'They do not know it exists'
Of course, in order for homeowners to receive the credit, they must know about it in the first place.
"They do not know it exists," said Mary Warlow, director of programs and development for Belair-Edison Neighborhoods, whose services include home counseling and foreclosure prevention.
"Our counselors, when a homeowner comes in and their hardship is an increase in property taxes, that's one of the things they ask: 'Well, have you applied for the homeowners' tax credit?' And I feel almost always the answer is no."
Young, the assessments director, defended efforts to spread the word. At least yearly, Baltimore Gas and Electric utility bills include a flier about the credit, he said.
In addition, his agency trains staff at housing groups and public agencies that work with the elderly; details credit programs in income tax booklets put out by the state comptroller and provides information in reassessment notices mailed to homeowners every three years.
Young said he lacks money for high-profile marketing steps such as television commercials or bus ads. "If anyone has an idea that we can use to help publicize this and we haven't tried it, we want to hear it," he said. "It has to be at minimal or no cost."
This year just over 13,000 city residents applied, with about 10,500 receiving credits.
But those numbers appear to be far below the citywide pool of eligible owners. Based on the Census Bureau's 2010 American Community Survey, roughly 55,000 owner-occupied homes have household income of $60,000 or less.
By that measure, just one in five eligible city homeowners presently receives a credit.
It's not that simple, though. Just because someone qualifies does not automatically translate to a tax break. That depends on two factors — where on the income scale someone falls, and the size of the home's tax bill, which in turn stems from the home's value.
So, while the program might cut the taxes of someone making $50,000, it might yield zero benefit to someone else making $25,000 and living in a less-expensive home.
Young cannot estimate how many income-eligible city owners would benefit. "I don't think anybody really knows," he said, though he contends it is a low number. Years ago, the agency mailed applications to 125,000 Maryland homeowners it thought might qualify. Only 1,200 replied, with one-third actually qualifying.
Unaware in East Baltimore
In East Baltimore's Johnston Square neighborhood, where Vera Artis lives, word of the homeowners' program has reached some, including Charvette McLaurin, a 41-year-old single mother. McLaurin has been receiving the credit for a dozen years. "Word of mouth" is how she heard about it.
The first year she got the credit, McLaurin was so convinced her $900 break was too high she called to verify it, concerned she'd end up in jail. "I like freedom," she recalls telling a state worker whom she asked to verify the figure.
McLaurin, a toll collector, said she tries to make others aware of the program. "I tell people all the time — fill out an application for a homeowners' tax credit," she said. "A lot of people don't know."
Artis didn't know.
She vaguely recalls getting something in the mail years ago, but that's it. "It's news to me," she said after hearing the program outlined.