Baltimore to Remove Owner-occupied Homes from Annual Tax Sale

On May 3, 2021, Mayor Scott announced that many owner occupants on this year’s tax sale list will be removed from tax sale. This news was a huge relief to MVLS clients, who faced losing their homes during the pandemic. We applaud this announcement from the Scott administration and remain dedicated to continue to working with them on long term systemic reform to tax sale.Baltimore Row Homes

MVLS has been part of a coalition of organizations advocating for reforms to Baltimore’s tax sale system and the terrible impact tax sale has on homeowners of limited means for many years. MVLS and other advocates shared a Tax Sale White Paper with the Mayor’s Office, Finance Department and other City officials. The White Paper recommends a new tax sale system with enhanced protections for vulnerable homeowners.

Through our advocacy, the Stop Oppressive Seizures Fund was created. A program created by Nneka N’namdi of Fight Blight Bmore and John Kern, MVLS’ Advanced Planning Project Coordinator, that distributes money to homeowners at risk of losing their properties through tax sale.

The Baltimore City Bureau of Revenue Collections will provide help to homeowners who have liens on their homes. For assistance, call (410) 396-3556.

November 2021 Volunteer of the Month

 

We’re proud to recognize Christopher Rahl as the November 2021 Volunteer of the Month. Read on to learn more about Chris and his experience as an MVLS volunteer. 

Why do you choose to volunteer with MVLS?
MVLS makes it easy to volunteer. They provide malpractice insurance for volunteers, trainings, and mentors, and the clients really need help.

Do you have any stand out stories?
All the cases I’ve worked on through MVLS involve clients who stand out as kind and grateful.  I have worked on name changes, guardianships, wills, and deed changes over the years. All the cases have reminded me how needed MVLS’ services are to those in Maryland who can’t otherwise afford an attorney’s help.

What is your favorite part about volunteering with MVLS?
It is rewarding to help someone solve a problem that has been negatively impacting their day-to-day happiness or productivity

Why should other attorneys do pro bono?
You can learn a new area of the law and help someone in need. 

What is your favorite part about volunteering with MVLS?
All of MVLS’ work is important, but helping individuals preserve their homes is crucial. As governmental pandemic assistance is reduced, more MVLS clients will likely face challenges keeping up with their bills. There will likely be more MVLS clients that need help with mortgage or property title problems. MVLS’ My Home, My Deed, My Legacy and Foreclosure Prevention Project efforts will be more and more important in the coming years. 

From Pro Bono Coordinator to Champion for Justice: A Donor Q&A

2021 Annual Report: Mission Moment

 

Below is an excerpt from our interview with MVLS volunteer and monthly donor, Dan Schmitt. Originally from Iowa, Dan came to Maryland for law school and took his first pro bono case with MVLS 30 years ago. Now, he gives every month because, in his words, “Everyone deserves to have an advocate on their side.”  

Q: Tell me about how you first heard about MVLS.  

I remember it clearly. I first heard of MVLS some 30 years ago. Attorney Carl Gould was the pro bono coordinator for Baltimore County at the time. He recruited me to take a pro bono case and the rest is history. I ended up becoming the MVLS volunteer pro bono coordinator for Baltimore and Harford Counties to recruit attorneys to get involved with pro bono. I volunteered for a long time and took primarily special education and guardianship type cases. Over the years I volunteered with different organizations in the disability community and became heavily involved in advocacy issues in favor of disability law reform.  

 In the beginning, my interest in getting involved with MVLS was really a personal one. My son was diagnosed with a severe disability shortly after he was born. At the time I knew nothing about special needs and disability rights laws and learned all I could to fully immerse myself in those specialty areas of law. My life changed profoundly with my son’s diagnosis. I learned firsthand through my own experiences and those of my pro bono clients how the civil justice system (and public-school systems) are set up for people to need advocates in order to have your voice heard and your rights upheld.  

 

Q: Do you have any standout pro bono client stories from those days? 

