Background: How Is This Even Legal?
In Baltimore City, state law allows for homeowner-occupied properties to be added to the tax sale list for as little as $750 in outstanding water bills. For non-homeowner-occupied properties, such as rental properties or churches, it’s as little as $350. When properties are added to the tax sale list, the owner has until the tax sale date to pay off their outstanding bills. If they don’t, property liens are sold to investors. In order to avoid foreclosure, owners must pay investors the price of the original liens, plus interest, court costs, legal fees, and postage.
Water bills in Baltimore City have more than quadrupled in the last 17 years, and more than a third of Baltimoreans are unable to afford their water bill. In 2017, up to an estimated 8,600 homes and churches were sold at tax sale at least in part because of unaffordable or incorrect water bills.
Delegate Mary Washington’s Water Taxpayer Protection Act (HB 1409) is legislation to remove water bills from tax sale in Baltimore. It passed unanimously in the House of Delegates on March 6th. Now, the Senate needs to pass this bill to ensure nobody loses their home or church for an unaffordable or incorrect water bill.
Ms. Brown, a lifelong Baltimore resident whose home was added to the tax sale list in 2017 for water bills she can’t afford, shared her story with us in the hopes of urging Baltimoreans to take action and ensure the Water Taxpayer Protection Act is passed this legislative session. Sign the petition to the Baltimore City Delegation to stop this!
My Disability Check Isn’t Enough To Afford Water
It all started last year when my neighbor came over, asking if my house was up for sale. I told her no, that must be a mistake. She had the paper in her hand, flipped to the section with the list of properties that were up for tax sale and there it was. The home I have lived in for nearly 30 years was listed for sale at $1,532.50, the amount I owed on my water bill.
Years ago, I was injured at my job with the Baltimore City Public Schools, and was forced to leave my job with a pinched nerve and a herniated disk. Now, I live on my disability check, which is less than a thousand dollars a month. As my water bills have skyrocketed, I just haven’t been able to keep up. Between my mortgage, my car payments, my electric bills, my water bills and buying groceries, my budgeting has become a nightmare. Costs are going up, but the amount I get from disability certainly isn’t. I want to pay all my bills, I am trying to pay all my bills but my fixed income makes that nearly impossible.
And there it was: the home I have lived in for nearly 30 years was listed for sale at $1,532.50, the amount I owed on my water bill.
Finally, I received my tax sale notice letter. It said: “The real property taxes and/or other municipal liens on the above property in your name, are delinquent in the amount of $1,532.50. … The liens on your property are scheduled for the May 15th, 2017 web-based Tax Sale auction.”
When I called the Department of Finance, they gave me the runaround for two days. Each person I talked to would say I needed to talk to someone else, and I couldn’t get any answers from them.
I went downtown to try and solve this. I waited for two and a half hours to try and speak to someone, and apply for any discount programs I could to save money on my water bill. When I finally was called up, the woman told me it was too late to process any applications, and that I should come back the next day. I went back again, waited three hours.
$400 For A Water Bill -- When I Live On Less Than $1,000 A Month
The woman told me that in order to save my house, I would have to pay $98 a month as a catch-up payment, and an additional $298 a month for that month’s bill. When I added it up and realized that they were asking for $400 a month, I couldn’t believe it. There’s no way to squeeze $400 for a water bill while living on less than $1,000 a month.
I told the woman I couldn’t afford to pay nearly half my income for my water bill. She said to me, “Ms. Brown, I don’t want to stress you out, but it’s not our problem if you can’t afford your bill. You’re overdue.”
But my water bill keeps climbing. I am now 64, I won’t be eligible for the senior citizen discount program until I am 65. The only assistance I could get from the Department of Public Works is a hardship credit on my bill, which saves me $10 a month. It’s something, but it’s certainly not enough.
I told the woman I couldn’t afford to pay nearly half my income for my water bill.
I still owe the Department of Public Works, and I worry I can face tax sale again in the future. I am trying to work out a payment plan with them, and take any preventative measures.
Baltimore: Stop Selling Homes and Churches To Pay for Water!
I want to share my story because there are other people in our city who need the same help that I do. Ultimately, I had to turn to my family for help, and my brother’s generosity to pay my water bills saved my home. I was lucky he was able to afford this, and I know many people in similar situations don’t have the same possibility for help. This has been beyond overwhelming for me. Water bills in Baltimore have become so unreasonable and the fact that I almost lost my home because I couldn’t afford to pay my water bill is just wrong.
The House of Delegates has passed The Water Taxpayer Protection Act (HB 1409), legislation that would remove water bills from the tax sale process. I know I am not the only one who would benefit from this bill becoming law.