“This is what we want” – The Ripple Effect of Legal Help

Part of our 2022 Annual Report Impact Series

Vermillera rests on the front porch of her East Baltimore row home
Photo Credit: Michael Theis for The Chronicle of Philanthropy

By the time Elizabeth Vermillera talked to someone at MVLS, there was a real possibility of her losing her home to tax sale.

“I almost lost my house for $1,000,” she shared with reporter Kristen Griffith, who interviewed Vermillera and shared her story as a part of a larger profile about tax sale in The Chronicle of Philanthropy. (You can read the full article, titled “Nonprofit Legal Services Help Homeowners Struggling With Property Taxes Keep Their Homes”, here).

Aja’ Mallory, MVLS’ Housing and Consumer attorney, stepped in to help Vermillera last winter after a community partner referred her case to MVLS. While MVLS largely relies on volunteer attorneys, Mallory can intervene when clients are facing a more urgent deadline, or when there are no volunteers available.

“For her to be able to stay in the community that she really loves that she’s trying to build up and restore to its former thriving position, this is what we want.”

Mallory reviewed Vermillera’s case and came across something surprising: there was a clerical error in her property record, one that incorrectly categorized her property as a rental. She’s owned her home since 1997. Mallory quickly contacted the State Department of Assessments and Taxation (SDAT) to notify them of the error and advocate to get it fixed. Then, she helped Vermillera apply for the homeowners’ property tax credits, little-known incentives that are available to low income homeowners in Maryland.

Those retroactive credits brought down Vermillera’s tax bill to a little under $300. She paid off the now-affordable bill, saving her house from being listed for tax sale.

Mallory represents clients facing foreclosure and tax sale and each week, she gives brief advice to people being sued for consumer debt at our Consumer Protection Project at the District Court.

The hardest part of her job, she said, is learning about the everyday hardships that bring people to the point of losing their home or having their wages garnished. Many of her clients have lost a spouse or other family member, resulting in lost income. Often, their money must be redirected to funeral expenses or medical bills. In some cases, they’ve simply fallen behind because they are experiencing so much grief.

“I have to put things into perspective,” Mallory said. “I understand the client’s hardships, but I have to make the client understand the reality of their situation.”

While the work can be difficult, it is also incredibly meaningful. In cases like Vermillera’s, “the rewarding part about this is that a family gets to keep their home,” Mallory said.

She explained that there is a ripple effect to the work organizations like MVLS does.

“Ms. Vermillera specifically is very active in her community,” Mallory explained. “For her to be able to stay in the community that she really loves that she’s trying to build up and restore to its former thriving position, this is what we want. [She] is a staple of her community, helping others in her community, letting people know about the various resources that are available to them so they can stay in their homes.”

In her conversation with The Chronicle for Philanthropy, Vermillera said learning that her house would be saved was “an answer to a prayer beyond expectation.”

When volunteers take a case, they can also help other community members. Something simple like sending an email, or even explaining what a client can expect as they navigate this moment in their life can make a profound difference, Mallory said.

In FY22, volunteers, donors, and community partners’ support ensured that MVLS could serve more than 2,000 clients like Vermillera with civil legal issues core to their housing, finances, and families.

As of this writing, MVLS has 114 open cases. You can help. Learn about volunteering with MVLS here, or consider making a gift to support free legal help.