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Advocates rally to remove homeowners from city tax sale

Advocates for Baltimore homeowners who could lose properties in the city’s upcoming tax sale called Monday on officials to protect vulnerable residents — mainly elderly, disabled and poor people who typically have paid off their mortgages.

City Councilwoman Odette Ramos and housing advocates asked Mayor Brandon Scott to make good on his promise to ensure no one would lose their home.

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Advocates who spoke Monday afternoon in front of City Hall want the sale canceled or postponed, and are asking the city’s director of finance to remove occupied residential properties altogether if the sale moves ahead.

The number of homeowners in the tax sale has increased sharply this year because of the coronavirus pandemic, Ramos said. Many elderly homeowners have been unable to pay lump sum tax bills because of high medical bills or the need to help COVID-19-impacted families economically.

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“What we’re dealing with in COVID is unprecedented,” Ramos said. “We want [Scott] and the director of finance to keep going and find the right solutions. It’s not that people don’t want to pay. It is that they haven’t been able to pay. ... We have to work with our homeowners.”

Baltimore City Councilwoman Odette Ramos spoke Monday at a press conference outside City Hall and called on the city to protect vulnerable homeowners in the scheduled upcoming tax sale, which the city uses to collect unpaid taxes.
Baltimore City Councilwoman Odette Ramos spoke Monday at a press conference outside City Hall and called on the city to protect vulnerable homeowners in the scheduled upcoming tax sale, which the city uses to collect unpaid taxes. (Amy Davis/Baltimore Sun)

Ramos also called for massive reform of the tax sale system, saying 21 states have found other ways to collect unpaid debts. Properties in Maryland go to tax sale if they owe more than $750 in back taxes.

If tax sales on their properties go through, more than 3,800 Baltimore homeowners this year face paying thousands of dollars in interest, attorney’s fees and other fees, and risk foreclosure, said Nneka Nnamdi, co-creator of Fight Blight Bmore.

Nnamdi called the tax sale a “predatory practice,” in which investors who buy the debt can then go collect it along with interest of up to 18%. Part of the problem stems from assessments — the basis for a tax bill — which overvalue homes in low-income neighborhoods. One analysis showed that the least expensive houses were assessed at 164% of their sales value, while the most expensive houses were assessed at 68% of their sales value, she said.

Properties with the lowest sales values are concentrated in neighborhoods with predominantly Black populations, she said.

“The result of an inflated tax rate and assessments are unaffordable property tax bills for homeowners,” in such neighborhoods, she said. Homeowners in those neighborhoods are “targeted by investors because they’re more likely to pay, than speculators who have abandoned their properties and responsibilities.”

The city typically schedules a tax lien certificate sale each May to collect on past-due property taxes or other delinquent charges. Investors purchase the liens from the city during an online auction. Those investors can then collect the debts with interest. If they’re not paid, buyers could foreclose eventually on the properties.

The city’s Board of Estimates voted earlier this month to go ahead with the tax sale, despite requests from more than half the City Council to postpone the sale.

Democratic Council President Nick Mosby, who chairs the estimates board, had argued for delaying the sale, saying it would cost city residents money or their homes in the middle of the pandemic.

Finance Director Henry Raymond had said the city stands to receive $14 million to $15 million from the sale and “desperately needs” the money.

During his State of the City address March 18, Scott promised to protect “vulnerable legacy homeowners” from foreclosure but has not offered details.

“I am directing the Department of Finance to use every tool available to us to make sure no one loses their home to tax sale in the midst of this pandemic,” he said during the address.

Last year, more than 200 tax sale foreclosures filings were recorded with the courts in Baltimore.

During Monday’s press conference at War Memorial Plaza, advocates said families can take steps to remove themselves from the tax sale, if it takes place as scheduled on May 17.

Allison Harris, director of The Home Preservation Project, a program of the Maryland Pro Bono Resource Center, said her organization offers helps to homeowners facing city tax sales.
Allison Harris, director of The Home Preservation Project, a program of the Maryland Pro Bono Resource Center, said her organization offers helps to homeowners facing city tax sales. (Amy Davis/Baltimore Sun)

Allison Harris, director of the Home Preservation Project of the Pro Bono Resource Center of Maryland, said the legal services nonprofit offers advice and free legal consultations to homeowners on the tax sale list. Last year’s clients had average outstanding tax delinquencies of $3,500.

“Most of our clients owned their homes for decades,” and many have paid off mortgages, she said. “They’re faced with a large tax bill all at once. ... A large tax bill is simply not within reach for many in our community right now.”

Ellen Campbell, a 63-year-old unemployed Waverly resident, said her home has been in the tax sale system form several years, incorrectly listed as a vacant. She said she has been spending money to bring the home up to code while living on a small fixed income.

“I own my home,” Campbell said. “I don’t have a mortgage. The tax sale needs to be put off until next year so I can get the little bit needed to pay the tax, which keeps going up and up every year. I’m a senior, and I’m trying here.”

Baltimore Sun reporter Emily Opilo contributed to this article.

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