An Update from the Legal Department Regarding Water Bills and the Tax Sale

By Christina Ochoa

Every year when spring arrives, the lawyers at St. Ambrose begin to receive many worried phone calls related to May’s tax sale in Baltimore City. A tax lien certificate can be sold for an unpaid water bill, unpaid property taxes, or an environmental control board citation. The attorneys here have represented clients in informal hearings about disputed water bills in order to help homeowners avoid the tax sale and straighten out their bill.

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Evelyn Anderson (left), a client who was facing a $1,300 water bill and Staff Attorney Christina Ochoa (right)

 

This year, things got a bit tricky, because in October of 2016 when the city switched from quarterly billing to monthly billing, they also eliminated the hearing process. As advocates it has been a very difficult transition because we have homeowners with bills into the thousands of dollars who would like to meaningfully dispute their bill with an impartial third party, but no longer have any mechanism to do so.

In response to these changes, St. Ambrose has become very involved with trying to initiate change and also work with the city in different individual cases. City Council President Bernard “Jack” Young and Councilman Robert Stokes called for an investigative hearing to be held where the Department of Public Works was to address several different issues, including missing bills, the informal conference, and erroneous bills. Advocates from other organizations as well as Baltimore City homeowners and business owners offered testimony as to the experience they have had with very high water bills and the general disorganization of the Department of Public Works. We called on DPW to reinstate a hearing process to protect homeowners from potentially losing their homes over an erroneous water bill. Charlotte Clarke, an attorney at St. Ambrose, went into detail about a specific property where the bill was over $44,000 and expressed the clear necessity of a hearing process to address this type of problem.

As of yet, no changes have been implemented. The tax sale occurs every year in May and the deadline to pay in order to avoid tax sale is April 28, 2017, so we are hoping for some meaningful resolution prior to that time. Through our tax sale workgroup, we have invited the Director of Public Works, Rudy Chow, and all the members of the city council to meet with us to discuss the city’s next steps. Hopefully our local government and our Department of Public Works will accept our group’s invite and come up with a solution that protects our residents. In the meantime, our team will remain committed to serving Baltimore residents in many different affordable housing related cases, including water bill disputes.

If you, or someone you know, is in need of free legal advice or assistance regarding a water bill or tax sale notice, please don’t hesitate to call us: 410-366-8550 x249 or email legal@stambros.org.

Or visit one of these upcoming clinics: 17917657_1408357049184886_3061156531151684134_o

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Baltimore Sun article leads to an unexpected outcome for a St. Ambrose client

A story published in the Baltimore Sun last week highlights the struggles and stress that plagues Baltimore City Homeowners who try to contest atypical water bills through the Baltimore City Department of Public Works. St. Ambrose attorneys are working with the DPW and with Baltimore residents to provide guidance in navigating the process of challenging water bills. Since October, however, the appeals process that had been in place to contest water bills has been dismantled and residents’only option is to fill out a complaint form.

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left to right: staff attorney Charlotte Clarke, St. Ambrose client Evelyn Anderson, staff attorney Christina Ochoa.  Baltimore Sun Video by Amy Davis.

The decision to eliminate the appeals process was not announced and poses a major threat to the housing security of many Baltimore City Homeowners who no longer have an opportunity to openly discuss erroneous bills. Our legal department works with clients every day who receive inexplicable water bills that range from a few hundred dollars to tens of thousands of dollars (Don’t believe us?). The elimination of the appeals process creates an especially grave situation as the tax sale deadline approaches and homeowners with unpaid water bills, even grossly inaccurate ones, run the risk of their home going into tax sale foreclosure.

Though city processes have a long way to go to become more equitable for residents, in the short term, much needed relief came for our client Ms. Anderson who was featured in the Baltimore Sun article and was facing a $1,300 water bill. An anonymous donor contacted St. Ambrose to arrange to pay the bill. In fact, eight people reached out to the agency to inquire about contributing to the bill and providing support for other clients who face the risk of losing their home due to water bills.

