More than 20,000 Baltimore property owners who have fallen behind on real estate taxes or services such as water bills must pay up by the end of the month or face possible foreclosure.

City officials plan at their annual tax sale next month to auction up to $70 million in liens to private investors, who can then collect the debts - plus thousands of dollars in fees and interest - or foreclose if they can't collect.The liens are mostly for delinquent property taxes but also include municipal levies such as water and sewer billings, charges for sidewalk and alley repair, and fines for failing to clean up trash or other environmental hazards. About 37 percent of the liens don't contain any back taxes, an analysis by The Sun found.

City officials expect to collect about half the overdue bills by the deadline. That would make the number of properties included in the sale similar to or slightly higher than the 9,875 offered a year ago.

"We're encouraging them to satisfy their accounts so it doesn't go into the tax sale," said Stanley Milesky, chief of the city's Bureau of Treasury Management.

As it prepares for the tax sale, the city is also pressing a federal lawsuit that accuses Wells Fargo Bank, one of the nation's biggest mortgage lenders, of helping precipitate the city's foreclosure problems by steering black homebuyers into high-cost, subprime loans.

One advocate for the poor said that tax sales - especially over debts for essential services like water - compound the foreclosure problem and create "a state-sanctioned, high-yield investment product" for investors who buy the liens.

'Little choice'

"Low-income citizens of Maryland who are caught up in this problem bear the worst consequences, because they really have little choice in how they're going to be able to pay back these investors," said Louise M. Carwell, senior attorney at Legal Aid Bureau Inc. in Baltimore. She said she would like to see the city keep all water bills and alley paving fees out of tax sales.

State Sen. George W. Della Jr., a Baltimore Democrat who pushed to change the tax sale system in the General Assembly, said he does not see parallels between the city's efforts to recoup these sorts of debts and the subprime lending tactics it is challenging in the court case against Wells Fargo.

"The subprime folks, I believe, knowingly lure people in with low interest rates and allow financing for people who maybe shouldn't have gotten it. They took advantage of people, not just here, but all over the country," he said.

"The city is providing water for everybody, and if you don't pay your bill, they're not getting paid."

There are more than $9.1 million worth of water bills due on 11,225 properties on the current tax-sale list. Some of the property owners also owe the city for other services. More than half the water charges are for less than $500, though a few dozen run into the thousands of dollars.

City officials have defended the practice of including overdue water bills in tax sales by saying that many residents would not pay their bills without the threat of losing their homes.

Unsolicited upgrade

Buildings with tax liens as of April 3 ranged from vacant shells appraised at a few thousand dollars or less, to stately residences. There were also shuttered factories and other industrial sites, and a handful of apartment complexes, city records show.

Though they stretch across more than 250 census tracts, the properties tend to cluster in a few areas. In two neighborhoods, Broadway East and Belair-Edison, about 1,300 properties are subject to sale, records show.

The collection process angers Leola Myers, who has owned her Belair-Edison home since 1995 and is listed in city records as owing about $500 in overdue water bills and alley paving fees.

"I'm sick of the city's water bills," she said. "On top of that, they included alley paving. I didn't even ask for it to be done. I didn't ask for it, because I knew I couldn't afford to pay it. It's hard enough to pay the bills we have."

Myers said she is on permanent disability after being injured at her job as an operating room technician at Union Memorial Hospital in 1984. She said a friend recently showed her the newspaper listing of properties up for tax sale, which included her house. Her husband has been out of work after two employers shut down, she said.