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Baltimore considers bills on new homelessness agency, protecting homes of older and disabled owners from tax sale

Democratic Councilman Ryan Dorsey’s bill would create an independent agency to administer a housing voucher program to help poor people, especially those who have been homeless, transition to permanent housing. Dorsey is shown in a council meeting April 6, 2020.
Democratic Councilman Ryan Dorsey’s bill would create an independent agency to administer a housing voucher program to help poor people, especially those who have been homeless, transition to permanent housing. Dorsey is shown in a council meeting April 6, 2020. (Kenneth K. Lam)

The Baltimore City Council is considering two bills aimed at improving residents’ housing security, with members saying the legislation is urgent as the coronavirus pandemic has thrust thousands of families into danger of losing their homes.

Democratic Councilman Ryan Dorsey’s bill, introduced at Monday’s council meeting, would create an independent agency to administer a housing voucher program to help poor people, especially those who have been homeless, transition to permanent housing.

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At the same time, Democratic Councilwoman Danielle McCray introduced legislation to keep the city from putting homes owned by people who are elderly, low-income or disabled in its annual tax sale.

The online auction is a moneymaker for Baltimore, typically generating around $20 million in a single day. It’s an opportunity for the city to collect debts owed for taxes 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 the owner’s principal residence.

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During the sale, the city sells liens to investors, giving them the authority to collect the debts with interest. If an owner does not settle the debt, the investor has the right to eventually foreclose on the property.

It’s a confusing and frightening process for those who must navigate it with their homes on the line.

McCray said that when she looked at this year’s list of at-risk properties, she saw many in her Northeast Baltimore district — addresses where she has campaigned and chatted with constituents, many of whom are older African American people and longtime homeowners.

She said this bill — made possible through legislation at the state level in 2019 — would exempt from the tax sale the homes of owners over age 65 or receiving federal disability benefits. Also protected would be households with a combined income of less than $40,000.

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“We need to use every tool we have available to protect our most vulnerable residents,” said McCray, adding that such measures were especially vital as families’ savings have been decimated by the pandemic’s economic fallout.

Democratic City Council President Brandon Scott said the legislation is an important step toward dismantling housing policies that have long hurt Black and brown communities.

“When you talk about passing on generational wealth, homeownership is how it happens,” he said.

Scott joined other council members at an afternoon news conference to discuss Dorsey’s voucher legislation.

It aims to use more than $1 million from the Affordable Housing Trust Fund each year to pay for a locally funded housing voucher program for those who make up to 30% of the area’s median income and are looking to transition from supportive housing. It would help roughly 100 families, with a goal of expanding the pot of money over time.

There would not be an established minimum rent payment, according to the legislation.

The program would be administered through a new “Office on Ending Homelessness.” This would be a revamped version of the Mayor’s Office of Homeless Services. Unlike the current office, it would operate as its own agency with a director subject to City Council confirmation — adding a level of accountability, Dorsey said.

Dorsey said that while housing insecurity is under a harsh spotlight now — residents and public officials have been sounding the alarm on a looming eviction crisis due to COVID-19 — the problem is nothing new in Baltimore.

“We lack an adequate pathway for people to move out of homelessness,” he said.

Advocates for the city’s homeless population say the program laid out in the legislation is a recognition that affordable housing is the swiftest solution to getting vulnerable people off the street.

“This issue isn’t going away,” Scott said. “The time is now to take concrete, permanent steps to reduce and ultimately end homelessness in Baltimore.”

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