With thousands of Baltimore homeowners at risk of losing their homes at tax sale, advocates had been working diligently to help them right up to last Friday’s deadline at 5 p.m.
Mayor Brandon Scott had promised in his State of the City speech that he would “use every tool and resource available to make sure no one loses their home due to a tax sale in the midst of a pandemic,” but stopped short of acceding to demands that he delay the sale.
“We had no further details, no indications, so we had to advise our clients that the city was proceeding with the tax sale,” said Allison Harris, of the Pro Bono Resource Center of Maryland (PBRC).
Scott’s announcement today that he is taking about 2,500 owner-occupied properties off the list – coming on the first business day after the deadline had passed – was bittersweet news to Harris and others.
“This did nothing to alleviate the pressure on homeowners who were afraid they were going to lose everything. I mean, people were panicked,” Harris said. “On Friday, I was on the phone with clients who were turning to family members to ask for $20 or $30 to help them pay their bill.”
She also cited Nneka Nnamdi, founder and CEO of Fight Blight Baltimore, as working hard throughout Friday.
“I’m sure the city waited on purpose to see who would pay” their tax bills, Harris added.
Asked at today’s press conference about the timing of his announcement, Scott deferred to Finance Director Henry Raymond, who skirted around the question, saying, “This is a very complex issue. . . It took a matter of time to develop this strategy.”
Removing owner-occupied properties from this month’s tax sale list was one action that critics had proposed. But to some advocates, it did not go far enough.
“Solely removing new homeowners from the city’s annual auction does not fully address the deeply harmful and multi-generational impact of the tax sale on Baltimore City’s most precious homeowners,” said a statement that Nnamdi released from the Stop Oppressive Seizures (SOS) Fund that her organization set up.
SOS and other partner groups maintain that all owner-occupied homes, including those with so-called “tangled titles” should be removed from tax sale, the statement said.
Scott said today he is committed to continuing to provide assistance. Three Finance Department employees have been tasked to assist those with questions or are unsure whether they qualify for assistance programs. (They can call 410-396-3556, he said.)
And the mayor pledged to push the state legislature for more systemic changes in the tax sale system “that would give the city more local control.”
But SOS said it is awaiting “more details on the long-term plans to stop this predatory practice in its entirety.”
Army of Volunteers
For years, activists have sought to reform a tax sale system they consider regressive and exploitative.
Amid the economic crisis caused by the pandemic, Scott was under heavy pressure to delay the May 17 tax sale, in which properties with unpaid taxes and fees would be sold at auction.
In Maryland, properties go to auction if they owe as little as $750 in back taxes. Investors can buy the liens and collect on them with interest.
About 6,000 properties were to be included in Baltimore’s sale this year, including commercial and rental property as well as owner-occupied houses.
“I sent every homeowner on the list a postcard telling them about us” – Allison Harris, Pro Bono Resource Center.
In March, Council President Nick Mosby and Comptroller Bill Henry asked Scott to delay the sale until there was more time to study its impact on poor and elderly homeowners.
Instead, Scott and his appointees on the Board of Estimates approved a $39,000 contract to advertise the tax sale in the Baltimore Sun and a $120,000 contract with RealAuction.com to transfer tax sale data to its website.
Since then, a small army of volunteer lawyers and community members have been working to prevent people from losing their homes.
“I sent every homeowner on the list a postcard telling them about us and all the other kinds of assistance available,” said the PBRC’s Harris, who said her group and the Maryland Volunteer Lawyer Service helped homeowners through pro-bono legal clinics.
Pooling their resources, community members behind the SOS Fund paid the property tax bills of 42 homeowners at a cost of over $60,000, according to the Baltimore Tax Sale Work Group.
A small neighborhood-based nonprofit, the Better Waverly Mutual Aid Fund, raised $20,000 and paid the tax bills of 20 people on the list.
“In the last few weeks, we have witnessed heroic efforts to help homeowners save their homes from predatory tax sale,” Councilwoman Odette Ramos said, lauding their efforts and adding “I myself knocked on more than 100 doors in my district to try to help people who are in tax sale.”
“A Perfect Storm”
In trying to assist property owners, Harris said the advocates discovered “a perfect storm” of problems and lapses – including significant post office delays that resulted in people not receiving homeowners’ tax credits.d to
Among the problems the advocates encountered:
• Incorrect tax bills sent to residents by the Finance Department.
• Erroneous zip codes on mailing lists notifying homeowners of their delinquencies, rendering those notices undeliverable.
• Homes incorrectly classified as non-owner occupied.
• Difficulty getting information because the city terminated its contract with the prior vendor that hosted the tax sale auction website.
“It’s the post office, definitely, and the pandemic that has these agencies working from home, and things are not being handled in the way they used to be,” Harris said.
PBRC came up with a demographic profile of the people they assisted, showing they are among the city’s most vulnerable.
“The average client age is 68, the average yearly income is $19,418, 82% identify as Black, 75% are women and the average length of home ownership is 27 years.”