MVLS Hires Courtland Merkel, Esq., as its New Staff Attorney 

BALTIMORE (July 6, 2023) – Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service (MVLS), the largest provider of pro bono legal services to low-income Marylanders, today announced that Courtland Merkel, Esq., has been hired as the organization’s new housing and consumer staff attorney. 

Merkel, who most recently served as a Circuit Court law clerk for The Honorable Lynne Stewart Mays, will work with MVLS’ housing and consumer stabilization team. He also will support MVLS volunteers, work with community partners, staff a weekly consumer protection clinic and advocate on behalf of MVLS clients.

“MVLS is pleased to welcome Courtland Merkel, as our new housing and consumer staff attorney,” said MVLS Deputy Director Margaret Henn. “Courtland’s background in water bill advocacy and his legal education position him to be a strong addition to the team, where he will represent clients in debt collection lawsuits, defend homeowners against foreclosure and lead MVLS’ water related advocacy work.”

Many people seek help from MVLS with housing and consumer matters such as tax sale, foreclosure, ground rent, bankruptcy, debt collections and contract disputes. These civil legal issues are incredibly difficult to face without full legal representation. To assist in this effort, MVLS staff attorneys and volunteers host a Consumer Protection Clinic each week at the Baltimore City District Court to help those being sued for debt collection.

“I am excited to join MVLS because of its dedication to providing legal assistance to Marylanders who would normally not have the opportunity to afford legal help,” said Merkel. “I look forward to working with the Baltimore community at our weekly consumer clinics while also helping to improve the city’s water bill regulation.”

Prior to joining MVLS, Merkel graduated magna cum laude from the University of Baltimore School of Law in 2020 and was a part of both the Fannie Angelos Program for Academic Excellence and the Royal Shannon House Honor Society. Merkel can be reached at 443-451-4064 or cmerkel@mvlslaw.org.

About Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service 

Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service (MVLS) removes barriers to justice through free civil legal help, community engagement and advocacy for equitable laws. The organization matches clients with volunteer lawyers, tax professionals and staff attorneys who represent them in a wide range of consumer finance, family and housing situations, including foreclosure, bankruptcy, divorce/custody, deed changes, as well as income tax disputes, estate planning and criminal record relief. MVLS advocates for racial equity in Maryland’s legal system and works in concert with community partners to move toward a fair legal system that is free of injustice and equitably serves underrepresented Marylanders. For more information, visit mvlslaw.org. 

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Media Contacts: 
Chandler Walters                                                   Sandy Arnette, APR 
Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service                Arnette Media Strategies, LLC 
443-451-4095                                                         410-274-5975 
cwalters@mvlslaw.org                                          sandy@arnettemedia.com  

What Is the Renters’ Tax Credit?

You might be surprised to learn that there is renters’ tax credit available to many Maryland renters. Because renters pay property taxes through their rent payments, this Credit has been established to offset some of their property tax contributions.

There’s a few key things to know about the Credit:

  • Eligibility is based on income and rent amount
  • It requires an annual application
  • Application deadline is October 1
  • Applications can be submitted between February until the October deadline
  • The Credit can be up to $1,000
  • All household income sources are counted, including Social Security
  • The applicant must be legally responsible for the rent (ie on the lease)
  • Rent paid to a public housing authority or tax-exempt organization isn’t eligible for the Credit
  • Anyone under 60 is only potentially eligible if there is a dependent under 18 living in the home

The Credit can provide critical funds for Marylander renters. 

The new MVLS factsheet on the Renters’ Tax Credit walks an individual through the eligibility and the application process with step-by-step instructions including what documentation is required with the application. 

If you are a volunteer working with a MVLS client, consider asking if the client is filing for this Credit. Note that many individuals struggle with the Renters’ Tax Credit application and your assistance, while requiring very little time, can be a major barrier removal for them to achieving housing stability.

The MVLS Renters’ Tax Credit factsheet is available for download.

What is the Homestead Tax Credit?

If your home significantly increases in what the state thinks is the value of it, the Homestead Tax Credit can protect you from a major increase in taxes owed. The Homestead Tax Credit caps the percentage increase that you can be taxed on the assessed value of your home.

While every county has its own cap, the highest increase can be no more than 10%. The list of each county’s cap is available on the Maryland State Department of Assessment and Taxation (SDAT) website below.

There are no income limits to receive the Homestead Tax Credit.

Requirements –

Within the past tax year:

  • The home must be your primary residence and you must have lived there for at least six months
  • The home wasn’t transferred to a new owner
  • These wasn’t a change in zoning that resulted in an increased property value
  • The purpose or use of the property was not substantially changed
  • The prior assignment wasn’t clearly wrong

Timing –

  • You can apply anytime.

You only need to apply and qualify once for your home.

