Maryland senators today voted 47-0 to approve Sen. Mary Washington’s legislation halting Baltimore City’s use of the tax sale process for properties with water and sewer bill debt totaling $750 or more.

The Senate’s approval comes two weeks after the House of Delegates’ passage of Del. Nick Mosby’s identical bill. Washington’s SB 96 now heads to a yet-to-be-scheduled committee hearing in the House of Delegates, while Mosby’s HB 161 awaits a hearing in the Senate’s Budget and Taxation Committee on March 19.

The legislation makes permanent protections from a one-year moratorium enacted last year on water lien-related tax sales of homeowner-occupied housing, but also protects rental properties and places of worship.

Water-rights advocates have decried the city’s tax sale process as unfair and predatory, noting Baltimore City is the only Maryland jurisdiction that seizes properties’ liens for water and sewer bill debt, that the system is prone to errors and that residents are already struggling to pay their bills with rapidly climbing water rates.

Mayor Catherine Pugh’s administration had pushed to keep renter-occupied housing eligible for tax sale. The city uses the process, which applies to properties with debts more than nine months past due, to recoup revenue, selling the liens during its spring tax sale. (A creditor who purchases the debt can then foreclose on a property if its owner does not eventually pay up.)

Last year’s moratorium pushed the city to remove more than 3,500 homeowner-occupied homes from its tax sale list, costing $5.7 million in potential revenue, according to DPW numbers provided in a fiscal and policy note for Washington’s bill.

Pugh’s director of government relations, Karen Stokes, argued in February testimony that also protecting renters would further hinder the city’s ability to recoup debt from unpaid utility bills.

While Mosby and Washington have both celebrated their bills’ approval, their legislation was considerably weakened by late amendments that effectively let the city continue combining water bill debts with other liens, such as unpaid property taxes, to bring a property to tax sale. For example, someone who has only $10 in overdue water and sewer bills but $740 in unpaid taxes still faces the threat of having their home added to the city’s tax sale list.

Food and Water Watch Maryland organizer Rianna Eckel told Baltimore Fishbowl Pugh’s administration recently lobbied legislators amend the bills as such. The original bill text, as introduced, would have barred the city from sweeping in various liens to get past the $750 mark.

“That seems to be the biggest sticking point from the mayor’s office,” she said.

Baltimore Fishbowl has reached out to the mayor’s office for comment.

Despite the weakening protections, advocates see both bills’ approval as a win. Eckel called it “monumental,” noting, “this is in place forever—and if this proves to not be enough protection, we do have the time to go back to Annapolis and get it done right.”

According to the aforementioned fiscal and policy note, the city reported that as of Jan. 23—even with the 2018 moratorium in effect—there were 18,189 residential properties with $750 or more in water bill debt past due at least nine months. Baltimore had approximately 180,000 water and sewer customers in the city limits as of November, implying that as of this winter, one in 10 Baltimore households faced the threat of tax sale.

Either Washington’s or Mosby’s bill will still require approval in the opposite house to be approved out of the General Assembly and sent to Gov. Larry Hogan’s desk.

With the enactment of either bill, barring a veto, “we’ll be protecting thousands more Baltimoreans who can rest assured that their homes and places of worship will be protected,” Eckel said.

Ethan McLeod is a freelance reporter in Baltimore. He previously worked as an editor for the Baltimore Business Journal and Baltimore Fishbowl. His work has appeared in Bloomberg CityLab, Next City and...