Baltimore’s yearly tax sale is a way for the city to collect debts on thousands of delinquent accounts.
But critics of the process say many people whose properties end up in tax sale are low-income, elderly and disabled — unaware of how to navigate the confusing process. They’re calling on the city to be more fair to homeowners and help keep them in their homes.
Edward Mason has only been a homeowner for about seven years now, and in that time, he almost lost his home not once, but twice. It all started with a November 2012 fire that left a lot of damage.
“Before I was able to secure insurance or anything of that nature, I unfortunately had the fire,” Mason said. “And that was sort of like a big setback that I haven’t recovered from totally yet.”
While Mason slowly worked to put his home back together, Baltimore city hit him with several environmental citations stemming from the fire. Other bills like water and property taxes also began to pile up.
“The citations, water bill and taxes all was included in one big bill and if I didn’t pay it by a certain date, the house would go into tax sale,” Mason said.
Last May, the city sold the liens of nearly 6,700 properties through tax sale. These were properties with unpaid tax bills, municipal fees and citations of $250 or more combined. Baltimore’s tax sale also includes water bills of $350 or more that are at least three-quarters delinquent.
“It’s so troubling that someone can own their house and lose it for something like a $250 property tax,” said Susan Francis, deputy director of Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service (MVLS).
Francis works to help homeowners at risk of tax sale and foreclosure.
“Most of our clients low-income, elderly, they have a very small amount of a tax sale delinquency,” she said. “Many of them own their homes and if they lose their homes, they’re literally put out on the street, including they’ve lost all of their equity in their properties.”
Once a lien is sold in a tax sale, homeowners must pay off the debt plus 18 percent interest. Fees are added after four months. After six months, still more fees and the investor can file to take ownership of the property in court if the debt goes unpaid.
“So what you have happen, and what we see for our clients is they will come in with maybe a $500 property tax and in order to redeem it, it’s going to cost them several thousand dollars,” Francis said.
Francis is calling on city and state leaders to make the tax sale process fairier. MVLS and the Abell Foundation collaborated on the recent report, “The Steep Price of Paying to Stay.” They urge the city to increase the minimum tax sale lien amount to a thousand dollars, lower the redemption interest rate for homeowners, and provide more help and resources to low-income homeowners at risk of tax sale.
“I live in Baltimore city, I care about the well-being of the city, and so the flip side of that is, what happens when we don’t save someone’s home-” Francis said. “It’s not only the impact to them, but it’s that house in our city that is now going to be sitting vacant.”
ABC2 In Focus brought up their concerns to Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who said she’s already working on reforms.
“We have an ombudsman that will be available to people who are navigating the process,” she said. “Sometimes the process of the tax sale is complicated and confusing, particularly for our older residents. So this omsbudsman will help with that process and we have the legislative response, which is working to raise that threshold.”
It took the collective effort of multiple city non-profits, mason himself and volunteer attorney Kristin Rieger to attend hearings with Mason and connect him with resources to settle his debts before his property went to tax sale.
“It was very gratifying to see that there was a system that could help somebody like Mr. Mason,” Rieger said. “It was working and I was pleased to be just a tiny little piece of that just help him get over one of the many hurdles that he needed to get over.”
On top of free legal representation, Francis said MVLS also helps clients apply for little-known tax credits and water bill discounts based on their income and age. Mason feels for others who are navigating the process alone and knows he’s one of the lucky few who was able to get help.
“I’m in a much better position,” he said. “I have a place to live and it’s comfortable for me, and it’s safe. I’m in a much better position now and I don’t have the water bills and citations and I don’t have the taxes, so I sleep a lot better.”
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake introduced a bill before the General Assembly that would increase the lien threshold amount to $500 dollars. It would also give people more opportunities to redeem their properties after tax