Staff attorney Christina Ochoa comments on the outpouring of support from the community, “in an industry where we’re so often the bearers of bad news, seeing people’s generosity was really uplifting.”

UPDATE: The Baltimore Sun published a follow up story here: Good Samaritans Step Up

Community Development Network Day in Annapolis

St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center is a member of Community Development Network of Maryland (CDN). CDN is a group that represents the interests of housing and community development organizations across the state. Although Maryland communities are diverse in so many ways, CDN unites community organizations on our shared goal of making our communities great places where people can thrive and have access to opportunities. The network gathered in Annapolis to meet with legislators and discuss some of the pending legislation this session that could improve and strengthen our communities.

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left to right: Director of Housing Counseling, Cara Stretch; Staff Attorney Christina Ochoa; Special Assistant to the Executive Director/Compliance Officer, Phillip Westry

We heard from law makers and had the opportunity to connect and share our on-the-ground experiences as community development professionals. By providing testimony and education about how Maryland laws impact our clients, we can be confident that our legislators have an educated perspective to make decisions that will strengthen communities and people. Below are a few of the highlights from our state legislators and leaders:

sam_0261House Appropriations Chairwoman Maggie McIntosh discussed the necessity of housing and addressing poverty if we are to expect strong education outcomes. Delegate McIntosh also emphasized the importance of passing the HOME act during this session to end discrimination in housing based on source of income only.

SAM_0254.JPGHouse Environment and Transportation Committee Chairman Kumar Barve commented that we can’t expect health outcomes or education outcomes to be achieved until we have a safe secure place to live. Many of the bills that impact the community development field are introduced in the House Environment and Transportation Committee.

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Land Use and Ethics Sub Committee Chair Steve Lafferty reiterated the importance of the work of housing counselors in Maryland for not only foreclosure prevention, but also to prepare Maryland families for the future through homeownership counseling and financial literacy.

SAM_0270.JPGMaryland Department of Housing and Community Development Secretary Kenneth Holt emphasized the bright future ahead for communities across the state and discussed initiatives to reach the state’s goal of eliminating homelessness.

If you’re interested in learning more about the Maryland government and the general assembly, check out Maryland Manual Online .

If you’re interested in learning more about the work of Community Development Network check out their website here. 

 

Baltimore City Water Rate Increase – Flushing Your Money Down the Drain?

By Charlotte Clarke, Senior Law Clerk

Earlier this summer, the Baltimore City Department of Public Works (DPW) announced a three year plan to increase water rates by almost 33% by 2019: 9.9% on October 11, 2016, 9.9% on July 1, 2017, and 9.9% on July 1, 2018. DPW Director Rudy S. Chow announced in late August that the final quarterly water bills will arrive for city consumers in September, and the new monthly billing system will start in October.

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The stated purpose of the increases is to cover the cost of various water and wastewater capital improvements, pursuant to the Director’s duty to recommend rates and charges so that water utilities are self-sustaining. On its website DPW explains that the average age of the City’s large water mains is 75 years, and renewal or replacement is required in many sections. There are also additional costs associated with the new BaltiMeters, which are promised to ensure accurate and timely meter readings and to overall be more customer-friendly.

Valid as some of these reasons may be, they all sound vaguely familiar. In July of 2013, rates went up by 15% to fund the new state of the art  BaltiMeters and billing system. The increase “ensured” faster repair and replacement of aging infrastructure. In 2014 the rates increased by 11% in order to replace water mains and provide more accurate and reliable water meters, and to improve the billing system. DPW has also publicly stated that in the last 19 years they completed almost 20 miles of water main replacement and rehab.

It is hard not to wonder how the increased funding from prior increases was spent, and how it is that so much more new funding is already required. Does it really cost 33% to create a more customer friendly system? Aren’t there alternative ways to make the system more customer-friendly?

