The Maryland General Assembly just passed a monumental bill for Baltimore City that permanently protects homeowners, renters, and places of worship from losing their properties over unaffordable or incorrect water bills in Baltimore City. It’s a critical victory for water justice that we need to celebrate!
Once enacted, the Water Taxpayer Protection Act (SB 096, HB161), which was sponsored by Senator Mary Washington and Delegate Nick Mosby, will stop the city from sending residential properties and places of worship to tax sale if the owner has an unpaid water bill -- a practice that the city has been using when people owe as little as $350.
It was passed unanimously through both chambers of the state legislature after years of fighting to end the cruel practice.
As water rates continue to skyrocket in Baltimore City, this practice was becoming more and more common. The UN considers water service to be affordable if the bills are less than 3% of a household’s income. Right now, more than one-third of families in Baltimore receive bills more than 3% of their household income for water. In order to keep up with massive infrastructure demands, water rates have doubled since 2012.
There are also issues with incorrect water bills. Many families receive erroneous, multi-thousand-dollar bills for one month of water usage. When families receive these incorrect bills, there is no formal process for them to contest the error. The Department of Public Works eliminated even their insufficient in-person conference hearings when they switched to monthly billing in October 2016.
The worst part: it’s not just a few families who fall victim to this inhumane process. Currently, there are over 25,000 properties on the tax sale list. Legal experts estimate that between 70-80% of properties on the tax sale list have water bills as a piece of their outstanding debt. Water is a human right. You can’t do anything without it. It’s unjust for a city to take a person’s home because they can’t afford this necessity, or received an erroneous bill.
This battle for water affordability justice took years
In 2017, then-Delegate Mary Washington tried to pass a bill that would permanently stop Baltimore City from sending homes and other property to tax sale solely to collect overdue water bills. The bill was stripped down to a one-year moratorium and overwhelmingly passed in the State House of Delegates but died in committee in the State Senate.
Between the 2017 and 2018 legislative sessions, a large coalition of organizations and churches formed to support Washington’s idea, and the Baltimore Sun editorialized in favor of her proposal. In December 2017, Mayor Catherine Pugh declared that no homeowner-occupied properties with solely outstanding water bills would be sent to the 2018 tax sale.
As a result of the moratorium, some 3,500 homes were protected from tax sale in 2018 alone. That is 3,500 families and seniors who did not experience the threat of losing their homes because of incorrect and unaffordable water bills.
Pugh administration seeks to limit legislation that would block water-bill tax sales in Baltimore https://t.co/VejsbXACxq
— Luke Broadwater (@lukebroadwater) February 1, 2019
This was a great victory, but we knew that Baltimore could do better. We needed to protect renters and places of worship. And we needed to make the protections permanent and stronger. We needed to make sure that water bills weren’t “swept in” with other outstanding liens for collection at tax sale. Under the mayor’s moratorium, if a homeowner owed $11 in outstanding property tax and $740 in water bills, they’d still be sent to the tax sale to collect both the taxes and the water bills. Because the water bills were swept in with the taxes, this homeowner exceeded the $750 threshold that triggers tax sale.
In 2018, with the broad coalition support, we returned to Annapolis ready to end this practice once and for all. Delegate Mary Washington introduced the Water Taxpayer Protection Act of 2018, a bill to permanently remove water bills from tax sale. This legislation passed unanimously in the House. But once again, it died in the Senate at the hands of former Senator Joan Carter Conway and lobbyists for Mayor Pugh. Instead, they passed a compromised one-year moratorium on tax sales of homeowner-occupied and rental properties with exclusively outstanding water bills.
This was a step in the right direction, but it was still not the solution that Baltimore needed.
A Permanent Solution for Baltimore’s Water
In 2018, then-Delegate Mary Washington ousted State Senator Joan Carter Conway and claimed her state senate seat. Building off the previous momentum, the new Senator Washington teamed up with Delegate Nick Mosby to introduce the Water Taxpayer Protection Act of 2019. This legislation permanently removes water bills from the tax sale equation for residential properties as well as places of worship from the 2020 tax sale onward.
Councilwoman Shannon Sneed led the charge to pass a resolution through the Baltimore City Council, calling for the General Assembly to pass the Water Taxpayer Protection Act. This resolution passed unanimously in the Council.
Due to the years of momentum building, The Water Taxpayer Protection Act was cosponsored by every single Delegate and Senator representing Baltimore City. It was supported by an incredible list of advocacy organizations working in Baltimore.
The only obstacle in the way was the incredible pressure from Mayor Pugh’s office and her team of lobbyists working to dramatically weaken the bill.
Thanks to the leadership of Senator Mary Washington and Delegate Nick Mosby, the bill passed unanimously in both the House and the Senate. Now, the bill moves to the desk of Governor Hogan for his signature.
A lasting victory for Baltimoreans struggling to pay water bills
This incredible victory. It speaks to the power of perseverance and tenacity of our community to see the effort through to final passage.
This is a victory for members of our community who shared their stories and spoke out against this injustice.
It’s a victory for Ms. Brown, who found out she was up for tax sale when her neighbor showed her her home listed in the newspaper for a $1,500 water bill she couldn’t afford to pay on her disability check. (Read her story here.)
It’s a victory for Reverend Bailey, who nearly lost his church for an incorrect $85,000 water bill that was sent to a PO box the church never had.
It’s a victory for Ms. Armstrong, who was placed on the tax sale twice for incorrect water bills over $1,000 that she couldn’t get the Department of Public Works to resolve.
It’s a victory for Reverend Gwynn, who wound up paying the Department of Public Works multiple thousands of dollars to save his church from tax sale, even after they acknowledged the bill he was sent was incorrect.
It’s a victory for, and because, of all of the impacted community members who moved mountains to save their properties, and still found the time to speak out and ensure their voices were heard in Annapolis.
It wouldn’t have been possible without the tenacity and leadership of Senator Mary Washington, who brought us into this work and fought for justice for our city’s most vulnerable resident for four years. Her commitment to not just applying a bandaid to this broken system, but working to fundamentally fix it has finally paid off, and paid off big.
The Water Taxpayer Protection Act may seem like a “no-brainer,” but in reality, getting across the finish line was an uphill battle. Thanks to the commitment of Senator Washington, Delegate Mosby, members of the Baltimore City Delegation, and every member of our coalition, we’re able to proudly say: nobody will lose their home in Baltimore City over unaffordable or incorrect water bills ever again.
Thank you to our organizational partners in this work who helped make this victory possible: 1199SEIU, AARP Maryland, Communities United, Homeless Persons Representation Project, Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance of Baltimore, Jews United for Justice, Maryland Consumer Rights Coalition, Maryland Environmental Health Network, Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service, NAACP Maryland State Conference, National Lawyers Guild — Maryland Chapter, Neighborhood Housing Services, Pro Bono Resource Center of Maryland, Progressive Maryland, Public Justice Center, Sierra Club Greater Baltimore, United Workers, and University of Baltimore Community Law Clinic — Right to Water Project.