O'Malley to act on ground rents

Incoming governor intends to play central role in efforts to reform laws, aide says

Sun Follow-up

January 06, 2007|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,Sun reporter

CAMBRIDGE -- Gov.-elect Martin O'Malley intends to play a central role in efforts to reform Maryland's centuries-old ground rent laws to prevent the seizure of homes over small unpaid bills, an administration official said yesterday.

O'Malley's chief policy and legislative adviser, Joseph C. Bryce, said administration officials will participate in a meeting of top legislators about ground rents, scheduled for Wednesday morning before the General Assembly convenes for its annual session.

In response to a series in The Sun about cases in which Baltimore residents lost their homes because of unpaid bills as low as $24, legislative leaders have pledged to make reforming or eliminating ground rents a top priority in the legislative session.

"For small debts, people are losing their homes, and that's something elected officials need to deal with," Bryce said.

Some legislators have discussed the idea of phasing out ground rents entirely, but Bryce suggested the O'Malley administration's interest at this point would be in at least making sure the penalties for unpaid bills are proportionate.

Another idea being discussed by lawmakers, including Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden and Del. Maggie L. McIntosh, both Baltimore Democrats, is prohibiting builders from establishing new ground rents. McIntosh is chairwoman of the House environmental matters committee.

The Sun documented more than 500 cases in the last six years in which the Baltimore Circuit Court awarded a ground rent holder the deed to a home. In thousands of other cases, ground rent holders sued homeowners over back payments, allowing them to extract legal fees many times greater than the original debt.

Most ground rents exist in Baltimore City, where builders retained ownership of land under houses to make them more affordable. But there are some homes with ground rents elsewhere in the state.

"It's not just a Baltimore City issue," Bryce said.

andy.green@baltsun.com

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