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In suburban Baltimore County, the issue of making affordable housing available to more families looms large, as tougher requirements from the federal government are about to kick in and the county prepares for new political leadership. (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)

Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. will release a long-anticipated plan Friday to outlaw housing discrimination based on how a tenant pays their rent.

Olszewski’s HOME Act, for Housing Opportunities Made Equal, would make it illegal for landlords to refuse to rent to someone based on their source of income, including tenants who want to use a federal housing voucher or other forms of public assistance. Olszewski plans to introduce the bill at next week’s council meeting.

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The bill is required as part of a 2016 agreement the county signed to settle a federal housing discrimination complaint brought by the local NAACP, housing advocates and three county residents. They accused the county of perpetuating segregated clusters of minority renters with government subsidies by failing to expand affordable options in more prosperous neighborhoods.

But addressing the issue has been a political problem. Baltimore County Council members overwhelmingly rejected a housing bill in 2016 supported by a previous county administration.

At the center of the debate is the use of federal housing vouchers, often referred to as Section 8. The voucher is a supplement to help low-income residents pay for housing. Recipients are required to pay 30% of their income for rent while the voucher covers the remaining cost. Nearly 70% of voucher recipients statewide are seniors, people with disabilities or children, the county said. Nearly 5,000 households in the county use vouchers.

Supporters say the bill would open up more rental options for people using housing vouchers because landlords could no longer deny them solely based on the voucher. And with more options available, those clustered communities of renters using vouchers could disperse through the county.

Renters could file complaints with the county if they think a landlord rejected them because they wanted to use a voucher.

Olszewski told The Baltimore Sun the county is doing “everything in our power to expand economic opportunity, improve equity and eliminate pockets of poverty in our communities.” The HOME Act would give residents greater flexibility in choosing where to live, he said.

“We have both a legal and moral obligation to expand access to affordable housing in Baltimore County, and the HOME Act is a critical piece of the puzzle,” Olszewski said.

Olszewski’s campaign for county executive focused heavily on the implementation of fair housing policies, but passage of that legislation has been an uphill battle. The first bill, proposed by former executive Kevin Kamenetz, was rejected by the council in a 6-1 vote.

Olszewski faces a council largely unchanged since that vote.

Councilman Todd Crandell, a Dundalk Republican, said he voted against the 2016 bill because it’s “un-American” for local government to force private property owners into federal contracts. Such a bill “philosophically is unconstitutional” because it infringes upon property rights, he said.

He also argued that the legislation wouldn’t disperse voucher recipients across the county. Vouchers more likely would be used in the county’s southeastern region, Crandell said, because home prices have fallen there and rentals are likely to be less expensive. People who obtain vouchers also tend to stay close to their families, he said.

Councilman David Marks, a Perry Hall Republican, agreed with Crandell on the issue of property rights. Marks also voted against the 2016 bill because people are concerned about the “rentalization of certain communities.”

“We have a lot of neighborhoods that are already on a tipping point between the number of rentals and the number of owner-occupied homes, and that [bill] will just lead to neighborhoods where the majority of the homes are rentals. That’s a real concern in places like Perry Hall and Loch Raven Village,” Marks said.

In 2016, landlords also argued that housing vouchers require paperwork and inspections. They should be able to choose whether to accept the vouchers.

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Even so, it appears more members of the council are poised to support Olszewski’s legislation. Councilman Izzy Patoka, the Pikesville Democrat elected last year, said it’s important for the county to address the housing needs of their older adults, veterans, people with disabilities and all families. His comments were backed by Councilman Julian Jones, a Woodstock Democrat and the only council member who voted in favor of the 2016 bill.

“It’s long past time for Baltimore County to act to protect county residents from housing discrimination,” Jones said.

The 2011 complaint that spurred the genesis of the county’s housing bill proposals alleged that the county has placed voucher holders in poor and segregated neighborhoods. It also alleged that the county maintained policies that kept low-income and minority residents out of the best neighborhoods by spending most of its federal housing money on senior housing occupied primarily by white people. Since 1995, the county also has demolished and failed to replace 4,100 subsidized housing units for families.

As a result, the county pledged in its 2016 deal with the federal government that $30 million would be spent over the next decade to encourage developers to build 1,000 homes for low-income black families in prosperous county neighborhoods. The county also pledged to help 2,000 families with rent subsidies move from poor, predominantly black communities to better-integrated neighborhoods with better schools, lower crime and minimal clusters of subsidized homes.

Under the 2016 federal conciliation agreement, the county executive must introduce housing legislation every year until council passes a bill.

Frederick, Howard and Montgomery counties have had laws prohibiting housing discrimination based on source of income for several years. Anne Arundel County and Baltimore City passed similar legislation earlier this year. A statewide bill preventing income discrimination died during the most recent General Assembly session.

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