By Dharna Noor

The Maryland House of Delegates unanimously passed the Water Taxpayer Protection Act on Tuesday. Sponsored by Delegate Mary Washington, the bill (HB 1409) would prohibit Baltimore City from selling properties at tax sales due to unpaid water bills.

Through annual tax sale, Baltimore auctions property liens to collect unpaid taxes and fees owed to the city. Under existing law, the city can seize properties due to unpaid water bills. This legislation aims to change that.

“In 2017, a total of 10,839 homes were sent to tax sale and legal advocates estimate that between 70-80% of tax sales involve water bills,” Rianna Eckel of environmental advocacy organization Food and Water Watch said in an email. “The main demographic impacted by tax sale is elderly African American women, many of whom are living on social security or disability.”

This past winter, Mayor Catherine Pugh ordered a halt to tax sales of city homes over unpaid water bills. “We don’t take anybody’s house for a water bill,” she said. ”Your house cannot be taken.”

But this bill goes further to protect not only homeowners, but also renters and church congregations. Eckel said that unlike Pugh’s promise, the bill “does not carve out exclusively homeowner occupied properties. In removing water from tax sale for all properties, it ensures that homeowners, renters, and churches will not have tax sales triggered by unaffordable or erroneous water bills.”

A study commissioned by Food and Water Watch and conducted by utility expert Roger Colton found that by 2019, water bills will be unaffordable for half of Baltimore’s residents. Thousands of Baltimore properties have been sold at tax sale due to unpaid water bills.

Some of these bills are erroneous: In a hearing last week, delegates heard testimony from Reverend Keith Bailey, who is fighting to win his church back after he received a $85,000 water bill that was sent to the wrong address.

Washington hopes that this bill will encourage Baltimore’s Department of Public Works to improve their billing system and accuracy. In an email, she said, “DPW will be forced to have better customer service, offer better and more transparent payment plans, and fix billing errors in a timely fashion. That is how they will collect their money!” We have contacted DPW for their response and are awaiting comment.

Advocates are also pushing for income-based water billing in Baltimore. In December, City Council President Bernard “Jack” Young told the Real News Network that the council will consider legislation in early 2018, but the legislation has yet to be introduced. We have reached out to President Young for comment.

The bill will now head to the Senate, where Eckel says it is expected to pass.

“The House Delegation unanimously supported this bill through its passage, so we believe that our Senators Robinson, Oaks, Conway, Nathan-Pulliam, McFadden and Ferguson will do the same, and step up to ensure this becomes law,” she said. “It would be entirely disappointing and incorrigible for this legislation to fail to pass, and we are dependent on their leadership to push for what our community urgently needs.”

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Dharna Noor is a staff writer at Earther, Gizmodo's climate vertical.