Marylanders who fall behind on their water bills would get a year's reprieve from the threat of having their homes sold under legislation passed by the House of Delegates Saturday.
The 125-12 vote sends the measure to the state Senate.
The bill, sponsored by Del. Mary Washington, would apply statewide but have a significant impact in Baltimore. It would put a yearlong moratorium on the practice of selling people's homes when they fail to pay their water bills.
A related bill that also passed Saturday would launch a task force to study ways of enforcing water charges without seizing homes.
The problem of people losing their homes over unpaid water bills has been especially acute in Baltimore, where rate increases and billing errors have made affording the bills harder for low-income people.
The Baltimore Sun reported in February that the city sent more than 315 owner-occupied properties to tax sale over unpaid water bills last year.
"We have a disproportionate number of low-income people and seniors," said, a Baltimore Democrat. She added that if the bill passes the Senate, hundreds of Baltimore residents would avoid losing their homes over unpaid bills.
If enacted by the General Assembly and signed by Gov. Larry Hogan, the moratorium would take effect July 1.
Washington said the legislation passed over the opposition of the city's administration, which provides the water in Baltimore and surrounding counties. She said it doesn't benefit anyone when people lose their homes over unpaid water bills. She said other utilities manage to collect their bills without such sales.
"No other provider is able to place a first lien to enforce an unpaid bill," she said.
Washington said the water lien foreclosure process supersedes all other mortgages and liens on the property. She said that for many Baltimore residents, home equity represents a homeowner's only retirement savings.
The related bill, which passed unanimously, gives a task force made up of a wide range of stakeholders until Dec. 1 to report to the legislature on alternate ways to collect on delinquent bills.
In a statement, the advocacy group Food & Water Watch praised the House action.
"This moratorium gives the legislature time to further consider all of its options for addressing the growing water affordability crisis we face," said Mitch Jones, senior policy advocate for the organization.