By Pat Loeb

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — Philadelphia City Council has passed a bill to help homeowners keep their houses, even if they’re behind on their real estate taxes.

The foreclosure diversion bill aims to shore up efforts to prevent tax foreclosures for the most vulnerable homeowners as the city steps up collection efforts.

“This is really the start of putting in the second level of the safety net,” says Community Legal Services attorney Monty Wilson, who championed the bill.

The city began intensifying efforts to collect delinquent taxes three years ago, when it instituted the Actual Value Initiative (AVI) for tax assessments.

“It’s galling to see taxes go uncollected when yours go up,” says Deputy Revenue Commissioner Marisa Waxman.

The most effective way to get delinquents to pay up, according to Waxman, is to start foreclosure proceedings. That, alone, will usually motivate those with the means to do so, to settle up. And the city created a safety net for the elderly, disabled, and low-income: Owner-Occupied Payment Agreements, or OOPAs.

The program mostly worked. Tax delinquent accounts have dropped by 30 percent. Some 10,000 people are in payment agreements.

But, still, people were losing their homes and a city council analysis found more than 80 percent of the foreclosure filings were against homes in predominately minority census tracts.

The diversion program created by the bill adds another layer of protection for homeowners.

It provides free counseling, including help with arranging a payment agreement, and the possibility of a deferral of taxes for those without the means to make even a small monthly payment.

It also allows payment agreements to be applied to a current year’s taxes so homeowners that qualify for senior citizen tax rebates can get them.

Wilson is worried about one aspect of the bill. As originally introduced, all the additional protections would have immediately gone into place. But the amended bill calls for the Revenue Commissioner to “promulgate such rules, regulations, written policy, forms, and other documentation as are deemed necessary to effectuate the purpose of the provisions…within 90 days of the date on which such bill becomes law.”

“Instead of passing a robust law,” says Wilson, “they passed a framework and said ‘we’ll work out the details later.’ In three months, I may be very happy but we’re not they’re yet.”