Homes classified by the city as owner-occupied will be removed from Baltimore’s tax sale again this year, Mayor Brandon Scott announced in his State of the City address this week.
It’s the third year in a row that homeowners have been removed from the tax sale, the city’s annual process of recouping unpaid property taxes by auctioning off liens to investors, who can charge homeowners steep interest and eventually foreclose on their homes if debts remain unpaid.
“Baltimore’s renaissance is at hand, but it cannot be a renaissance that displaces those who have been here through thick and thin,” the Democrat said in his address.
Cirilo Manego, a spokesman for the mayor, said he could not yet provide the exact number of homes that will be impacted, but estimated it will be about 2,500 properties.
Councilwoman Odette Ramos said she was grateful for Scott’s decision, noting that most of the residents in her North Baltimore district who will be impacted are on fixed incomes, have experienced financial strains or simply did not know about ways to reduce their tax burden, such as the Homeowner’s Property Tax Credit or the Homeowner’s Assistance Fund.
She said she will reach out to them and other homeowners across Baltimore to ensure they can take advantage of these programs, as well as a proposed payment plan system for taxes in arrears that she introduced before the council with Scott’s support on Monday.
“No one should lose their homes because they are unable to pay the taxes,” Ramos said.
Scott’s office determined that he has the authority to remove owner-occupied homes from the tax sale, thanks to a law introduced by Del. Chanel Branch last year that states the mayor may do so with the support of a city spending board. The board, which is stacked in favor of the mayor, is expected to approve his decision.
In previous years, Scott removed owner-occupied homes under expanded authority granted to him by a citywide state of emergency tied to the pandemic.
The announcement came with two weeks left for homeowners to pay outstanding taxes to avoid tax sale. Last year, Scott’s announcement that all owner-occupied homes would be removed came just days before the payment deadline. The year before, the announcement was made days after the payment deadline, and was applied only to owners of properties that were in tax sale for the first time.
Advocates welcomed the decision, but said the announcement still cut it too close to the deadline.
“The level of stress that homeowners and housing advocates experience during this time is just not acceptable,” said Nneka N’namdi, founder of the community group Fight Blight Bmore. She added that the city should make an effort to connect struggling homeowners with resources that are available to them through the state and city to help cover or defer property tax bills. “Yes, [the announcement] is a good thing, but it’s simply not enough.”
Advocates also criticized the city for missing an opportunity during the Maryland legislative session to reform the tax sale system more broadly.
In early April, a bill proposed by the city that would have enabled it to undertake a sweeping overhaul of the system died in the state legislature after city officials raised concerns about the cost of the legislation. Ramos said she is confident the bill will receive approval next session.
Without this broader change to the system, residents who may not have full title to their properties remain vulnerable to tax sale. Attorneys representing people facing tax sale say that many of their clients are living in homes classified as “non-owner occupied,” often because the home was passed down from a deceased family member but heirs failed to complete the complicated process of updating the deed.
An analysis by The Baltimore Banner found that many homes classified as non-owner occupied may in fact be occupied by an owner, rather than owned by a landlord or investor. The Banner identified roughly 10,000 homes liened since 2016 where the address of the property owner (according to state records) matched that of a property that had a lien put on it. But the majority of those homes — 6,313 — were classified by the state as non-owner occupied, while just 3,895 of those homes were listed as owner occupied.
“It’s hard to be rejoicing over here,” said John Kern, who manages the Stop Oppressive Seizures Fund, which provides assistance to people facing tax sale. “It should have some effect. ... but the larger thing is that there are so many misclassified properties, it’s just not going to reach a lot of the folks that we’re dealing with.”
Baltimore Banner journalist Nick Thieme contributed to this article.