Mayor Catherine Pugh orders halt to tax sales for Baltimore homeowners with unpaid water bills

Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh pledged Wednesday that city homeowners no longer have to fear losing their homes over just an unpaid water bill.

Citing concerns about water affordability and irregular charges, Pugh told reporters gathered at City Hall that she has ordered city agencies to halt tax sales of debt from water bills at owner-occupied homes. This year, about 1,000 homeowners faced tax sale at the May auction for unpaid water bills.


“Water bill alone? Your house cannot be taken,” Pugh said Wednesday. “That is a mandate from this office, and we’re not having it.”

A spokeswoman for the mayor said the moratorium would apply to the next round of tax sales in 2018.


For months, a coalition of community advocates, church leaders and watchdog groups have called on Baltimore officials to halt tax sales for water debt, citing erroneous bills and high costs.

More than $6,000 in unpaid water bills sent the century-old Baptist church to tax auction last year and a California investor is now seeking to foreclose on it.

Del. Mary Washington, a Baltimore Democrat, has pushed state legislation seeking a moratorium on such sales. She said she intended to pursue a similar bill again next General Assembly session.

“This is a first step. It’s a humane step. It’s an important step,” Washington said after Pugh’s comments. “Today is a victory for all the people who have been working to make water accessible and affordable.”’

City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young praised the move.

“I applaud the mayor for hitting the pause button on placing people’s homes in tax sale for unpaid water bills,” he said. “It’s an extremely important first step. I have for years likened the city’s approach as penny wise, pound foolish. Sending someone to tax sale for what often amounts to minor back charges often has a disastrous impact, as homeowners scramble to pay inflated fees in order to reclaim their property or risk homelessness.”

Young said he wants to continue to work with Pugh and state lawmakers on a “permanent fix to Baltimore’s tax sale problem.”

The Baltimore Sun has been investigating problems with the city’s tax sales and water billing.

Homes can go to tax sale if the owner owes at least $750 in unpaid water bills that are nine months late. The limit for nonowner-occupied properties is $350. If property owners don't pay the debt, the investors who buy the liens can ultimately foreclose on them.

Baltimore's tax sale — an annual online auction of property liens that allows the city to recoup millions of dollars in outstanding taxes, water bills and citations — has long drawn criticism, especially for the inclusion of debt from unpaid water bills. The Department of Public Works has been plagued by water billing problems over the years.

Rianna Eckel, Maryland organizer for the advocacy group Food and Water Watch, cheered the mayor’s decision.

“It’s definitely huge and very surprising,” Eckel said. “Less than six months ago, she sent someone from the city to testify against Del. Washington’s bill that would do what she is proposing.”

Eckel called the decision “huge.”


“The ability for someone to lose their home because they could not afford their water bill is a huge injustice for low-income families in our city,” she said.

The cost of water bills has risen steadily over the years in Baltimore. Last year, the city approved a three-step increase of 33 percent for water under a three-year plan to help fix the city's crumbling infrastructure and error-plagued billing system.

In recent weeks, lobbyists have been pitching Baltimore officials on a plan for French company Suez Environment to take operating control the city’s water system, several City Council members say.

Department of Public Works Director Rudy Chow said previous mayors failed to charge enough to cover the costs of maintaining the city’s infrastructure. By law, Baltimore’s water system must be a self-sufficient utility.

The city has now entered into a $1.6 billion, 13-year agreement with the federal government to upgrade its water infrastructure.

“We need to recognize our water rates going back in time have been kept ultra low,” Chow said. “We haven’t been reinvesting.”

Pugh said the city has a number of assistance programs in place to help low-income residents with high water bills. Even so, she said, costs are high to fix the city’s crumbling infrastructure.

“It costs money to fix those pipes. The federal government is not giving us any money to fix those pipes,” she said. “This is an old system and an old city.”

Meanwhile, lobbyists have been pitching Baltimore officials on a plan for the French company Suez Environment to take operating control of the city’s water system. Council members say lobbyists from the company have been meeting with influential people inside and outside of City Hall, arguing that private control of water billing and infrastructure will lower city debt.

But Jeffrey Raymond, a spokesman for Baltimore’s Department of Public Works, said Chow is not interested in privatization.

“Director Chow has been clear and unwavering in his desire to make the Baltimore City Department of Public Works the best public works agency in the country, accountable to the elected officials, citizens, taxpayers, and rate payers of the City and the water utilities,” Raymond said. “This, not privatization, remains his focus.”

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