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Help for homeowners facing tax sales

The Tax Sale Work Group led by Community Law Center and Neighborhood Housing Services of Baltimore is celebrating a great victory in its policy and advocacy work ("Legislative action leads to large reduction in Baltimore homeowners facing tax sale," March 28).

The efforts to raise the threshold for homeowners in tax sale from as little as $250 to $750, along with extensive outreach efforts, led to a 40 percent reduction — from 9,411 to 5,617 — in the number of homeowners in tax sale. Last year, 2,264, or nearly one-third of the homeowners on the list, had liens of less than $750.

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Not only does this victory help homeowners, it also takes an important step toward stabilizing communities by preventing the vacancy and abandonment that often results from the tax sale system.

This victory required numerous partners working in tandem: funding from the Abell Foundation, the hard work and dedication of nonprofits like the Baltimore Homeownership Preservation Coalition, Pro Bono Resource Center, the Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service, Maryland Legal Aid, elected representatives who shepherd legislative reforms and city agency employees who quickly recognized the issue and worked with all the partners of the Tax Sale Work Group to make this progress possible.

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Reflecting on its efforts, the Tax Sale Work Group began modestly as a combined study group of community development and homeowner advocates. Inspiration to form the group came from Community Law Center's representation of six community associations against the owner of numerous vacant, nuisance properties, many acquired through tax sale foreclosure. Through the Baltimore Homeownership Preservation Coalition, Community Law Center connected with homeowner advocates whose clients faced astronomical bills or loss of their homes as a result of tax sale. Informed by the work group, members began initiatives — tax sale clinics, education and training, a low-interest loan program, data analysis and collection, tax credit promotion, and leading policy reforms. As a result, the Tax Sale Work Group is being recognized nationally as a model in its efforts around tax sale.

Every effort starts and ends with the people and places negatively affected by the current tax sale system. The homeowners, a disproportionate number of whom are living below the poverty line and are African-American, face extremely difficult choices. Their incomes do not allow them to both meet their basic needs like water, food, and medicine, and pay astronomical bill to save the house that has been in their family for generations Many of communities suffer from a disproportionate number of vacant properties cycling through a speculative system that sink further and further underwater and farther out of reach for community developers. The result is the numerous ill effects of abandonment: economic decline, environmental hazards, and negative health outcomes. The city exchanges the short-term single large pay day in May's tax sale for extraordinary long-term costs that drain the city's coffers by privatizing the collections of municipal debt. This system allows irresponsible forms of property ownership which cost the city enormous sums in cleaning, boarding, and health and public safety costs.

While much work remains, by building on the 40 percent decline of homeowners in tax sale, the Tax Sale Work Group envisions achieving systemic reform. Baltimore City's communities deserve a system in which no homeowner loses his or her house and all its equity as a result of the privatized and byzantine tax collection process; where vacant, nuisance properties are swiftly put into productive re-use; and where the city collects sorely needed revenue to fund city services.

That is why we are proud to partner with the Baltimore City Department of Finance as one of three national awardees for Center for Community Progress' Technical Assistance Scholarship Program. The Tax Sale Work Group looks forward to working with the national experts on tax sale and turning their recommendations into reality.

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Robin Jacobs, Baltimore

The writer is director of strategic legal services projects for the Community Law Center.

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