My client was in the first grade and at the time was in the custody of his grandmother because he had recently witnessed the brutal murder of his mother at the hands of his abusive father. The trauma he experienced led to behavioral issues at school. The school administration wanted to expel the child and started to closely monitor him making matters worse. I worked with the grandmother to put a behavior chart together to address the concerns brought forward by the school. The chart led to positive changes in my client’s behavior, but the school took little notice. In the end my client’s grandmother decided that a transfer to another school would be in the first grader’s best interest and we convinced the administration to grant it. I will never forget that overwhelming feeling of relief and gratitude when the grandmother thanked me and shared that “no one has ever fought for us before”. That feeling is better than any fee.  

I will never forget that overwhelming feeling of relief and gratitude when the grandmother thanked me and shared that “no one has ever fought for us before”. That feeling is better than any fee.  

 

Q: In your own words, what does MVLS do?  

MVLS gives voice to people and communities whose voices need amplification to be heard and treated fairly. That includes individuals who face barriers to meaningful employment and stable housing, minority communities, the elderly, and those who are financially disadvantaged. Not only does MVLS provide pro bono legal assistance to individual clients, but they also have the bigger picture perspective of the systemic issues that exist in our most vulnerable communities and advocate on their behalf to protect people’s rights. 

 

Q: Has your experience with the civil justice system changed you or your outlook? How? 

Yes. Everyone deserves to have an advocate on their side when up against a complex civil justice system that favors those who can afford legal representation. 

 

Q: Why do you give monthly to MVLS? 

Monthly giving makes good business sense. The more stable you can make your budget the easier you can plan. It makes sense to contribute to the stability of a cause you believe in, and I believe in MVLS. Their volunteers provide life changing legal representation to those who need it most. 

 

Make Your Gift Monthly

 

A Lifeline for Our Clients

2021 Annual Report: Mission Moment

 

While the IRS and Maryland Comptroller’s Office closed to the public for a substantial period in 2020 and 2021 because of the pandemic, MVLS Low Income Taxpayer Clinic Director, Janice Shih, quickly recognized that Marylanders who were most in need of receiving the economic impact payments were those most at risk of not securing these life-saving funds. The stimulus checks were essential to our client’s stability, but thousands of Marylanders who needed the payments the most were at risk of not receiving them.

Here’s what we were up against:

  • Someone with a very low income doesn’t have to file taxes each year. As a result, the IRS didn’t have mailing addresses for those with very little to no income.
  • The stimulus payments were initially issued as direct deposits, but because of disinvestment in many communities of color, many low-income neighborhoods don’t have access to banks.
  • Stimulus checks were mailed in blank envelopes with no indication of what they were, leading many individuals to not opening the envelopes or throwing them away believing it was a scam.

MVLS’ LITC led an enormous outreach effort, focusing on legal services programs and community programs. For months, the LITC provided important information about how to obtain the stimulus payments and how to ensure individuals who didn’t file 2018 or 2019 taxes would receive these essential funds. Our outreach even included interviews with WBAL and Maryland Public Television to highlight these important issues.

“We were a life-line for clients at a time when the IRS was closed. It was so reassuring to have someone to just answer the phone and listen to their situation and get helpful information.” – Janice Shih, Low Income Taxpayer Clinic Director 

Our LITC then launched Maryland’s only tax-hotline to help people navigate the process of filing a basic tax return with the IRS so they could receive these critical funds and to assist desperate individuals who hadn’t received their stimulus funds. “We were a life-line for clients at a time when the IRS was closed. It was so reassuring to have someone to just answer the phone and listen to their situation and get helpful information,” Janice explained. Because many of our clients don’t have access to computers and places where they would normally access computers, like public libraries, were closed, Janice and LITC volunteers would often walk through the process with an individual and then file the returns for the client to eliminate the digital divide barrier. With long delays by the IRS, the LITC continues to work with individuals seeking their stimulus funds.

The MVLS Low-Income Taxpayer Clinic (LITC) works with anyone who has tax issues with the Comptroller of Maryland or the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). MVLS was one of the first organizations to offer LITC 20 years ago and operates one of the three LITC that exist in our state today. LITC clients are at or below 250% of the federal poverty level, which is about $15.00 or less per hour in Maryland. While tax controversy is a specialized legal practice, lawyers and tax professionals like Certified Public Accountants (CPA’s) and Enrolled Agents (EA’s) assist clients with resolving tax disputes with these agencies.

