Put an end to water bill tax sales

Over the last month, The Baltimore Sun's Yvonne Wenger and Ian Duncan have delivered a thorough investigation of the city's water bill and tax sale crisis which has further revealed the enormity of the problems that our city faces. Recently, they reported on the Department of Public Works’ water discount program for low-income families and seniors that is utilized by just 20,000 of the projected 60,000 households who could qualify for this service (“Baltimore water discount program short of meeting need of tens of thousands of families,” June 17). Although this underutilized resource could provide aid to many, it brings us to much deeper questions regarding how Baltimore treats its residents. Why is water too expensive for our working families? How can we let people be displaced by such a foundational service as water access?

Mr. Duncan and Ms. Wenger recently reviewed some of the reform programs that have been implemented in Philadelphia and other U.S. cities. These plans have enabled access to affordable water and have balanced the needs of the city and its residents. And these solutions can also work for Baltimore. We just need to take a pause.

I am encouraged by the passage of legislation that has created the “Task Force on Tax Sales” which will examine the current system and create a plan for statewide reforms. However, water bill-only tax sales are still turning people out of their homes. Across the U.S., localities are grappling with water service costs that are increasingly unaffordable for more and more of their residents. This problem becomes especially complex in this period of widening income inequality and reliance on regressive water billing practices which cause low-income households to pay a disproportionate amount of their income on water bills. One study found that water rates are already unaffordable for nearly 12 percent of households in the United States. The most recent announcement by the city that rates will increase again this summer is especially disturbing.

Unaffordable water bills can lead to evictions and tax foreclosures. In some cities, like Baltimore, homeowners can see their unpaid water bills added as tax liens that can allow a city to seize and sell a person’s home over unpaid water bills. Pushed by investors, laws have been created that have morphed tax sales into a predatory system of debt collection where $350 water bill delinquencies turn into $5,500 debts or more.

The solution, as I and many of my colleagues, neighbors and advocates have pushed for, is an immediate moratorium on water bill tax sales and establishment of a water affordability program as proposed by the bills I sponsored, HB 453 and HB 918, respectively. HB 453 would have ensured that from July 1, 2017, until July 1, 2018, Marylanders would not lose their homes to tax lien certificate sales solely to enforce a lien for an unpaid water, sewer or sanitary system charges. In working with water access advocates and researchers, I sponsored HB 918 to establish statewide standards for water affordability programs. This bill would have required providers to adjust water bills for low-income households down to a level they could afford to pay. Although these measures did not pass due to pressures from the city and other local jurisdictions, the necessity of a moratorium has only been exacerbated.

Clearly, the city recognizes this need.The recent establishment of a fund to help residents with their water bills, as well as the reinvigorated effort to rectify the water bill errors that our stadiums and churches dispute, demonstrate that our leaders in Baltimore hear our criticism. But is this enough?

Del. Mary L. Washington, Baltimore

The writer, a Democrat, represents District 43, Baltimore City, in the Maryland House of Delegates.

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