Bad Neighbors by Katie Mingle
Irene and Alan Wurtzel live an area in Washington DC called Kalorama. For socioeconomic context, it’s the same neighborhood that Jeff Bezos lives in, and through the years a bunch of presidents have lived there, including, currently, the Obamas. It’s basically the Beverly Hills of D.C. This neighborhood sees its fair share of motorcades, but every neighborhood, no matter how fancy, can have neighbors that are kind of…problematic.
Irene and Alan currently live next door to a problematic neighbor. Their neighbor’s house was built in the early 1900s with good lines and nice windows, but no one has lived there since the Wurtzels moved in in the early ‘90s. It’s a 10,000 square foot mansion that’s connected to the Wurtzel’s home in a line of row houses. But unlike most of the houses on the block, this particular house has been unmaintained for years. The facade is decaying with bricks falling off, and debris from the house occasionally drops onto the Wurtzels’ patio. Over the years, there have also been pigeons roosting inside the building, and problems with rats. But no one can do anything about it.
The home is owned by the government of Argentina, even though it was never an official embassy. D.C. has around 530 diplomatic properties and although they’re not all in such bad condition, several of them are in pretty rough shape, and abandoned diplomatic properties are a common enough phenomenon that there are various videos on YouTube of people exploring them.
It’s very complicated and difficult to get anyone to do anything about these buildings. They aren’t actually considered to be “foreign soil”— if someone were to commit murder in the Wurtzel’s neighbor’s house, for example, they’d still be tried in the American criminal justice system. But these properties do enjoy certain kinds of privileges. They don’t have to pay property taxes for example, and cannot be searched by the police. They also don’t have to build according to local building codes, though they are encouraged to do so. A city council member was quoted in the New York Post saying, “If I have a vacant house that’s becoming a problem, I can call in the cops, clean it up, throw a fence around it and if necessary seize it for unpaid taxes… I have a lot of tools in my toolbox. But I don’t have those tools available to me if it’s a diplomatic property.”
One thing that makes these properties interesting, (and possibly harder to actually deal with) is how different they all are. Some carry the baggage of entire countries in political upheaval. For example, in 2006, the former Yugoslavia’s diplomatic properties were divided among the six succeeding countries. One of these properties sat vacant and derelict much like the Wurtzel’s neighbors, but doing anything about it proved difficult. Although the house was turned over to Bosnia, the deed was never transferred, and in 2008 someone at the Bosnian embassy was quoted saying that they didn’t even know who had the key. The house was finally sold in 2015 for $650,000 after sitting vacant for three decades.
In response to neighbors complaining about diplomatic properties, the State Department issued a reply essentially saying there was very little they could do—their hands were tied because of rules protecting diplomatic properties established in the Vienna Convention of 1961. Their only recourse is to remove diplomatic status from these properties so that they are subject to the same kinds of property taxes as everyone else, which might encourage the governments to sell their derelict buildings, but this is a last resort and not one that the State Department is eager to use.
Special thanks to Abby Maden for research help on this and to Jenna Portnoy who wrote the article in the Washington Post where we first heard about this strange DC problem.