Frederick Williams had an eye on the fixer-upper on Reisterstown Road in West Baltimore, a house within walking distance of Druid Hill Park that boasted views of downtown Baltimore.

So in 2021, Williams said, he wrote the city a check for more than $13,000 to pay off the outstanding property taxes as part of his purchase of the home.

What he got was an almost three-year legal odyssey that nearly cost him the house. He said the city did not cash his check for almost one month — and then mistakenly sold the property at tax sale.

Proponents of the tax sale describe it as an effective tool for the city to eradicate some of its vacant and abandoned housing stock and recover unpaid property taxes — which are crucial sources of revenue for cash-strapped cities like Baltimore. But Williams’ case highlights what critics of the system say is an overly complicated and predatory process that allows homeowners to sometimes lose their properties over relatively small amounts of unpaid taxes or mistakes beyond their control.

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Though an attorney for the city acknowledged that the government “messed up big time,” Williams has had to deal with the fallout. A Maryland appeals court last month upheld a decision to void the tax sale, but it’s possible that might not be the end of the saga.

“I just happened to have a little bit of money, and I took advantage of it,” Williams said. “But the system took advantage of me.”

A 2023 Baltimore Banner investigation into tax sales found that some 41,000 properties — most of which are in Black neighborhoods — have cycled through the system since 2016, resulting in hefty profits for lien holders and excessive burdens for homeowners. This year’s tax sale is scheduled for May 20.

Homes with outstanding tax liens can be put on the list for tax sale, which allows investors to purchase the debt if it exceeds a certain dollar amount. If people fail to “redeem,” or pay off, the liens with fees and interest ahead of that date, investors can initiate foreclosure proceedings within a few months.

Mayor Brandon Scott has removed owner-occupied households from the tax sale list every year since his term began in 2021. He said last week he plans to make the same carve-out for 2024.

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In February, a coalition of advocates wrote the mayor saying those with everything to lose are worrying themselves sick. Williams’ case, much of which was detailed in court documents, is an example of what can go wrong.

Houses in West Baltimore, near the home of Frederick Williams. (Eric Thompson/for The Baltimore Banner)

On May 17, 2021, the same day that the city finally cashed his check, Caret Bay LLC bought the home with a winning bid of $11,300 and later assigned the tax sale certificate to Cicada Investments LLC.

Next, Cicada Investments moved in Baltimore Circuit Court to foreclose on the property.

Williams, who lives in the house, said he was at home when a woman came to his door and told him that she was there to do an inspection for an auction. “I wasn’t going nowhere,” he recalled thinking. “I was going to stand and fight. They’re going to have to put me out.”

By that time, Williams said, he was already working with Donna Bernstein, a staff attorney at Maryland Legal Aid, a private, nonprofit law firm that provides free legal services to low-income people. She was helping him obtain title to the home.

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Maryland Legal Aid, a private, nonprofit law firm that provides free legal services statewide to low-income people, helped Frederick Williams after he bought a home in West Baltimore. (Eric Thompson/for The Baltimore Banner)

Maryland Legal Aid reached out to the company and the city to figure out how much Williams needed to pay to redeem the property. That’s when the city realized what had happened and reported it would take action to void the tax sale.

Cicada Investments wrote in an email to Bernstein that “the tax sale that was held for this property will be voided” because the city “will be filing a Motion to Void the sale.”

The city, though, did not immediately act, according to court documents. Meanwhile, 10 days later, Cicada Investments continued with its effort to foreclose on the home — and eventually succeeded.

“He never got any notice,” Bernstein said, “because his name is not on the house.”

In 2022, Baltimore Circuit Judge Martin H. Schreiber II vacated the foreclosure and declared the tax sale certificate void. The Appellate Court of Maryland upheld the ruling and found that the actions of the city and company were “more than enough to constitute constructive fraud under Maryland law.”

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Frederick Williams talks about the mistaken sale of his house at tax sale and the subsequent legal battle during an interview at the Baltimore office of Maryland Legal Aid. (Eric Thompson/for The Baltimore Banner)

During oral argument, Mike Redmond, chief solicitor and director of the Appellate Practice Group at the Baltimore City Law Department, said, “There is absolutely no way to sugarcoat this: The city messed up big time. Multiple times.”

Though Redmond said it was not an excuse, he explained that the issues stemmed from a lack of staffing during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“That’s an explanation,” Appellate Judge Stuart R. Berger said. “But it’s a sorry excuse.”

“It’s really not an excuse whatsoever,” Redmond said. “But the fact of the matter is, there is nothing in Maryland law that requires Mr. Williams to lose his home because of the city’s mistakes.”

A spokesperson for the mayor did not respond to a request for comment about Williams’ case.

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Aaron Naiman, Cicada Investments’ attorney, said in court that his client did everything correct and disputed that there was any fraud in the court proceedings.

Naiman said there was no malicious attempt to take the house. His office, he said, got its wires crossed.

A sign marks the Greater Mondawmin area in West Baltimore. (Eric Thompson/for The Baltimore Banner)

“We were not out there to take Mr. Williams’ property knowing we didn’t have the right to it,” Naiman said.

Cicada Investments has asked the Maryland Supreme Court to hear the case. The justices do not have to take up the appeal.

“The process is still pending,” Naiman said in an interview. “We’re not going to have much comment while it’s being litigated.”

Bernstein said businesses generally have a clear financial incentive to keep the tax sale system. They stand to receive returns on investments, she said, and can obtain the rights to rehabilitate a home well below the market rate.

“The law is not meant to have low-income people lose their houses,” she said. “For most of our clients’ houses, that’s, first of all, their only source of equity. Also, it’s the generational property. A lot of our clients will pass their properties down to their heirs.”

Williams said he experienced a lot of ups and downs with the case. The system, he said, needs to change.

Without the help of Maryland Legal Aid, Williams said, he “would’ve got pushed out the door.” He said he discovered that it’s important to have an attorney who can both provide information and get other people to listen.

“I think by me going through all of this, I learned a lot. I think I can do it the next time a little bit better,” he said. “I guess like they always say: buyer beware.”

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