A coalition of city leaders and groups is petitioning Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young to postpone Baltimore’s annual tax sale Monday to ease pressure on property owners at risk of losing their homes during the pandemic.
The annual tax sale — already delayed since May — is a huge money maker for the cash-strapped city, typically generating around $20 million in a single day. But Councilman Kristerfer Burnett says this year, any number of the thousands of property owners on the auction list may be facing unprecedented hardships due to the coronavirus crisis.
Burnett, a West Baltimore Democrat, sponsored a resolution that the City Council adopted this month to ask Young to postpone the sale further, to at least 90 days after the state of emergency has been lifted.
The councilman said he has heard from people who are in desperate need of reprieve from the tax sale and face the prospect of becoming homeless given a sudden loss of employment and other hardships.
“It’s so heartbreaking to hear their stories,” Burnett said Thursday. “Unfortunately, I haven’t heard of any plans from the mayor’s office to delay the tax sale further and the impact of such a decision may be dire for many of our most vulnerable residents.”
Young’s office did not immediately respond Thursday to request for comment.
A majority of the council signed on to Burnett’s resolution, including Council President Brandon Scott, a Democrat who is poised to become Baltimore’s next mayor in December. Democrats far outnumber Republicans and the primary has historically decided who becomes mayor.
The online auction is a chance for the city to collect debts owed on taxes, fines and bills for water, alley paving and quality of life citations. To trigger a tax sale, the debt must reach at least $250 for properties where the owner does not live and $750 for homes that are a principal residence.
During the sale, the city sells a lien to investors. That gives them the authority to collect the debt with interest. If the owner does not settle the debt, the investor has the right to eventually foreclose on the property.
The tax sale comes as unemployment has surged in Maryland due to the pandemic. The city’s unemployment rate was 11.1% in May, the last month for which local data is available. Between March and April, the rate jumped from 4.9% to 11.6%.
More than 17,000 properties were listed as eligible for tax sale on the city’s tax certificate auction website for dollar amounts ranging from three-digit to six-digit sums. The properties spanned hundreds of neighborhoods, some with dozens of homes up for tax sale on the same block.
Burnett and advocates said they recognize that the city is facing a major budget deficit because of the economic consequences brought on by the outbreak. But the cost of moving forward with the tax sale is too high for many residents, they said.
“It’s our job to ensure that the most vulnerable families in our city are stable in a time of unprecedented instability,” the councilman said.
The Baltimore Tax Sale Work Group first implored Young in late May to delay the auction beyond July. The work group is a coalition of more than 40 groups, including Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service and community development Neighborhood Housing Services. The group has pushed for more than seven years to improve the city’s tax sale system.
“It’s our job to ensure that the most vulnerable families in our city are stable in a time of unprecedented instability,”
City Councilman Kristerfer Burnett
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The group asked Young to only proceed with the tax sale after the pandemic eases and people who lost their jobs are able to get back to work and pay their delinquent bills. Also a problem, the advocates said, is that the city’s Abel Wolman Municipal Building has been closed, and many people go there to ask questions about their bills and make payments in person.
“While the stay-at-home order remains in place in Baltimore City, most residents continue to face a reduction or elimination of their paychecks,” the group wrote in a May 29 letter to Young. “Although foreclosures and other court actions are on hold, balances on mortgages, rent payments and utility bills continue to accrue and will need to be paid. People will likely be dealing with a mountain of urgent bills when they are able to resume working again.”
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If the city does not want to delay the entire tax sale, the group recommended that officials remove the most vulnerable residents from the auction list. The city can establish criteria that would allow officials to pull homeowners off the list if they are senior citizens, low-income or disabled.
Another option the advocates proposed is for the city to allow people to enter payments plans to avoid the auction.
According to the group, the overwhelming number of people who seek help from Baltimore nonprofits to avoid losing their homes to tax sale are seniors. They have an average household income of around $17,000 a year and about 30% are disabled. Most have lived in their homes for 25 years or longer.
Odette Ramos, a longtime housing advocate and a Democratic nominee to serve North Baltimore on the City Council, said with so many Baltimore families facing extreme pressures during the pandemic, the city should not be contributing to even more.