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Measure to halt tax sales of Baltimore homes for unpaid water bills passes as 2018 session ends

Evelyn Anderson, who has lived in her rowhouse on Ravenwood Avenue in East Baltimore for 37 years, last year faced having her house sold against her wishes in a tax sale because of an atypical water bill of $1300 that she was unable to pay.
Evelyn Anderson, who has lived in her rowhouse on Ravenwood Avenue in East Baltimore for 37 years, last year faced having her house sold against her wishes in a tax sale because of an atypical water bill of $1300 that she was unable to pay. (Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun)

A proposal to temporarily end a process that has allowed Baltimore homes to be seized and sold over unpaid water bills passed in the final 90 minutes of the Maryland General Assembly's 90-day session.

Baltimore delegates advanced a bill Monday afternoon that would prohibit city homes from facing tax sale next year because they carry liens for water bill debts.

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By 11 p.m., the measure had sailed through the House and Senate.

While Mayor Catherine Pugh last year said she would put a stop to such lien sales for owner-occupied homes, the legislation seeks to also cover rented homes.

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Its passage appeared in doubt into the legislative session's final days.

The House of Delegates had a unanimously passed a more aggressive proposal to reduce water-bill tax sales in early March, proposed by Del. Mary Washington, who is challenging state Sen. Joan Carter Conway for her seat in the General Assembly's upper chamber. But the bill languished in the Senate, which instead began moving a similar proposal from Sen. Barbara Robinson last week.

Delegates were careful to advance a version of the policy that they expect senators will accept. Controversial elements have included how long the tax sales are halted for and whether a moratorium should also cover commercial properties.

"I want to get something done," Del. Maggie McIntosh said.

Community advocates and church groups have called on the city to correct a process that last year sent 1,000 city homes as well as some churches to tax sale for water debt, The Baltimore Sun has reported. Critics have expressed concern about exorbitantly high bills that are sometimes erroneous.

Owner-occupied homes can go to tax sale if they have racked up at least $750 in unpaid water bills that are at least nine months late, while the limit for rented homes is $350. At tax sale, investors can buy that debt from the city — important revenue for cash-strapped City Hall — and can then foreclose if homeowners don't pay.

Nearly 1,000 Baltimore homeowners are facing tax sale this month for past due water bills amid concerns the city has limited their ability to challenge billing errors.

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