House of Delegates passes bill to ban tax lien sales in Baltimore

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Photo by Martin Falbisoner, via Wikimedia Commons

Maryland’s House of Delegates this morning unanimously advanced a bill that would permanently block the city from selling residents’ homes at tax sales due to unpaid water and sewer bills.

The Water Taxpayer Protection Act, proposed by Baltimore Del. Mary Washington, passed the House in a 138-0 vote Tuesday morning, voting records show.

This marks the third straight year that Washington says she’s proposed such legislation.

“For me, this is the culmination of work by so many social and environmental justice advocates who are uncovering that this is an unfair practice,” Washington told Baltimore Fishbowl, noting that Baltimore is the only jurisdiction that does this. “It feels good to pass legislation that has an immediate, positive impact on the most vulnerable people.”

Food and Water Watch Maryland, an environmental advocacy group that’s advocated for an end to the practice and helped write Washington’s bill, lauded the vote.

“This critical piece of legislation will ensure that water bills cannot trigger tax sales in Baltimore City, protecting homeowners, renters and congregations across the City from losing their homes and churches over unaffordable or incorrect water bills,” organizer Rianna Eckel said in a statement.

Mayor Catherine Pugh said in December that the city had suspended the practice. Traditionally the city has sold residents’ homes at auction if they racked up $750 or more in unpaid bills.

“Water bill alone, your house cannot be taken,” Pugh said at her Dec. 20 press briefing. “That is a mandate from this office, and we’re not having it.”

Pugh’s promised change applies to owner-occupied housing, but not rental properties or commercial buildings.

Eckel at the time noted that was an “incredibly surprising turnaround” for Pugh, whose office had testified against a similar bill proposed by Washington only nine months earlier, during the 2017 legislative session. That legislation, which was amended to impose a one-year moratorium rather than a full ban on water bill tax lien sales, also passed the House, but didn’t reach a vote in the Senate.

In an email today, Eckel noted the bill that just passed the House of Delegates this morning would “also cover non-homeowner occupied properties (like rentals) and also churches.”

Secondly, she added, “It would make sure that water can never trigger tax sale–even if it’s not the only outstanding bill. Many properties sent to tax sale have a combination of outstanding property taxes, environmental fees, and water bills.”

Washington’s bill now heads to the Senate. Eckel said advocates expect it will pass with a push from Baltimore’s six state senators.

“It would be entirely disappointing and incorrigible for this legislation to fail to pass, and we are dependent on their leadership to push for what our community deeply needs,” she said.

A 2016 report by the Abell Foundation found tax lien sales disproportionately affect African-Americans, many of them elderly or living below the poverty line.

In addition to campaigning for an end to tax lien sales, water rights advocates have also pushed for an end to the city’s practice of shutting off delinquent water customers’ service during the hottest months of the year, and for income-adjusted water billing rates.

One economist has argued that without the latter change, Baltimore could soon be stuck in a spiral in which customers’ water and sewer rates continue to climb, and the city continues to recoup less revenue from customers who can no longer afford their bills.

Ethan McLeod
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