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With Baltimore poised to auction off the debt of 2,900 homeowners, mayor cancels sale of their tax debts

Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott said the city is removing all owner-occupied homes from its tax sale list and postponing the annual auction of delinquent property taxes until June.

Scott made the announcement at Wednesday’s meeting of the Board of Estimates and said it would prevent homes from becoming vacant and help longtime residents stay in their homes. The move does not forgive anyone’s debt, but it gives thousands of homeowners time — at least a year — to get caught up on their past-due taxes before winding up again on the tax sale list.

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The tax sale is an annual auction at which the city sells the rights to collect past-due property taxes. The buyers are often debt collectors who tack on fees and add interest rates of up to 12%.

It’s a quick infusion of millions of dollars to the city, but housing advocates call it a predatory practice that has disproportionately harmed Baltimore’s poor, older and Black residents. If homeowners can’t pay, it can lead to foreclosures, evictions, clouded titles and vacant homes.

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Last year, Scott removed 973 owner-occupied homes from the tax sale list. Scott tripled that number Wednesday, saying the city would remove all owner-occupied homes — roughly 2,900 — from the tax sale list, calling it a “very personal” decision.

“It could very well be my parents or my aunts or my uncles or folks who have worked their whole lives in Baltimore,” Scott said. “This is about making sure that we’re protecting people who have done so much for the city and stuck with the city.”

Friday was supposed to be the deadline for property owners to pay their delinquent taxes or be placed on the tax sale list. When the city released its preliminary tax sale list earlier this year, there were 4,154 owner-occupied properties on it. The median debt was $2,192.

Advocates had called on the mayor to cancel the tax sale because there is an unprecedented amount of federal money — $250 million in the Maryland Homeowner Assistance Fund — that can help Maryland residents get caught up on their unpaid bills. The fund can help cover costs for homeowners impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, including grants of up to $20,000 to pay property taxes and utility bills.

The state’s housing agency has been accepting applications for grants from the fund since the beginning of the year, but a spokeswoman said this week that just 18 Baltimore homeowners have had their applications approved so far.

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John Kern of the Stop Oppressive Seizures Fund is one of the advocates who had called on the mayor to act on the tax sale. He said he and other advocates are “overjoyed” at Scott’s decision to remove owner-occupied homes from the tax sale.

A colleague texted Kern shortly after the news broke to say she can’t wait to call homeowners and tell them: “You don’t have to worry.”

“People have just been terrified,” Kern said of the tax sale. “They’re just like, ‘What’s going to happen? Am I going to lose my house?’”

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This will give housing advocates like him more time to reach out to Baltimore homeowners and connect them to resources such as the Maryland Homeowner Assistance Fund. Businesses and rental properties will remain on the city’s tax sale list, but Kern said the decision to postpone the sale will give advocates time to make sure no owner-occupied homes mistakenly end up in the tax sale.

The long-term future of the tax sale is unclear. Scott would not say whether he supports permanently removing owner-occupied homes from tax sales going forward, instead pointing to a task force he assembled to study the matter.

“It’s about doing what’s best for the residents of Baltimore in the long term,” Scott said. “And that’s why we put together experts and community people around the group to help inform those decisions.”

Have a question about the city’s tax sale? Call Baltimore’s Bureau of Revenue Collections at 410-396-3556. Interested in learning more about the Maryland Homeowner Assistance Fund? Visit https://dhcd.maryland.gov/Residents/Pages/HomeownerAssistanceFund.aspx for more details.


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