To learn more about volunteering with MVLS LITC, visit: www.mvlslaw.org/volunteer-tax-representative-registration/

 

Justice For All – A Note From Our Executive Director

2021 Annual Report: A Note From Our Executive Director

Justice for ALL.  How we define this concept and what efforts we need to take to ensure its promise has been a major focus in our society over the past year.  While the country and world struggled with the COVID-19 pandemic,  inequitable health outcomes and financial harm borne by communities of color, and the renewed Black Lives Matters protests after the murder of George Floyd, MVLS began to deeply question our responsibility for and commitment to changing a legal system that perpetuates injustice.  

At the same time, we remained committed to our clients and community partners, overcoming the significant challenges of the year to operate fully and provide ongoing critical legal assistance to Marylanders who would not otherwise be able to afford an attorney. Without a doubt, having 40 years of experience was invaluable to ensuring that we continued (and expanded) our services during an incredibly challenging time. I’m proud that we expanded our workforce development project as the legal aid partner of the Baltimore Health Corps. I’m proud that our Low-Income-Taxpayer-Clinic created the State’s only helpline to support Marylanders who couldn’t access their Economic Impact Stimulus Payments. I’m proud of our work with the Mayor’s office and other state and local agencies to ensure the adoption and implementation of policies that increased housing and financial stability during this crisis, including saving over 900 owner-occupied homes from the Baltimore City tax sale.  

MVLS has always understood its critical role in ensuring justice.  But we have, as any strong organization should, evolved our understanding and appreciation for what that phrase really means. Over the past year, MVLS has focused on implementing anti-racism practices within our organization and the legal system.  In the spring, we held a press event to educate the media about structural racism within the judicial system, as well as presenting related trainings with the Baltimore City Bar Association Diversity and Inclusion Committee and Maryland Bar Association Delivery of Legal Services Section. Over our 40 year history, MVLS has focused on serving those communities most in need, and our experience has demonstrated that of those facing a critical civil legal issue, Black individuals are over-represented based on population because of the numerous institutional barriers and insidious, systemic racism.  As a legal services provider, we recognize that we must serve in, and learn from communities that face the highest barriers to success.  As one trusted community leader recently shared with me “I am not sure if … you realize just how much the Black community has been linked to quality legal services and KNOWLEDGE via MVLS because of your committed and passionate work.” 

 As we enter FY22, we remain committed to ensuring that all Marylanders, regardless of race and economic status, not only receive critically important legal representation in their legal matter, but that the laws and practices of our legal system and society also provide balanced opportunities for all individuals.  Only then will there truly be justice for all. 

You are an essential part of MVLS.  Thanks to you, over 40 years, we have grown into a tremendously impactful organization that is changing lives in profound ways every single day.  Your renewal to volunteer and to financially support MVLS is critical for us to continue to ensure a fair and just legal system.  Thank you for all you have done as our partner over the past 40 years, we look forward to all that we will accomplish together in the future.  

Sincerely, 

Susan Francis

Executive Director

An 11 Year Quest to Save a Home

2021 Annual Report: Mission Moment

“I had to fight to get the home in my name…” – Vivian Dunlap
Vivian Dunlap has deep roots in West Baltimore. Vivian lived in her family home from the age of six through her 20s. The family home was eventually passed on to Vivian’s sister and brother-in-law in 1980.  Even after moving out of the home, Vivian’s roots remained and after her brother-in-law’s passing in 1996, Vivian returned home in 2004 to take care of her sister, Alice. 

After Vivian’s brother-in-law passed away, the property automatically passed to Alice. When Alice passed away in 2008, Vivian immediately began taking the necessary steps to ensure that their home would stay in their family, as it had for several decades. Unfortunately, there was no way to automatically transfer the home after Alice’s passing, and Vivian had to open an estate to transfer the property. She learned that this was a process that would cost her several hundred dollars and require several trips to the Register of Wills downtown to complete confusing paperwork.  Nonetheless, it was a priority to save the family home and Vivian opened the estate that same year and was named as personal representative.  She now could begin the task of recording a new deed and transferring the home into her name, but every stage of this process created more obstacles.

