Photo by Ángelo González

Unlike in past years, the city won’t be auctioning off homes this year if their owners owe more than $750 in unpaid water bills.

Mayor Catherine Pugh mentioned 45 minutes into an hour-long press conference Wednesday that her administration has implemented a policy of no longer selling residents’ homes at tax lien sales due to water bill-related debts.

“Water bill alone, your house cannot be taken,” Pugh told reporters. “That is a mandate from this office, and we’re not having it.”

The change will apply to owner-occupied housing, but not rental properties or commercial buildings. Traditionally, the city auctions off homes each year whose owners have fallen severely delinquent on their bills, usually in May. Proprietors are notified in March that their homes are on the auction block, and have the option to pay all past due bills before the May auction, according to a city website. The city can sell homes due to unpaid water and sewer bills and other debts surmounting $750.

Of course, if many of these proprietors could just clear their debts prior to auction, they probably would. The Abell Foundation found in a 2016 report that tax lien sales disproportionately affect African-Americans, many of them elderly or living below the poverty line. In the months before their homes go to auction, they face water shutoffs that can effectively leave them living in third-world conditions.

Del. Mary Washington, who represents Baltimore’s 43rd district, proposed a bill last spring that would have banned the practice. The House of Delegates overwhelmingly approved an amended version that implemented a one-year moratorium on water bill tax lien sales, but it didn’t escape the Senate.

Rianna Eckel, Maryland organization for the environmental advocacy nonprofit Food and Water Watch, deemed the Wednesday announcement “an incredibly surprising turnaround” for Pugh. Only nine months earlier, she said, Pugh’s director of government relations, Karen Stokes, testified against Washington’s bill during a hearing at the State House.

While the total number of annual tax lien sales has actually declined in recent years, water rates aren’t at all. A report this week from independent economist Roger Colton, prepared for Food and Water Watch Maryland, found the ongoing water and sewer rate hikes of 10 and 9 percent, respectively, risk deepening a downward spiral in which more Baltimoreans can’t pay their bills, and the city therefore keeps hiking rates to compensate for that missed utility revenue.

Colton predicted more than half of city property owners making median income won’t be able to afford their bills, nevermind the one-in-four local residents living at or below the poverty line.

Baltimore’s Department of Public Works has hiked rates to pay for large-scale infrastructural repairs to water and sewer pipes, as required by federal court order. The city’s infrastructure is more than 100 years old and has been known to suffer from water main breaks, residential sewage backups and other issues.

“It’s an old city. It’s an old system,” Pugh said Wednesday. “But it’s gotta be fixed.”

DPW Director Rudy Chow said at the presser that his department will continue to address residential water bill spikes or unpaid debts on a case-by-case basis, and offer payment programs to those who fall behind.

In a statement sent out Wednesday night, Chow said he supports the mayor’s move to end tax lien sales: “All of us agree that people should not lose the homes they own and live in due solely to unpaid water bills.”

Eckel said a key next step is to codify the policy change. Pugh could face pressure to reverse the suspension on water bill tax lien sales in the future, or her mayoral successor could decide to change it, she said.

Washington plans to introduce such a bill banning the practice — specifically for Baltimore City — in the spring.

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...