As this year’s legislative season is wrapping up, it’s time to highlight several MVLS backed bills that successfully made it through both houses and onto the Governor’s desk! Some of these bills have been several years in the making and we are proud to finally see their positive effects throughout our community.
Senate Bill 351 establishes a program in the Maryland Legal Services Corporation that provides affordable life estates, wills, and estate planning for low-income seniors. The bill requires the Governor to appropriate $500,000 in the annual budget for the program. Eligible Maryland residents must be at least 60 years of age with a combined family income not exceeding 50% of the State median. Senate Bill 351 affords low-income Marylander’s the means to access advanced planning services, thereby aiding families in maintaining their generational wealth.
House Bill 0042 creates an automatic bank account exemption of $500 for residents facing wage garnishment in debt collection cases. Opposition to this bill was largely from banks, as the new automatic exemption disrupts the current garnishment process. Wage garnishment is one of the main concerns we hear from clients coming through the MVLS Consumer Protection Clinic in Baltimore City District Court. Many of these clients are either on fixed incomes or are supporting families with an already strained debt to income ratio. Prior to the passing of HB 0042, clients facing garnishment had little to no financial security net, the risk to these clients’ financial and housing status were severe. They will now at least have access to a secure $500 to use for familial and household needs.
House Bill 843 creates a Baltimore Regional Water Governance Task Force to look at the prospect of creating a regional water system. MVLS, along with twenty other organizations including UB School of Law, NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and Food & Water Watch, signed off on a letter to officials suggesting amendments to the bill. Although the amendments were not adopted, MVLS and others are still pushing for the need for racial and economic equity impact assessments, the requirement of public hearings, and the inclusion of local labor and low-income community member representation on the task force.
House Bill 0092 sets forth a requirement for ground rent holders to register ground leases with the State Department of Assessments and Taxation. The ground leases are to be posted on the State Department’s website; lease holders who fail to register will be barred from collecting rent, late fees, interest, and any other expenses related to ground rent. This new registration provision provides transparency into a historically confusing process that was often used to take advantage of low-income Maryland residents. This bill provides an added layer of protection for some of our most vulnerable populations throughout the state.
Overall, it was quite a successful legislative season on the housing and consumer front. With the passage of the bills highlighted above, Maryland homeowners and consumers will have expanded access to estate planning services, more financial protections against garnishment, have an active voice in the regulation of their water, and have transparency when looking into properties that may have ground rent attachments. This year, the legislature listened to their constituents and the organizations that aid and assist them, and they made marked steps toward the accessibility and equity that Marylanders deserve. We still have a long way to go but these developments show that course correction efforts are underway, and we are heading in the right direction.