To record the new deed, the final step in securing the family home, there needs to be a balance of zero dollars for the property’s taxes and water bills. Without her name on the deed, Vivian could not access any water bill reduction programs, tax credits, or repair programs and in 2015, the pipes at the home burst.  The water bill became too expensive and a delinquent account started to accrue.  Vivian also had to contend with a growing mold issue. Vivian had the water at the property turned off so that bill would not grow any larger.  At this point she had to make the hard decision to leave her home and move in with her son.  But she didn’t give up on her dream to save her family’s home.

In 2017, Vivian came to MVLS for assistance with the water bill and transferring the property into her name.  Vivian was placed with a volunteer attorney who discovered that the water bill had ballooned to $2,400.  Even worse, due to the unpaid water bill, the property had been sold at tax sale in May 2017.  Now Vivian would have to redeem the property so that it would not be lost to the family forever.  With the assistance of her brother, Vivian was able to redeem the property. But she still had more to do to save her home.

Vivian then began work on paying down the water bill.  She contacted the Department of Public Works (DPW) and was able to be placed on a repayment plan. In 2019, after repaying the arrears in full, Vivian reached back out to MVLS, ready to record the new deed.  By this point, the mold had rendered the property completely uninhabitable, and Vivian was now residing with her brother in Prince George’s County.   MVLS’s Tangled Title Attorney began assisting Vivian.  As they worked together to finally be able to record a new deed, there was a nationwide shutdown in response to COVID, and the deed recordation process was significantly delayed. After having to wait many months, her attorney was able to petition the Register of Wills to reopen Alice’s estate, and Vivian was finally able to record her deed with Baltimore City Land Records in April 2021.  After 11 years of not giving up, Vivian finally succeeded in saving her home.

In the face of numerous obstacles, from unbelievably high water bills, life-threatening mold problems, several moves, and a worldwide pandemic, Vivian remained steadfast and persistent in ensuring that her roots remained in West Baltimore.  Vivian, with help from her family, fixed the mold problem and plans to return home in the next few months. Ultimately, Vivian wants to leave the home to her daughter – keeping the home in the family for generations to come. Vivian’s name is now on the deed to her home, and she has kept her family’s legacy in her community.

Speaking on the journey that she has completed to reclaim her home, Vivian says, “I had been living in the home since I was seven years old. Once I got married, I moved out but I came back to the home in 2004 to take care of my sister. My sister and brother-in-law considered me to be their child and the plan was always for the home to pass to me. After my sister’s death, I had to fight to get the home in my name. I had to make several payments to other family members and at the end, I had no money or anywhere else to go, so I didn’t have a choice but to get the home in my name. It has been great working with MVLS because it has always meant a lot to me to keep the home – I grew up there and I want to pass the home to my daughter.”

Vivian’s story highlights the importance of protecting homeownership in communities of color.  As part of the work in addressing the racial wealth gap and advocating for racial equity, MVLS, in its Advance Planning Program and My Home, My Deed, My Legacy Program, focuses on estate planning, including life estate deeds, so that Marylanders can avoid the barriers that Vivian faced in her quest to save her home.  

 

MVLS Partners with Baltimore Health Corps for Community-Centered COVID Response

2021 Annual Report: Feature Story

“This is some of the best work I’ve done in my career”  – Phillip Westry 

In early 2020, Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service (MVLS) was approached with a unique opportunity. At the time, the Mayor’s Office of Employment Development, in partnership with the Baltimore Civic Fund, was planning to pilot an innovative response to the coronavirus pandemic. This pilot, the Baltimore Health Corps, would set out to hire up to 300 Baltimoreans from communities most impacted by the pandemic to staff the City’s ongoing response to COVID-19.  