In addition to begging these questions, the new rate structure itself is also puzzling. The old rate structure applied a minimum quarterly charge set by meter size, and it was assessed until the property was formally abandoned, plus a consumption charge that is calculated by cubic feet of water use (units). DPW explained that with the new rate structure they are eliminating the quarterly minimum charge. According to the Board of Estimates Agenda for July 27, 2016, the new water bill is determined by applying a variable rate to each customer’s consumption and adding a fixed rate component. It seems like the DPW is simply replacing the terms “minimum quarterly charge” with “fixed rate component,” because essentially they are identical terms that add a standard charge to everyone’s bill.

Apparently this new structure will encourage water conservation and ensure that bills are more accurate. However, the new structure applies the same rate per unit to all users and replaces the declining block rate which gives a lower rate per unit of water for those using very large volumes of water. How does this encourage water conservation? If those who are using a large consumption of water have a lower rate per unit, how does that encourage one to use less water?

So where did all the money go from the rate increases last year? The rate increases last year did not provide better customer service or more accurate billing. The Legal Services Department at St. Ambrose regularly receives calls from city residents similarly complaining about high water bills which DPW is unable to justify. The informal water conference process in place to dispute such bills was a non-judicial process in which evidence was scarce and there was no right to appeal the hearing officer’s determination. This process routinely left homeowners stuck with high bills and without any further way to contest them.

There is clearly a drastic need to reform the DPW and the billing system beyond simply turning quarterly bills into monthly bills. As of now it is unclear how the rate increases are necessary for reform, or what the full scope of the reform will be. According to the Board of Estimates Agenda for July 27, 2016, DPW began testing the new system and started training their employees on its use. However, an employee from St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center recently spoke with individuals in the DPW billing department and customer service department. She asked various questions about the specifics of the new increases and no one could provide any information whatsoever in regards to the increases.

We at St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center hope the reforms bring improved accuracy in billing, a meaningful appeals process to contest erroneous billing, and clarity as to how the rate increases help achieve these ends. Our organization deals with water billing regularly, as we provide services for low to moderate income families with housing needs. Many of our clients will be greatly impacted by this massive increase in their water bill because they are already struggling financially. Last year we represented a client for his water bill hearing. He hoped to adjust his water bill because his water meter was replaced five times and still continued to provide faulty readings of his family’s consumption. In the end, with the help of St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center, the bill was reduced by over two hundred dollars which made a huge difference for our client and his family. However, not all residents are so lucky in challenging extremely high water bills. The city often refuses to adjust their bills leaving struggling homeowners in risk of tax sale.

St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center will always provide help or guidance to those struggling with their water bills, but we also provide housing counseling services, affordable rental housing, homesharing services, and legal services relating to housing. Not only will this rate increase affect low to moderate income families, but also the organizations that are trying to help these families secure stable, affordable housing. We understand that sometimes rate increases may be necessary, but the families who bear the burden of these increases deserve transparency and results.

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Summer Learning at St. Ambrose

When summer rolls around, many college kids are eager to be free of commitments and head to the beach. These students, however, wanted to do something more meaningful with their time. Here are four students who are spending their summer interning with St. Ambrose.

Tasayeh Nickens,

Housing Development Intern

Tasayeh goes door-to-door in Belair-Edison, conducting surveys and collecting valuable opinions and impressions from community members about Belair-Edison.

Tasayeh heard about St. Ambrose from a friend who interned here last summer. “She was able to connect me with  Jill, who found me a position.”

DSC_5719She knew St. Ambrose would be the perfect fit. “I did my research about St. Ambrose and found what they really did interesting and very positive things for the community. I really like what they value; rehabbing homes, that’s something I’m really interested in. It really helps people who aren’t as able to purchase homes.”

Her favorite part about her internship is “being able to interact with the people in the community and hearing what they have to say about what’s going on in the city.”