Application steps –

  • You’ll need your county code, which you can find on the application
    • For Baltimore City you’ll need your ward, section, block and lot
    • You’ll also need your identification number
  • To obtain this information, you can visit SDAT Real Property Search
    • https://sdat.dat.maryland.gov/RealProperty/Pages/default.asp
      • Put in your street number and street name
        • Do not include other descriptors like Street, Avenue, etc.
        • At the very top of report, you will see the Account Identifier which will include the requested information
          • For Baltimore City residents, it will list your ward, section, block and lot
        • If you scroll to the bottom, if will tell you if you’ve applied for the Homestead credit before and if you did, if it was approved and when.
        • It will also tell you if you’ve applied for the Homeowners’ Property Tax Credit
  • You will need the social security numbers of all homeowners (anyone listed on the deed) and your spouse, if applicable

To apply, you can submit an online application or a paper application.

  • To apply online, you can visit https://sdathtc.dat.maryland.gov/ or you can download a paper application at https://dat.maryland.gov/SDAT%20Forms/Homestead_application.pdf or request an application be sent to you by calling 410-767-2165 or 1-866-650-8783.
    • For online applications, you will need an Access Number issued by the SDAT. You will need to email your name, address, and the county in which you reside to sdat.homestead@maryland.gov. An Access Number will be emailed to you with additional information.

You can mail your paper application to:

  • Department of Assessments and Taxation
  • Homestead Tax Credit Division
  • 301 West Preston Street, 8th Floor
  • Baltimore, Maryland 21201

You can confirm that the Homestead Credit has been approved by checking back on the SDAT Real Property Search to see if it’s been added to your record.

Reminder – unlike the Homeowners’ Property Tax Credit, which requires a yearly application, the Homestead Credit, once granted, remains with your property as long as you continue to live there as your primary home.

For more information on the Homestead Tax Credit, you can contact SDAT at 410-767-2165 in the Baltimore area or 1-866-650-8783 toll free elsewhere in Maryland; email to sdat.homestead@maryland.gov​ or visit their website, https://dat.maryland.gov/realproperty/Pages/Maryland-Homestead-Tax-Credit.aspx. You can also learn more through our Homestead Tax Credit factsheet.

Homeowners’ Property Tax Credit

Maryland Homeowners’ Property Tax Credit can significantly reduce a homeowner’s property taxes, but this program is very under-utilized. There are a few reasons why. First, individuals don’t know the Credit is available, or they might be confused thinking that they’ve applied for this credit, when in reality, they filed for a different credit, called the Homestead Tax Credit. Second, they may have filed for it in the past, but aren’t aware that this Credit requires an annual application. The deadline to receive the credit is October 1st of each year, but an application can be submitted anytime between April 1st and October 1st each year. The application can be submitted online or through a paper application.  And third, a homeowner may not be eligible for the Credit because while they reside in their home, they may not be the legal owner, meaning their name isn’t on the deed to the property. In order to receive the Credit, they first need to resolve the deed issue.

MVLS’ factsheet on the Homeowners’ Property Tax Credit walks an individual through the eligibility and the application process with step-by-step instructions including how to calculate income and what documentation is required with the application. The Credit is income based and income thresholds are available on the State Department of Assessment and Taxation’s (SDAT) website.

This Credit can be essential to helping an individual avoid tax sale, foreclosure and increasing financial stabilization.  It’s important to spread the word about this potentially available Credit. Once a homeowner receives the Credit, they should be reminded every year by SDAT to reply, however, it’s a good practice for the individual to set a reminder as well, since the Credit expires every year and must be granted for the next tax year.

If you a volunteer working with a MVLS client, particularly with housing issues, please make sure the client is filing for this Credit. You can determine if they are receiving the Credit by visiting the Real Property Search on SDAT’s website and scrolling to the bottom of their property record. It will indicate there if they are receiving the Homeowners’ and Homestead Credits. Note that many individuals struggle with the Homeowners’ Property Tax Credit application and your assistance, while requiring very little time, can be a major barrier removal for them to achieving housing stability.

The MVLS Homeowners’ Property Tax Credit factsheet is available here.

What Is Ground Rent?

If you are unfamiliar with ground rent or wanting more information on the subject, you have stumbled across the right place. MVLS has just published a factsheet on Ground rent to help you understand this process. Ground rent is a situation in which you own your home, but someone else owns the land on which your home sits. This sounds rather odd, owning the house, but not the land. Essentially, ground rent is a lease agreement for the use of the land your house sits on. Like other lease agreements, you are required to make regular and timely payments of ground rent in accordance with your lease agreement.

It is important to know whether you owe ground rent. Maryland law requires that ground lease owners register ground rent leases on SDAT’s Ground Rent Registry to be legally collectible. You can search for Ground Rent Registration here: https://sdat.dat.maryland.gov/ RealProperty/Pages/default.aspx. Please check the registry to make sure your property has a ground rent lease. Failing to make the payments on a ground rent lease could result in a collections lawsuit or foreclosure on your home.

If you have decided to redeem your ground rent, the Maryland Department of Assessments and Taxation recently simplified the steps. First, determine if the ground rent exists and whether it is redeemable/irredeemable. Second, notify the Ground Rent Owner (via both certified mail return receipt requested and another letter by first-class mail to the last known address) that you intend to redeem the ground rent on your home through the Maryland Department of Assessments and Taxation. The application needed to redeem ground rent can be found here: Ground Rent (maryland.gov).

If you want assistance with redeeming your ground rent apply to MVLS for assistance.

Maryland 2023 Legislative Changes to Housing & Consumer Law

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.