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Baltimore County Council rejects housing anti-discrimination bill

The Baltimore County Council rejected a bill Monday that would have made it illegal for landlords to discriminate against prospective tenants who use government housing vouchers to pay their rent.

The council was required to consider the bill as part of a settlement of a housing discrimination complaint negotiated between the county government and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Members voted 6-1 against it.

Council Chairwoman Vicki Almond, a Reisterstown Democrat, called her vote against the measure "a very tough, tough decision."

She said she was troubled that neither the federal government nor the state government has approved the same provisions the council was being asked to pass. She also noted that council members were not consulted on the housing settlement.

"While I agree with the aims of this legislation, I cannot in good conscience vote for a flawed bill created by a process in which I played no part," she said.

Councilman Julian Jones cast the lone vote in favor of the bill.

"This bill has been and continues to be about a very simple point: prejudice and discrimination," the Woodstock Democrat said.

The bill spurred impassioned debate when it was introduced last month. Hundreds of people attended a public hearing, with dozens testifying on each side of the issue.

The bill was supported by religious groups and organizations that advocate for the poor and the homeless. Advocates said it would help people with vouchers move to different parts of the county. They are now concentrated on the eastern and western sides of the county.

Some residents raised concerns it would lead voucher holders to move to their areas and harm property values. Landlords complained the voucher program added burdensome inspections and paperwork.

County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, who introduced the bill — as required by the settlement — said he was disappointed it did not pass, but "encouraged by the incredible support" the measure received.

"The discussion that took place really helped educate the public as to why such legislation is good public policy," Kamenetz said in a statement. "The deconcentration of poverty remains a very important goal, and one to which I remain committed."

The bill would have prohibited housing discrimination based on a tenant's source of income. The goal was to protect tenants who rely on government assistance such as Housing Choice Vouchers, commonly called Section 8.

Similar laws are in place in Howard, Montgomery and Frederick counties. Efforts to pass a statewide law have been unsuccessful.

Councilwoman Cathy Bevins, a Middle River Democrat, said she was not convinced the bill would work as intended.

She said the eastern side of Baltimore County already is home to about half of the county's 6,100 voucher holders. Until she could receive a guarantee that more voucher holders won't move into her district, she said, she couldn't support the bill.

She held up a thick folder indicating how much feedback she's received from constituents on the issue.

"I don't know how to fix this problem, I really don't," Bevins said.

Councilman Tom Quirk, a Catonsville Democrat, expressed concern that the bill was drafted without input from all sides.

"I think more time could be put in working with some of the people that have concerns with the bill," he said.

Councilman David Marks, a Perry Hall Republican, said the county should focus on eliminating poverty, not spreading it around. He suggested working on job creation, job training, education and transportation.

Councilman Todd Crandell, a Dundalk Republican, and Councilman Wade Kach, a Cockeysville Republican, also voted against the bill.

The bill was opposed by groups that represent landlords, property managers and real estate agents. In addition, a group called the Baltimore County Campaign for Liberty ran an online campaign against the bill.

Housing vouchers make up the difference between what the tenant can afford to pay and what the landlord charges for rent. If the bill had passed, it would not have affected the number of vouchers issued, which is determined based on federal funding.

Under the terms of the county settlement, the county is required to reintroduce the bill after the next county elections, in 2018.

pwood@baltsun.com

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