During the school year, Tasayeh attends University of Alabama, where she studies social work. “I plan on becoming a licensed, clinical social worker, and I plan on working at a hospital doing medical social work. I also want to get my masters degree in social work and public health.”

Tasayeh feels that her experience at St. Ambrose is giving her a taste of the social work field “because they’re advocating for the people and the community.”

DSC_5719 (2)Courtney Watkins,

Law Clerk

Courtney works in the Legal Services Department and drafts deeds, conducts crucial legal research, and connects clients to attorneys.

Courtney plans to become a lawyer through her studies at University of Maryland  Francis King Carey School of Law. Because of her interest in housing law, a career development coach directed her to St. Ambrose. I don’t think I could have gotten the same experience elsewhere.”

“I really like that in public interest you have more hands-on work than say, at a big firm where you’re just doing legal research. I really like the experience that I get to be doing the work myself rather than just whispering in an attorney’s ear something that I found online.”

She’s trying to figure out what kind of lawyer she wants to be. “There are still so many avenues I want to explore. That’s why I’m really excited I’ve gotten to try out family law this summer.”

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Karly Horn,
Homesharing Intern

Karly personally follows up with each Homesharing client to ensure their satisfaction and is helping the department go paperless.

She recently spoke with someone who was first matched with their homesharer nearly 15 years ago. They now consider their homesharer “part of the family.” Karly’s favorite part about her work with St. Ambrose is “hearing what the program I’m part of is doing for people.”

At University of Richmond, Karly is majoring in leadership studies and minoring in history. An alumna suggested she intern at St. Ambrose, thinking it would provide her with the perfect experience. Karly structured her own interdisciplinary program for the summer, incorporating 4 internships. “I wanted to see how nonprofits are structured.”

Karly is still trying to determine her career path. “I want to help people, I just don’t know in what capacity yet.”

Maegan JamesSAM_0131

Resource Development Intern

Maegan collects stories from clients and staff alike to share for St. Ambrose’s upcoming 50th anniversary.

She connected to St. Ambrose through her summer fellowship, Walter Sondheim Jr. Maryland Nonprofit Leadership Program. “I grew up in Baltimore and have seen firsthand how housing issues can affect members of our community. St. Ambrose drew me in because they do so much to provide homes for people, making our city stronger as a whole.”

“I love that every day I hear firsthand stories from clients whose lives have been changed by the amazing people at St. Ambrose.”

Maegan hopes to serve in the Peace Corps after graduation. She knows that she wants to dedicate her life to public service, but is unsure what direction it will take her. “I know that whatever I do, I’ll always look back at this summer and think about the valuable skills I learned here at St. Ambrose.”

 

St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center Legal Program helps Homeowners in Foreclosure

By Joe Surkiewicz

Feb. 3, 2016

A version of this article appeared in the Daily Record

Low-income people struggling with the loss of their homes to foreclosure are not only scared and confused. They are also vulnerable to predators.

“It’s because foreclosure proceedings are in the public record,” said Christina Ochoa, a staff attorney in the Legal Services Program at the St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center. “They often are scammed.”

One client for example paid $1,500 to attorneys in Florida to help her with a loan modification procedure in Maryland—and had nothing to show for it.

“They were actual, real attorneys!” Ochoa said. “It was very scary. After we filed a complaint with the Florida bar, we managed to recover the money. The client believed anyone who said they could help her. That’s just one example of the kinds of predatory people out there soliciting desperate, scared homeowners.”

St. Ambrose’ Legal Services Program provides housing-related legal services geared toward the preservation of housing, mostly with issues such as foreclosure, landlord/tenant disputes, title issues, and  tax sales.

“We see ourselves as an open door for people at risk of losing their homes,” said program director Owen Jarvis. “We’re here to serve low-income people who can’t afford an attorney.”

With its small staff—currently, two full-time lawyers (and soon a third) and a paralegal—the program helps over 800 people a year.