They needed help to ensure that those new hires would succeed, so the Corps looked for partners who could provide wraparound support. Catholic Charities was selected to provide mental health counseling, and with our background in workforce development, MVLS joined on to provide legal services to each new employee.  

By January 2021, 275 Marylanders, 85% of whom were previously unemployed, furloughed, or underemployed, were hired. By then, MVLS was hard at work.  

Based on knowledge we have gained over the years of our workforce development program we knew that the new Corps members, now working each day to respond to COVID, would need help with a broadrange of legal issues. As Phillip Westry, former MVLS volunteer-turned full time Baltimore Health Corps Attorney, completed introduction sessions with the group’s new hires, he heard about employees dealing with landlord-tenant disputes, ones hoping to prepare a will, those struggling to obtain past unemployment benefits, ones who needed help expunging a criminal record, and others facing medical or other types of debt. Westry worked tirelessly to provide legal advice, representation, or referral services tailored to each issue.  

“This is some of the best work I’ve done in my career” shared Westry, who has counseled 100 of the nearly 300 corps members. “These clients feel empowered when they have an attorney advocating for them.” 

While members’ jobs with Baltimore Health Corps are temporary (currently extended through December), this corps model sets out expressly to prepare employees for future career success. One corps member and MVLS client shared: “this project made it so clear that they want to care for our mental health and the next steps of our career.” 

An initial report about the Baltimore Health Corps lauded its progress and suggested that it could be a model deployed by other cities. “This program is so powerful because of all the forces coming together: the City, the Mayor’s Office, the Health Department, Catholic Charities, and MVLS” added Westry. 

As we look ahead to the coming year, MVLS is planning to apply lessons learned from the Baltimore Health Corps program to our Workforce Development Project. Westry will join Chris Sweeney and Jason Wright to staff the project. Together, they will expand community partnerships, both to provide holistic legal services to Marylanders who otherwise couldn’t afford an attorney and to continue to learn about the structural barriers to full, sustained employment. Along with our partners, they’ll challenge laws that disadvantage Marylanders seeking work.  

Westry concluded “There is an amazing network here at MVLS. When a client calls, they might be speaking to me, but they’re getting help from Aja’ [Consumer Staff Attorney], Janice [Low Income Taxpayer Clinic Director], Tim [Tangled Title Staff Attorney], Chris [Workforce Development Project Coordinator] and all our staff attorneys and volunteers. They’re getting help from all of us.”  

October 2021 Volunteer of the Month Gretchen Reimert

Pictured: Gretchen Reimert, MVLS's Volunteer of the Month. Gretchen is a woman with blonde, curly hair and is wearing a green shirt.

We’re proud to recognize Gretchen Reimert as the October 2021 Volunteer of the Month. Read on to learn more about Gretchen and her experience as an MVLS volunteer. 

Why do you choose to volunteer with MVLS?
My entire legal career has been spent in public service. I previously worked in legal services and MVLS has an excellent reputation for supporting their volunteer attorneys with high quality mentoring and training, while also making it as easy as possible for attorneys to volunteer in ways that suit them best.

Do you have any stand out stories?
I recently helped a survivor of domestic violence with traumatic brain injury avoid foreclosure and get a fresh start. She was remarkably capable and able to do a lot on her own but she needed someone with legal knowledge to help her successfully navigate the process with the courts, especially when things turned upside down during the pandemic. She also needed help corresponding with agencies who could help her obtain new housing. She now has a new home for her and her very young children where they are safe and able to start a new life.

What is your favorite part about volunteering with MVLS?
MVLS has a strong intake process, where clients are fully vetted to ensure that they are eligible, and cases are farmed out to attorneys based on their expertise. I specialize in foreclosure defense, but a client in foreclosure may have other legal needs (like the need to open and administer an estate) that are beyond my immediate ability to provide. MVLS does their best to help attorneys collaborate across different specialties so that volunteer attorneys don’t get overwhelmed. This is especially important for solos and small firms who want to volunteer but are reticient to get involved with complex cases that have with a number of legal issues.

