When Rittenhouse Square was torn down, some property owners from the South Loop were quick to blame the public for the destruction of their investment. The blaming didn’t end there. Many of the property owners still blamed the state for trying to raze their buildings. They continued their war with the state and brought a lawsuit against it through the city’s condemnation process.
They got a victory when City Hall agreed that the city had gone about its condemnation action in an “unfair and improper” manner. And the city agreed not to force them to tear down their buildings again, but rather allow them to remain as a “condemned venue.” That decision was a landmark ruling that laid the groundwork for future condemnation cases to be treated much differently. It called for greater clarity and clearer processes.
Nearly two years later, the landmark Rittenhouse Square condemnation case ended in May, at the close of the case, with the Board of Estimates agreeing to vacate the condemnation order and allowing the property owners to return their buildings to their original condition.
On Wednesday, however, at the end of the Rittenhouse trial before D.C. Superior Court Judge Alan Johnson, one of the principals of the construction company dropped a bombshell: He claims he never received the order or any of the documentation required to demonstrate that he filed an action for condemnation in bad faith.
The news didn’t appear to stop City Hall from once again pursuing these building owners for the costs they paid to repair their buildings after the city razed them. Owners have provided City Hall with invoices showing that they paid for their properties; that’s what the law requires.
Why continue pursuing these homeowners? First, the fees for such litigation are enormous. It is possible that some will succeed in their attempts to collect that money. In its annual budget briefing to the City Council, the D.C. Department of the Budget and Management says litigation fees in the city’s public property condemnation cases costs more than $4 million a year.
It is also possible that they will lose. Of the 18 building owners that have tried to collect condemnation fees, only four have succeeded in raising the fees they want. Even if they win one of the cases, only about half of the plaintiffs will win on appeal and the D.C. Court of Appeals will overturn most of the revenue assessments.
Those costs also include the time that the civil litigation takes. In this case, they could be seeking higher income property assessments, or taxes or fees to repair damage done to their buildings by the wrecking ball.
Regardless of the merits of the claim, one should think hard about lawsuits brought by people who have been refused the most important right — the ability to raise money to repair their property.
Of course, not all of the property owners are the same. Some build their houses for profit. Others build them to house their neighbors. When a building is bulldozed, the neighbors have the right to rebuild their buildings in the same manner and neighborhood.
Of course, “Neighborhood” is subjective. A Building inspector might determine a building to be in a bad part of town, while a neighbor might not be able to raise the money.
Some property owners who have paid their bills and built their homes for profit — when they had the opportunity to do so — likely did so solely for their personal profit. There may not be much that the government can do to restrict a person’s right to profit from the rebuilding of his or her property.
In contrast, those who build to help their neighbors are doing it out of a sense of civic duty. When they demolished their homes, they received a lot of negative publicity — including from organizations like The Washington Post. Those owners, and others who assisted them, were already taking on risks. As a result, they had a financial incentive to rebuild their homes with plans that were fiscally responsible.
Not all buildings are created equal. Some are taller, some are narrower, some are more supportive of their neighbors. Some are more popular, while others are much more unpopular.
It is not for the government to offer a fairness test for whether a building is a “good” building or a “bad” building.
But simply raising a property tax and (somewhat) giving residents the opportunity to rebuild their own building could amount to something akin to “fair.” It is something that would make our city fair for people who want to build a life in Washington, D.C.