Put an End to Water Bill Tax Sales!

Mary’s Op-ed to the Baltimore Sun: Put an End to Water Bill Tax Sales

To the Baltimore Sun:

Over the last month, the Baltimore Sun’s Yvonne Wenger and Ian Duncan have delivered a thorough investigation of the city’s water bill and tax sale crisis, which has further revealed the enormity of the problems that our city faces. This past weekend, two stories were published, one of which identified the proposed solutions that the DPW has created. Water discount programs for low-income families and seniors are utilized by 20,000 but it is projected that 60,000 households could qualify for this service. Although this underutilized resource could provide aid to many, it brings us to much deeper questions regarding how Baltimore City treats its residents. Why is water too expensive for our working families? How can we let people be displaced by such a foundational service as water access? Duncan and Wenger recently reviewed some of the reform programs that have been implemented in Philadelphia and other cities around the U.S. These plans have enabled access to affordable water and have balanced the needs of the city and its residents. And these solutions can also work for Baltimore. We just need to take a pause.

I am encouraged with the passing of legislation that has created the “Task Force on Tax Sales,” which will examine the current system and create a plan for statewide reforms; however, water bill-only tax sales are still turning people out of their homes. Across the U.S., localities are grappling with water service costs that are increasingly unaffordable for more and more of their residents. This problem becomes especially complex in this period of widening income inequality and reliance on regressive water billing practices, which cause low-income households to pay a disproportionate amount of their income on water bills. One study found that water rates are already unaffordable for nearly 12 percent of households in the United States. The most recent announcement by the City that rates will increase again this summer is especially disturbing.

Unaffordable water bills can lead to evictions and tax foreclosures. In some cities, like Baltimore, homeowners can see their unpaid water bills added as tax liens that can allow a city to seize and sell a person’s home over unpaid water bills. Pushed by investors, laws have been created that have morphed tax sales into a predatory system of debt collection where $350 water bill delinquencies turn into $5500 debts or more.

 

The solution, as I and many of my colleagues, neighbors, and advocates have pushed for, is an immediate moratorium on water bill tax sales and establishment of a water affordability program as proposed by the bills I sponsored, HB 453 and HB 918 respectively. As it passed HB 453, would have ensured that from July 1, 2017, until July 1, 2018, Marylanders would not lose their homes to tax lien certificate sales solely to enforce a lien for an unpaid water, sewer, or sanitary system charges. In working with water access advocates and researchers, I sponsored HB 918 to establish statewide standards for water affordability programs. This bill would have required providers to adjust water bills for low-income households down to a level they could afford to pay. Although these measures did not pass due to pressures from the City and other local jurisdictions, the necessity of a moratorium has only been exacerbated.

Clearly, the City recognizes this need. The recent establishment of a fund to help residents with their water bills, as well as the reinvigorated effort to rectify the water bill errors that our stadiums and churches dispute demonstrate that our leaders in Baltimore hear our criticism. But is this enough?

 

We know the tax sale system is punitive for homeowners and that water rates are only set to rise in the future. We know that the discount programs are not optimally reaching the folks who need them.

While I applaud the establishment of a “fund to help people who get behind on their water bills,” it is irresponsible and deplorable of our Mayor, City Council, and DPW director Rudy Chow to continue to allow such a broken system to wreak havoc on the people who call Baltimore their home. I urge Baltimore leadership to halt water-only tax liens currently out for bid and conduct and audit of all tax certificate sales over the last three years that have been unfairly sold due to erroneous billing or administrative gaffes. Ending water only tax sales and establishing water affordability programs are sensible, fair, and progressive reforms that will help our community and improve Baltimore City as a whole.

Delegate Mary Washington

Proudly Representing Maryland’s 43rd District

 

To see the Baltimore Sun article, visit here.