maintain the diversity of housing in a community - Takoma Park's rent control policy for some rental housing is one example and the work of the Commission on Landlord-Tenant Affairs is another. 

Since at least 2005, the City has been quietly running one more program that helps incentivize improvements in lower income housing, including improvements that may create future savings for tenants.  Payment in Lieu of Taxes or 'PILOT' is a program that allows non-profit lower incoming housing providers to apply to the City for the temporary relief of a portion of a building's property taxes as a way for the non-profit to help finance building improvements.  For example, the Council just approved a project with Essex House on Maple Avenue that will allow the non-profit to replace all of the building's air conditioners (chillers), boilers and water heaters and make other upgrades, seeking to get a 20-25% reduction in total energy use in the building.

As part of the financing to make this possible, for Essex House, the Council agreed to lower property taxes for four years between 2013 and 2016 for a total contribution of $95,000. 

Between 2005-2020, the City has or will provide approximately $670,000 in property tax relief (abatement) for lower income buildings and partnerships undertaking such projects -  this covers 12 buildings so far (see graph). 


I think this program represents one of the quietest facets of Takoma Park's multi-front effort to maintain the socioeconomic diversity of our community. 


 
 
This is a worthwhile story to read about shifts in housing in Takoma Park, published last week in the Takoma Voice.  CHEER - Community Health and Empowerment through Education and Research has published a graph that shows the increase in high income residents.