It shouldn’t be controversial to think that absolutely no one deserves to lose their home or be evicted due to an unpaid water bill. Yet, Maryland lawmakers are trying to return to a practice that disproportionately impacts and displaces Black people, who are already underrepresented as homeowners and disproportionately impacted as renters.

Prior to 2019, thousands of Baltimore residents have faced tax sales due to unpaid water bills. This disgraceful practice often displaced elderly Black women on fixed incomes and led to an overall decrease in homeownership in Baltimore. In 2019, the Maryland General Assembly voted to protect all households and places of worship in Baltimore from tax sales due to unpaid and unaffordable water bills. This legislation brought Baltimore in line with many water systems in the state; for example, Maryland’s largest water system, the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, cannot use tax sales to collect any unpaid water bills.

Now, proposed legislation in Annapolis would gut these vital protections and make it easier for renters and other low-income households in Baltimore to lose their homes because of water debt. The legislation, HB 243, was amended to remove critical safeguards for non-owner-occupied residential properties that protect them from city tax sale foreclosures for unpaid water debt of more than $350. If the proposed bill is enacted, properties occupied by tenants would lose city protections from tax sales. Passing this legislation as currently written singles out renters.

Not only that, the measure goes against Gov. Wes Moore’s priority of empowering renters and limiting evictions. Many renters do not pay their water bills directly to the city’s Department of Public Works. Instead, they pay for water with their rent to their landlords. Very few renters are ever added to water bill accounts, which would allow them to dispute bills and access other relief. The billing system ties accounts to the property owner because unpaid water bills become liens on the property. As a result, HB 243 means that renters could face eviction over water bills even if they are up to date on their bills, solely due to the negligence of their landlords. If their home goes through tax sale foreclosure, renters without active leases receive only 30 days notice before eviction.

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This bill would also disproportionately harm Black residents and low-income households. Black homeowners disproportionately lose their homes to tax foreclosure, and delinquent property tax enforcement systems unfairly burden communities of color. The Baltimore tax sale system places “the greatest burden upon those who can least afford it” — including households that make less than $30,000 annually.

There are much higher rates of homes landing in tax sales in Baltimore’s mostly Black neighborhoods. Since 2016, 46% of all Southwest Baltimore buildings have entered into tax sale, and for all Sandtown-Winchester buildings, that percentage stands at 42%. The Banner identified homes that changed hands through the tax sale since 2016, and found that each of those homes was in a mostly Black neighborhood.

Additionally, the legislation removes protections for people with what is known as a “tangled title” on their property. Many low-income residents who inherit their property do not have the legal resources to go through the probate process. As such, these heirs would be considered to be living in “non-owner-occupied housing” as it relates to HB 243 and could be dispossessed of their family home. The Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance found more than 3,000 of these properties just in Baltimore. About 20% of those properties in tax sale are tangled-title properties with tax and other property-related debt preventing their transfer, based on tax sale prevention clinics the Pro Bono Resource Center and the Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service hosted.

This legislation would reverse the incredible progress Baltimore has made on tax sale foreclosures. By removing protections for non-owner-occupied residential properties, it could displace residents and lead to housing instability for thousands. That is why environmental justice and racial justice organizations, labor unions, and economic justice advocates signed a letter opposing HB 243 as amended. While we understand that communities such as Baltimore need to come up with new revenue sources, renters and low-income residents must not be the ones targeted.

David Wheaton ( is the economic justice policy fellow at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Mary Grant ( is the campaign director for Public Water for All at Food & Water Watch. Both are members of the Baltimore Right to Water Coalition.

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