Mayor Brandon Scott’s announcement earlier this month that he was removing over 2,500 homeowners from this year’s tax sale as so many try to dig out of the economic recession caused by the COVID-19 pandemic is a step in the right direction. But there is more to be done in the long-term to fix the long-standing inequities found in Baltimore City’s tax sale system, which helps tax sale investors and takes away from homeowners and community institutions. (“Under pressure from advocates, Baltimore to remove 2,500 owner-occupied homes from annual tax sale,” May 3).
We propose a better, more equitable tax sale system that would bring in more revenue to the city over time. This system would provide support to struggling Maryland homeowners by identify the underlying financial challenges facing the household and connecting them to appropriate resources available in the community. It would provide a completely separate path for vacant and unoccupied properties, in which they would be foreclosed quickly and be disposed of by a land bank that could work with developers and nonprofits to increase community investment.
For those who own their home, we need to identify best practices from around the country to inform strategies to support homeowners who are late or behind in paying their property tax bill. The most successful model we have seen is Rhode Island’s Madeline Walker Program. In it, the Rhode Island Housing state agency purchases the delinquent liens, and each lien is held for at least five years if the homeowner does not pay. During that time the agency reaches out to homeowners with letters, calls and in-person visits connecting residents to a range of services available to help them keep their homes. These services include providing payment plans, and connecting people to available pro bono legal counseling and foreclosure prevention counseling. They identify the underlying financial challenge facing the household and connect them to appropriate resources available in the community. After a 5-year period the agency may foreclose on the property if the liens remain unpaid.
In a similar fashion, we propose that Baltimore City create an office to provide targeted outreach to homeowners facing tax sale, providing payment plans and referral options. This approach provides support, rather than bills that escalate very quickly. The staff can also support the homeowners in completing the annual Homeowner Property Tax Credit application, so they do not face recurring challenges with their annual tax bills, and can save thousands of dollars in taxes.
We appreciate Mayor Scott’s focus on equity and acknowledge the need to support black legacy homeowners in Baltimore City. Now, he must work to create a new program that works for the City and its residents — without oppressing residents who are experiencing the greatest hardships.
The writer is director of program management for the Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service (MVLS).