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Maryland General Assembly passes legislation barring the seizure of Baltimore homes over water bills

The General Assembly gave final approval Wednesday to legislation that would ban the city of Baltimore from placing liens against homes, churches and other properties over unpaid water bills.

The House of Delegates voted 138-0 to pass legislation by Sen. Mary Washington, a Baltimore Democrat, that had already passed the Senate unanimously. A companion bill sponsored by Democratic Del. Nick Mosby, also of Baltimore, passed the House of Delegates 138-0 in February.

“The Water Taxpayer Protection Act will serve as a permanent safeguard for our most vulnerable residents to ensure that they do not lose their homes or places of worship to tax sale for the most basic necessity of our lives — water,” Washington said in a statement. “After three years of fighting to end the practice of selling homes for unaffordable and incorrect water bills, we have finally passed the legislation our city needs.”

The city currently can take owner-occupied homes to tax sale if the property has at least $750 in unpaid water bills that are nine months late. At the sale, investors can buy that debt from the city — important revenue for a cash-strapped City Hall — and can foreclose if homeowners don’t pay them.

Community advocates and church groups called on the city to end the process, which can send about 1,000 properties a year to tax sale for water debt, including some churches, The Baltimore Sun has reported.

Baltimore has struggled to bill accurately for water use for years. In 2012, the city had to refund about $9 million after overcharging residential and business customers. It switched to a new billing system, but problems continued. Last year, for example, hundreds of customers received bills of more than $50,000, which city officials attributed to a software upgrade.

The legislation now goes to the desk of Republican Gov. Larry Hogan for his consideration.

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