Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski announces plans to introduce legislation that will make housing discrimination illegal.
Steve McIntyre didn’t mince words when talking about a Baltimore County plan that would block landlords from refusing to rent to low-income tenants who use federal housing vouchers. Public assistance for housing shouldn’t be outlawed, but the county shouldn’t have to endure a “forced expansion of Section 8," said the president of the Greater Towson Republican Club.
McIntyre and leaders of the Baltimore County Campaign for Liberty want to convince county council members to vote against the HOME Act, for Housing Opportunities Made Equal. The bill, introduced by County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr., prevents landlords from rejecting applications solely because the renters want to use federal Housing Choice Vouchers, commonly known as Section 8.
Most voucher users are concentrated in neighborhoods on the county’s east and west sides, and supporters of the HOME Act said the bill would allow renters to choose from more neighborhoods throughout Baltimore County.
But at a recent meeting in the Towson American Legion, opponents said the bill would mean more renters choosing to call Baltimore County home.
“Everything that they’re doing with this relocation experiment is an excuse to avoid dealing with the underlying problems," said McIntyre, referring to Baltimore City schools and housing.
Campaign for Liberty’s Tony Ristaino, of Towson, called it an effort to solve Baltimore City’s “bad policies" by moving poor city residents into the county.
Olszewski said his bill would expand economic opportunity and eliminate “pockets of poverty” in the community. The total number of housing vouchers is determined by federal funding. But more people might choose to use their vouchers in Baltimore County if the HOME Act became law, because the law is designed to make more rentals available.
A 2016 agreement between the county and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development requires the county executive to introduce the legislation until the bill is passed by the county council or Maryland General Assembly, or until the agreement is terminated. The settlement stems from 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.
The settlement details several obligations, including the county’s pledge to spend $30 million over a decade to entice developers to create 1,000 affordable rental housing units countywide.
The income discrimination legislation was first introduced in 2016 by then-County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, but failed when council members voted 6-1 against it. McIntyre told roughly 40 people at the Campaign for Liberty’s meeting that the group’s work getting people to voice opposition to the bill caused its failure. Now it’s time for them to do it again, he said.
Ristaino said the agreement does many “bad things" to the county. It’s trying to force landlords into doing business with the federal government, he said.
Campaign for Liberty leader Mark Baskervill called that a violation of property rights.
“It’s un-American and I think there’s a lot of unintended consequences that will arise out of this,” Baskervill said.
Landlords who accept housing vouchers have to bring their homes up to code and pay for inspections. In exchange, the federal government directly pays landlords rent. So landlords are guaranteed a portion of the rent arrives every month. Because it can be difficult to find a rental using a voucher, some landlords say those tenants tend to remain in their rentals.
The county’s proposed bill still would let landlords refuse people with incomes tied to criminal activity. Likewise, landlords still can run credit checks and verify the person’s source of income in a “nondiscriminatory manner” to see if they can afford the property.
Renters who believe they were rejected because they wanted to use a voucher could file a complaint with the county, county spokesman Sean Naron said.
In 2016, landlords argued they should be able to choose whether to accept the vouchers, which require paperwork and inspections.
Baskervill encouraged attendees to participate in door-to-door outreach and to get residents to sign the group’s online petition against the bill. The group also purchased online advertisements and robocalls. Some of these tactics were used in 2016, Baskervill said.
The anti-discrimination law is common in the Baltimore area. Anne Arundel County and Baltimore City passed similar laws earlier this year. Howard passed the law several years ago.
It’s un-American and I think there’s a lot of unintended consequences that will arise out of this.
Mark Baskervil, Baltimore County Campaign for Liberty
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Washington, D.C., also prohibits income discrimination. D.C.'s Human Rights Law generally prohibits landlords from asking direct or indirect questions that may reveal whether a renter wants to use a voucher. Prospective tenants can file a complaint with D.C.’s Office of Human Rights if they’ve experienced housing discrimination based on source of income.
The Human Rights office can investigate the claim, D.C. law shows, and if it determines the housing provider broke the law the office can order the landlord and the complainant to try to reach a settlement. The office or the complainant also could ask a civil court to order the landlord to stop discriminating.
If discrimination is found, the D.C. Commission on Human Rights can make the landlord pay damages to the renter and civil penalties.
Joel Cohn, legislative director for D.C’s Office of the Tenant Advocate, said the Human Rights office works with several organizations to test housing providers by having someone apply for housing to see if the provider is discriminatory.
“Source of income discrimination, I’m guessing, is one of the more prevalent issues that [the Office of Human Rights] continues to have to deal with,” Cohn said.
In Baltimore County, the bill’s passage isn’t guaranteed, despite the Democrats’ 4-3 majority on the county council.
Councilman Julian Jones cast the lone vote in favor of the bill in 2016. Fellow Democratic Councilman Izzy Patoka was elected last year and he supports the bill. Council members Tom Quirk and Cathy Bevins previously voted against it, but they haven’t voiced their stance so far. The council’s Republicans have said they don’t plan to change their votes against the bill.