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State shouldn't let landlords discriminate

As we recently celebrated the 45th anniversary of the federal Fair Housing Act, it is significant to note that the Baltimore and Washington, D.C. metropolitan regions are among the most segregated in America. Last month, the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law recently reported on a study showing that Maryland's public school system is among the most segregated in the nation.

The report, conducted by the Civil Rights Project at UCLA, revealed that more than half of the state's black students attended schools with minority enrollments between 90 percent and 100 percent during the 2010-2011 school year, up from 33 percent in 1989.

This is especially relevant in light of the Maryland General Assembly's recent failure to pass legislation requiring landlords to accept Section 8 housing vouchers — in effect, allowing landlords to discriminate against certain renters on the basis of their source of income.

The proposed legislation, known as the HOME Act, was not about increasing the number of vouchers, nor was it intended to force landlords to do anything other than treat all prospective tenants fairly, without regard to their legal source of income — be it a salary, VA benefit, voucher, loan, gift, private pension, Social Security (including disability assistance), alimony, child support or any other legal means. The legislation in no way prevents landlords from utilizing criteria such as rental or credit history or criminal background to evaluate a prospective tenant. Similar legislation is already the law in Frederick, Howard and Montgomery counties, as well as Annapolis — jurisdictions that represent approximately 25 percent of the state's population.

Refusing to accept housing-voucher holders as tenants is to deny opportunity to people, with the ability to pay, to live where they choose to live. This should not be occurring anywhere in our nation 45 years after the passage of the Fair Housing Act. I know something about this subject as executive director of one of the oldest fair housing agencies in the nation, which has promoted justice in housing since its founding in 1959 (a decade before the federal Fair Housing Act).

Tenants receiving funds from guaranteed sources may actually be a better economic risk than those of us whose salaried employment may be terminated, reduced or subject to furlough at any time. Moreover, the legislation would benefit the entire state by ensuring fairness for seniors, veterans, the disabled and other hardworking and struggling Maryland residents seeking affordable, habitable and sustainable housing.

Keep in mind that Maryland, along with much of the nation, is in an affordable housing crisis. Home sales prices and rental costs are rising, while inventory is scarce. The Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development has reported "a critical shortage of affordable rental housing for working families, senior citizens and individuals with special needs."

A recent study by the National Low Income Housing Coalition revealed that the fair market rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Maryland is $1,291. To afford this level of rent plus utilities — without paying more than 30 percent of income on housing — a household must earn $4,303 a month. In Maryland, a minimum-wage worker earning an hourly wage of $7.25 would need to work more than 20 hours a day, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year.

Government-funded financial assistance is not an overall solution to Maryland's poverty problem or affordable housing crisis. However, such assistance can be a catalyst to ending the persistent economic segregation that reflects the racial segregation that not long ago was practiced lawfully in Maryland.

It is clear that Maryland's most vulnerable are struggling. All Maryland residents need to know that they have an equal opportunity to live in a decent neighborhood with access to transportation, jobs and safe, academically achieving schools. Some need more help than others and should not be denied housing because they require some assistance or do not earn what is necessary to pay the extremely high market rent without assistance.

Source of income protection would encourage more stability in housing and more diverse, less segregated communities; foster greater economic and housing opportunities for all residents; and reduce concentrations of poverty by making housing available in more communities — not just the traditional "poor" neighborhoods. These are things for the General Assembly to keep in mind when the issue returns next year.

Robert J. Strupp is executive director of Baltimore Neighborhoods Inc. His email is rstrupp@bni-maryland.org.

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