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Baltimore City Councilmembers Ask Mayor To Remove Homeowners From Tax Sale

Baltimore Heritage/Flickr

 Members of the Baltimore City Council have asked Mayor Brandon Scott to either remove homeowners from the city’s upcoming tax sale list or postpone the sale altogether, as the financial impact of the coronavirus pandemic continues to hit Baltimoreans. 


“We should not be subjecting families to losing their homes during this COVID-19 crisis,” said Councilwoman Odette Ramos, who has spearheaded the effort to delay the sale. A letter to Scott, signed by fellow Democratic councilmembers Zeke Cohen, Danielle McCray, Mark Conway, Sharon Middleton, James Torrence, Kristefer Burnett, Phylicia Porter, Robert Stokes and Antonio Glover, echoed her concerns. 

The tax sale, a public auction of city liens, allows bidders to buy those debts, charge interest and additional fees on top of them and obtain ownership of the properties they’re attached to through tax sale foreclosure lawsuits.


The process can force people out of their homes for owing the city less than $1,000. Properties land on the tax sale list by accruing at least $250 in liens at places where the property owner does not live and $750 at properties that are the owner-occupied. 


Last year, the council passed a bill from Councilwoman McCray that prevents vulnerable Baltimoreans, including the elderly, from being listed on the tax sale — but it does not go into effect until July of next year. 


A spokeswoman for Scott said his team is currently exploring what actions the mayor can legally take with regard to the tax sale. The Democrat was supportive of McCray’s 2020 bill.


The letter noted that according to the Baltimore City Department of Housing and Community Development, “there is a significant uptick in homeowners receiving this notice this year, compared to last year.”


Ramos said that the owners of 29,934 properties received a final bill and legal notice that the properties are slated to appear on the tax sale. Of those owners, 6,625 occupied the properties involved — and 2,564 of the properties have belonged to the same owner for 25 years or more. Those who have been in the same home for decades are likely elderly, the councilmembers wrote.


“Assuming many no longer have mortgages and are solely responsible for paying their property taxes, we believe they could have had a COVID-related medical event that required them to pay for those expenses rather than save for and pay taxes,” their letter states. “Others are helping family members economically impacted by COVID rather than save for and pay taxes.”


The member also noted that some homeowners on the list also racked up environmental citation fees for disrepair, such as a decrepit porch. Those fees triple if they are not paid on time.


“We believe that these homeowners had to address other needs first and are at tax sale risk as a result,” the letter states. “They now, with no money, have to abate the citation issue while also paying the fines.”


Slow mail may also have something to do with this year’s lengthy list of owner-occupied residences on tax sale, the councilmembers said. Some residents told them they sent payment through the mail, but the city never received it.


Others told their elected representatives that they ended up on the list due to accounting errors:

“their property tax bills found that their payments were credited to other bills instead (from a different year or a different agency,)” the letter said.


While the Department of Finance investigates and seeks to rectify the errors, homeowners should not have to sit with their stress — and, the legislators wrote, there is no guarantee that errors will be fixed in time before the sale, which is scheduled to take place on May 19.


Ramos introduced a bill to delay the sale earlier this year, but withdrew it after the city’s law department issued an opinion stating that the councild does not have the legal authority to delay, cancel or amend the sale. 


A law passed by the Maryland General Assembly in 2019 states that governing municipal officials have the power to withhold owner-occupied homes from tax sales. Former Mayor Jack Young delayed last year’s sale to give residents several additional months to pay down their tax bills.


Emily Sullivan is a city hall reporter at WYPR, where she covers all things Baltimore politics. She joined WYPR after reporting for NPR’s national airwaves. There, she was a reporter for NPR’s news desk, business desk and presidential conflicts of interest team. Sullivan won a national Edward R. Murrow Award for an investigation into a Trump golf course's finances alongside members of the Embedded team. She has also won awards from the Chesapeake Associated Press Broadcasters Association for her use of sound and feature stories. She has provided news analysis on 1A, The Takeaway, Here & Now and All Things Considered.
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