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Getting Off The Property Tax Sale List In The Time of COVID

Patrick Semansky

When Linda Martin-Smith inherited her father’s house on Gwynns Falls Parkway in 2016, she considered it a blessing. It was paid off. All she had to worry about were the utilities and the property taxes. And she could cover that and take care of her two kids with the money she was making working in a warehouse filling online grocery orders.

But that was before the diagnosis she got last year: Stage 3 colon cancer.

"The chemo was making me so sick I couldn’t work," she says.

She went on leave in March 2019 and applied for disability benefits. But, "they denied me, so I appealed it and they denied me again. So, it’s been on appeal since September."

If she doesn’t win that appeal, she won’t be able to pay off the property taxes, about $2,200, by the city’s deadline of April 30, which means she could very likely lose the house in the tax sale process.

Amy Hennen, director of advocacy and financial stabilization for the Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service, says the city may have delayed the tax sale date because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but it didn’t change the due date for payments.

And because much of city government is shut down because of the deadly virus, people with property on the tax sale list can’t use the most common and secure method of staving off the sales that Hennen advises, paying down their bills in person at the Abel Wolman building downtown. 

The other payment options--online or by mail--are not feasible for most of the people Hennen talks to. Either there are significant barriers to pay online or her clients are aren't able to track how their accounts are credited and whether their payments are enough to take them off the tax sale list. 

Martin-Smith’s property is one of the more than 15,000 properties on the city's list.

But there are thousands of others throughout the state. Hennen says Baltimore City and Prince George's County have the highest numbers of tax sales in Maryland, but she's represented clients in Anne Arundel, Howard, Somerset and Cecil counties.

"Really across the state, tax sale is something people face," Hennen says.

Depending on the jurisdiction, liens are put on people's property if they haven't paid property taxes or water and sewer bills.  

Some counties-- Howard, Harford, and Anne Arundel--have delayed their tax sale dates, but others--Baltimore County and Prince Georges--have not. And they're quickly approaching. Prince Georges' is May 11 and Baltimore County's tax sale date is June 5.

Jared Walczak, director of state tax policy at the national non-profit Tax Foundation, says with record numbers of people unemployed, many are looking for help to pay their rents or make their mortgages or to pay their property taxes. But there's not much assistance out there to pay one's property taxes.

It’s up to each locality to make the rules around liens and tax sales, he says. Local governments "need money on a regular basis," and property taxes are their "largest source of tax revenue."

But governments across the country are finding ways to help people in these times, Walczak says.

Localities can "negotiate a payment plan with taxpayers who are unable to come up with the money to pay their taxes in full," he says.

Experts say many of the properties that are sold through Baltimore City's tax sale often end up vacant and contribute to the city's blight. Walczak says payment plans are in everyone's interest - especially right now. 

"It's better for the community, for the homeowner, and better for the locality than going through with the tax sale."  

As for Linda Martin-Smith, her daughter recently organized a GoFundMe campaign to help raise money to save her family's home. She's raised a few hundred dollars so far, not enough by itself to get it off the tax  sale list.

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