Legal services include brief advice, negotiating and even litigation. “And it’s all free or very low cost,” said Jarvis, who recently took over management of the program. “Our staff is small, but despite our limited resources we still manage to help a lot of people.”

Not surprisingly, foreclosure is still the number one legal problem.

“But it’s rarely an isolated issue,” Jarvis noted. “A common call that we get is a request for help in getting answers from the bank and asking us how long they can stay in their homes. It can be very unclear what the real threat is.”

The lawyers explain to frightened callers where they stand in the long foreclosure process, and provide peace of mind that foreclosure proceedings are a long process, and that it’s unlikely that anyone will coming to change the locks on the doors in the immediate future.

“A conversation on the phone with us can be very valuable in explaining the options,” Jarvis said. “The information available online or in mailings can be difficult for a homeowner to relate to his or her specific matter.”

The legal program works closely with St. Ambrose’ team of housing counselors, who assist clients with preparing documents for loan modifications and coaching them on budgets to achieve a sustainable modification. If legal questions arise, they are passed to the lawyers.

In addition, the program employs a community liaison (currently part-time, but soon to become full-time). The liaison attends community meetings to make people aware that legal help is available.

“He lets us know what people want, so that we can tailor our services to their needs,” Jarvis added. “We’re building on the work of our previous managing attorney, Jeanette Cole, and the great work she did during her three years here. We hope to see the number of cases grow.”

While foreclosure is the biggest issue now, eventually that will shift.

“Other prevalent housing-related legal problems  include tax sales, landlord/tenant disputes, and issues faced by seniors such as  reverse mortgage defaults,” Jarvis said. “Baltimore City is our focus, although we also take calls from the surrounding counties.”

Take tax sales, where low-income homeowners often lose their homes over unpaid water bills. One client, herself a criminal defense lawyer, had her home mistakenly sold in a tax sale.

“But the city had miscalculated,” said Ochoa, the staff attorney. “Although she was a lawyer herself, she didn’t know the process. We got her the information she needed with a couple of phone calls. She was so confused, and we really helped her.”

Most of the program’s funding  has been  from the Maryland Legal Services Corp., the City of Baltimore, and the Department of Housing and Community Development.

“For clients, it’s a lot of small victories,” Jarvis said. “Often, they just can’t get answer from a bank. They make the phone calls, but they’re not answered or returned. We’re able to get them answers and help them.”

Jarvis foresees 2016 as a year of growth for the program. “We’re very dedicated to community outreach,” he said. “We  want local residents facing house-related legal issues who cannot afford an attorney to know that we are here and we can help.”

To contact the legal program, call (410) 366-8550 and ask for extension 249.

 

5 Reasons Why You Shouldn’t Add Someone to Your House Deed

St. Ambrose Legal Services has received an influx of calls from city residents who have been advised to add a relative’s name to their house deed. The common misconception is that adding someone to the deed will protect your home for your heirs. Below are five reasons why adding a loved one to your deed is not a smart way to protect your investment.

  1. Loss of control– Adding anyone’s name to your deed makes the other person a co-owner of the property. If you decide to sell the property and the co-owner does not agree, then you cannot sell.
  2. Inheritance by others– If your new co-owner dies before you do, then that person’s interest could pass on to someone else.  You could end up owning the house with one or more people.
  3. Exposure to creditors– Your house is exposed to the debts or your co-owner. Likewise, if the co-owner has tax issues or they are sued and lose, a lien could be placed on your property. A lien on your house could force it to be sold.
  4. Taxable gift – Putting someone’s name on your deed is legally a gift that could require a federal gift tax return.
  5. Medicaid Penalty– If you give someone an interest in your home, it could trigger ineligibility for Medicaid benefits in the event you need nursing home care.

Adding a name to your home is risky.  The safer alternative is to draft a Will that leaves your property to the person of your choice. Seniors in Baltimore City can get a free Will through the Bar Association of Baltimore City: 410-396-5277.

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