By Megan Sayles,
AFRO Business Writer,
Baltimore’s annual tax sale is set for May 15, and the last day to pay overdue bills is April 28.
To help at-risk homeowners, Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Services (MVLS) in collaboration with the Pro Bono Resource Center of Maryland and the Stop Oppressive Seizures (SOS) Fund is hosting three free tax sale prevention clinics.
The clinics will take place on April 3 at University of Maryland, Baltimore’s Community Engagement Center, April 15 at the Collington Square Recreation Center and April 19 at the C.C. Jackson Recreation Center. Residents may also request a remote meeting with MVLS if they cannot make the clinics or do not feel comfortable attending in-person.
Aside from meeting one-on-one with an attorney to discuss their options and the tax sale process, homeowners can also request ongoing assistance and representation from MVLS, which will then match them with a pro bono attorney. To sign up for a clinic, residents should call 443-703-3052.
“If you did receive a tax sale notice, I know it can be scary, but now is the time to act upon it and get that advice,” said Margaret Henn, deputy director of the Maryland Volunteers Lawyers Service. “The longer you wait, the more difficult it can be to get yourself out of tax sales.”
Baltimore subjects residents to the tax sale to collect unpaid property taxes and other citations due to the city.
Real property tax bills are issued on July 1 every year, and if residents do not pay them by October 1 they are marked as delinquent and subjected to interest and penalties. If they do not pay them by December 1, they are notified in February that their homes will be included in the tax sale.
For owner-occupied properties, residents are at risk of tax sale if they owe $750 in property taxes. But, for tangled title cases, in which a person lives in a home without their name on the deed, the threshold is just $250.
During the tax sale, Baltimore sells homeowners’ liens, or unpaid debt, to external bidders who then have the power to charge interest and extra fees on the outstanding balance.
“Unfortunately, I do think that some of the investors use this process to prey upon people who they don’t think will understand it or people who can’t come up with that lump sum for their taxes on the front end. They know that person’s going to go into tax sale, and they can rack up a lot of interest and fees before they’re able to pay,” said Henn.
And, she added, tax sales in the city are racially disparate.
“Because, historically, a lot of forces in housing – whether that be redlining, subprime lending or other things – have really divided up the city, it has put Black communities and homeowners at more of a risk of going into tax sale.”
Henn also said that in Baltimore, properties in neighborhoods that are largely populated by communities of color are often over assessed, forcing them to pay more in taxes than majority White neighborhoods.
When a bidder takes over the lien, homeowners who are listed on the deed have seven months to redeem the property before the foreclosure process begins. But, if they are non-owner-occupied properties, the foreclosure process can start in as quickly as four months.
Through their clinics, MVLS introduces at-risk homeowners to options for recourse, including the Homeowners’ Tax Credit, the Maryland Homeowners Assistance Fund, the Tax Sale Deferral Program and the Emergency Mortgage & Housing Assistance program in Baltimore.
MVLS has been operating for more than 40 years, servicing Marylanders who cannot afford an attorney with free legal services in areas of family, housing and consumer law, as well as with criminal record release, estate planning and income tax controversy management.
The organization has handled over 100,000 cases since its establishment.
“One of the things that I think is particularly insidious about the tax sale system is that it’s set up to sow a bit of confusion and take advantage of people who really don’t understand how it works and don’t have the resources to get themselves out, so having a lawyer is incredibly critical,” said Henn.
“You might have these rights, but you might not be able to exercise rights if you don’t know what they are or how to do that, so having a lawyer can make a huge difference.”
Megan Sayles is a Report for America Corps member.