Why should other attorneys do pro bono?
Everyone benefits when we each contribute what we can to the greater good. New attorneys can gain confidence and valuable skills through the mentoring offered by MVLS, and seasoned attorneys can help bring along the next generation of attorneys in ways that have an immediate impact on disenfranchised communities. MVLS structures volunteer opportunities so that any attorney can choose to do as little or as much as they are able, whenever they are inspired to do. It’s a win-win for the attorney and the community as a whole.

September 2021 Volunteer of the Month – John Doud

John Doud of The Law Offices of John Doud, III in Baltimore, MD, has been a dedicated MVLS volunteer for over 20 years. Since starting with us in 1999, he has taken 39 family law cases. He handles divorce, custody, guardianship, and name change cases. Many of his pro bono cases have been complex and he has dedicated a considerable amount of time to his MVLS clients.

When asked why he chooses to volunteer with MVLS, he replied:

I simply regard it as part of my professional responsibility. I always feel that I am wearing a “white hat” when I represent a MVLS client. Finally, I think that I am setting the proper example for my peers.

Thank you John for your many years of service!

August 2021 Volunteer of the Month – Arlene Grove

 
 
Arlene Grove is an Enrolled Agent at WB Tax & Accounting Service, Inc and has taken cases with us since 2017.
 

Read on to learn why Arlene volunteers:

 

  • Why do you choose to volunteer with MVLS?

There are always people who cannot pay for services that seem optional but are life changing if left undone. For me to remain silent/still when there is working equipment and experience to be shared, at nearly no financial cost, would be wrong. Tutoring was my first venture, trying to help peers who couldn’t understand one issue or one concept and would have failed, and I loved it.

Doing this with MVLS is fairly new, but after “pro bono” piano for 45 years, I could immediately identify with potential insurmountable burdens as Janice presented the opportunity.

 

  • Do you have any standout stories?

Actually nearly all of the cases I have been assigned have been standout people with kind and grateful hearts. Perhaps the most difficult to remediate has been – continues to be – active in a wide range of areas, and has taught me the most about the utter frustration in dealing directly with agencies when there are mental limitations. Each layer of each issue, when removed, opened up unknown previous obligations or miscues, and no single agency could have sorted this out. The standout story is the MVLS is uniquely qualified to provide that sliver of hope because we do cross over from one issue to another.

 

  • What is your favorite part about volunteering with MVLS?

Two are tied: the grateful sighs and smiles when there is a solution, and the time spent with taxpayers I would never otherwise have met. Had I time to plan a picnic, for example, I would want to be able to invite everyone I’ve had the chance to deal with, sit down and chat and enjoy a day. But then, if I had the picnic, I would miss the next case…

 

  • Why should other attorneys do pro bono?

There is significant value in providing funding for the entire operation, and I can identify with being too busy to actually DO hands-on help. But, intentionally setting aside time to step into another person’s abyss and help him see the ladder leading up, even when he presents an unimaginable combination of deadlines, wrong turns, unavailable information, and uneven cooperation, we become sharper at sorting out and providing the steps.

 

  • Where do you see the impact civil legal services in the next ten years?

Having all things now online, there is the presumption by various agencies that all things can be sorted into two to five options, nice square boxes to fill with an X and move on. Without an updated, fully equipped computer at hand, with certain phone numbers that are acceptable, and money to spend on all changes that are beyond comprehension, many – I dare say most citizens – will be facing legal issues simply by being rendered unqualified to reply on the right date or thru the right portal.

Save The Date – Celebrate Pro Bono 2021

Celebrate Pro Bono 2021 Logo
 
Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service (MVLS) invites you to save the date for our 2021 Celebrate Pro Bono Awards Ceremony at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture on Wednesday, October 13, 2021 from 6-8:30 pm.
 
Join us for an evening of networking and celebration as we honor exceptional volunteers, community partners, and people like you whose commitment to pro bono during the past year has inspired us and changed the lives of Marylanders in need.
 
Attendance at this year’s event will be limited to allow for safe socializing. Registration will be required. 
 
Click here to subscribe to event updates and receive your personal invitation to register as we get closer to the event date.