Baltimore County Council hears both sides on housing discrimination debate

Baltimore Co. officials will vote Monday on a bill barring discrimination against people with housing vouchers

The Baltimore County Council heard impassioned pleas Thursday to pass a bill that bars landlords from discriminating against prospective tenants who hold government housing vouchers.

But as a vote approaches on Aug. 1, the measure faces uncertain odds, with Councilman Julian Jones the only member committed to backing the bill.

The other six members have expressed misgivings ranging from concerns that the bill strips property rights from landlords to worries that it could further concentrate poor people in neighborhoods that already have a high number of vouchers.

The bill, proposed by County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, would bar landlords from discriminating against prospective tenants based on their source of income. While the bill is written broadly, the goal is to stop discrimination against people who have housing vouchers, commonly called Section 8 vouchers.

Advocates for the bill say many people who hold housing vouchers are turned down immediately by landlords and apartment owners.

Jones, a Woodstock Democrat, was adamant that the bill is a good idea: "It doesn't force anyone to do anything other than be an American and not discriminate and to give people a fair chance," he said.

Other council members weren't so sure.

"I'm truly trying to grapple with this," said Councilman Tom Quirk, a Catonsville Democrat.

Quirk said he was torn between the possible benefit of helping voucher holders move to better neighborhoods and the possible burden on landlords who would have to get involved in the voucher program.

Councilwoman Cathy Bevins, a Middle River Democrat, worries the bill could drive more voucher holders to her part of the county, which has a large portion of the county's approximately 6,200 vouchers.

"I'm saturated now, and I'm going to get more," she said.

The council's three Republicans — Todd Crandell, David Marks and Wade Kach — also expressed doubts about the bill.

Only Council Chairwoman Vicki Almond, a Reisterstown Democrat, who presided over the meeting, refrained from commenting on the bill. She had previously said she is undecided.

More than three dozen people attempted to sway the council members during 21/2 hours of testimony.

Rebecca Abrahamson of Middle River recounted how she had to swallow her pride and apply for a housing voucher and food stamps after she left an abusive relationship and struggled to support her family with a minimum-wage job.

With the housing voucher, "I felt like I had a golden ticket in my hand," she said. She quickly learned, however, that it was hard to find a landlord to accept her voucher. Eventually, a friend helped her find a place, and she completed college and worked her way off of government assistance.

Representatives of landlords and property managers argued they should be able to decide whether to participate in the housing voucher program, which they say involves additional paperwork and inspections.

Adam Skolnik, executive director of the Maryland Multi-Housing Association, said he accepts tenants with housing vouchers. But he disagrees that vouchers should be considered the same as a tenant's paycheck or Social Security check.

"Vouchers are not a source of income," he said. "This is a misnomer that it's a source of income."

In the voucher program, the government determines how much a participant can afford to pay for rent based on their income and other factors. The voucher makes up the difference between the participant's payment and the full amount of the rent.

The council is required to consider the bill as part of a settlement stemming from a housing discrimination complaint. Baltimore County also agreed to spend millions of dollars to induce developers to build affordable housing and to move poor tenants out of areas with concentrated voucher use.

The bill needs at least four votes on the seven-member council to pass. If it gains three votes, the council must consider it again next year, under the terms of the settlement. If it gets two or fewer votes, it won't be reintroduced until after the next round of county elections in 2018.

pwood@baltsun.com

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This story was corrected to reflect that the Baltimore County Council will vote on the bill on Aug. 1.

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