By Margaret Henn

Mayor Brandon Scott pledged to cancel the looming tax sale scheduled for May 15 for owner-occupied properties at Monday’s State of the City address. While this is a critical lifeline for many homeowners in tax sale right now, it is a band-aid on a much larger issue that the mayor still has failed to fully address.

Early in this year’s legislative session, Mayor Scott announced his legislative priorities, which included completely reforming the pernicious tax sale system that wreaks havoc each year on the lives of thousands of Baltimore City residents. The mayor said reforms would include, “Establishing protections for owner-occupied properties and authorizing the city to enter into payment plans for all municipal debts” and “Allowing for properties with outstanding liens to be transferred to heirs, which will preserve generational wealth and allow heirs to access programs benefiting owner-occupied properties.”  

As an appointed member of the mayor’s Tax Sale Work Group, which had been meeting for a year to make recommendations on tax sale reform, and a public interest attorney who has represented homeowners in tax sale for 10 years, I was overjoyed to see the administration finally take tax sale reform seriously.

Members of our task force showed up in Annapolis to support legislation that the Baltimore City Delegation put forward in consultation with the mayor’s office. The legislation appeared to be moving towards passage when it was mysteriously halted days before the end of session, with no notice or explanation given to the Tax Sale Work Group. This all begs the question – just how committed is the mayor to tax sale reform?

Unpaid property taxes often affect the poorest homeowners in the most distressed neighborhoods and the resulting tax sales contribute to vacant and abandoned properties all over the city. Tax sales benefit a small group of private investors and have a disproportionate effect on Black homeowners and communities of color. Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service has maintained a partnership with the Pro Bono Resource Center of Maryland to conduct free, annual tax sale clinics aimed at helping homeowners avoid tax sale since 2014. In the past four years, volunteer attorneys have assisted hundreds of people at these workshops.

From the data we collected at previous tax sale clinics, roughly 72 percent of clients were seniors, 48 percent were disabled, 85 percent identified as Black and 72 percent reported a household income of $30,000 or less per year. Many of these homeowners survive on fixed incomes and struggle to pay their bills even before a tax sale happens. We also found that most homeowners live in multigenerational households where they provide shelter and support for their children and grandchildren. 

The property tax system has long had the inequitable outcome of stripping wealth from Black families and their communities. For these families, the predominant form of accumulated wealth that they have and can pass on to their families is the equity in their homes. The loss of these homes further exacerbates the existing wealth gap. 

In his State of the City speech, Mayor Scott said, “Make no mistake, we will not go back to the systems and practices that have historically failed our residents.” Yet, by pulling the tax sale reform bill at the 11th hour, Mayor Scott has done just the opposite. 

I can’t help but wonder – When will the mayor’s actions match his words?

Margaret Henn is deputy director of Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service, a nonprofit that mobilizes volunteers to provide free civil legal help each year to thousands of Marylanders who otherwise would be unable to afford representation.