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Baltimore County Council hears from both sides of debate over low income housing proposal

Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski announces plans to introduce legislation that will make housing discrimination illegal.

The Baltimore County Council heard emotionally charged pleas Tuesday concerning legislation to prohibit landlords from denying low-income applicants or renters because they plan to use federally subsidized housing vouchers.

Nearly 30 people spoke at the standing-room only meeting attended by more than 100. The bill’s supporters said the county needs to stop discrimination against voucher holders because the program mostly serves senior citizens, military veterans and people with disabilities who all face homelessness. County Administrative Officer Stacy Rodgers told the council the county issued 5,600 vouchers. Of those, 57% are for the disabled and 34% are for the elderly.

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Opponents, many of them landlords, objected to being forced into the federal program.

The bill, introduced by County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr., would prevent landlords from rejecting people from renting solely because the applicant wants to use a federal Housing Choice Voucher, often referred to as Section 8. Landlords still could check an applicant’s criminal and credit records, and conduct other background vetting, including verifying income sources, according to the proposed bill.

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The bill’s passage remains uncertain with a week remaining before the council’s Nov. 4 vote. Only two of the seven council members have publicly stated support for the bill: Democrats Julian Jones of Woodstock, who supported the bill before, and Izzy Patoka of Pikesville, elected last year. Fellow Democrats Cathy Bevins of Middle River and Tom Quirk of Oella have not yet voiced their stance on the bill. The council’s three Republicans oppose the bill.

Annapolis resident Jill Williams said she obtained a housing voucher designated for homeless veterans years ago. She wanted to live near her family, but she could only find housing “miles away” from her Randallstown relatives.

She spent money on 20 different housing applications, but she said each time the landlords either said “we don’t take section 8,” or “all of our section 8 units are full.” She said the experience was similar to the segregation she dealt with as a child in school.

“I am appalled. My late husband and I served so that other people can live comfortably," said the 61-year-old U.S. Coast Guard veteran. "I was good enough to serve my country, but not good enough to live in your neighborhood.”

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The three hour meeting featured moments of applause and murmurs from attendees, and Bevins engaged in some heated exchanges.

In one instance, several men shouted “shame on you” after Bevins asked the bill’s opponents which of them wouldn’t rent to Williams because of her voucher. Bevins also argued with the leader of a conservative group, the Campaign for Liberty, about the legitimacy of 2,300 signatures on an online petition the group gathered from residents opposing the bill.

Some opponents said their stance was based solely on the program’s bureaucracy, but others claimed voucher holders negatively impact the units and property values in a community.

Dundalk resident and property owner Wayne Sloboda said he’s a disabled veteran. He said Dundalk’s concentration of poverty is caused by residents in the voucher program. He also said it has affected the area’s property values and its crime rate.

Landlord Barbara Johnson said few of the bill’s supporters “are landlords who have been destroyed by tenants who have destroyed their property," eliciting some applause.

“I no longer take [vouchers] anymore because it costs me too much money, and what’s going to happen is you’re driving away all of the landlords who’re willing to rent to people,” Johnson of Phoenix said.

Olszewski, a Democrat, was required to re-introduce the bill as part of a 2016 agreement between the county and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The local NAACP chapter sued the county, arguing local policies perpetuated clusters of segregated housing.

Marsha Parham-Green, who directs the county housing office, said the HOME Act will disperse the pockets of poverty seen in the western and eastern parts of the county.

Calling the HOME Act another instance of “the Federal Government’s fixation with social engineering,” Republican Councilman Wade Kach of Cockeysville said the council’s goal should be to “improve existing struggling neighborhoods, and not abandon them.” He advocated for the elimination of the voucher program altogether.

Under the bill, renters who believe they were rejected because they wanted to use a voucher could file a complaint with the county. The county’s Commission on Human Relations would investigate the complaint and order the landlord to rent to the complainant if the commission finds discrimination, county attorney Mike Field said. If the landlord still refuses to rent to the complainant, Field said the county’s law office could sue the landlord and ask a judge to order the landlord to comply with the law.

Some opponents and council members discussed amending the bill. Bevins said she’s considering proposing an amendment but didn’t provide any details. Aaron Greenfield of the Maryland Multi-Housing Association wants the council to change the bill to only require landlords to rent up to a percentage of their units to voucher holders. Quirk asked one landlord if the council should consider an amendment to exempt landlords who own fewer than three units.

Olszewski has expressed concern that significant amendments may not meet the requirements of the HUD agreement and could leave the county open to a legal challenge.

"A bill passed with significant amendments, including caps, may not satisfy the terms of the agreement,” county spokesman Sean Naron said. "Deviating from the agreement would either force the county to consider new, clean legislation next year, or risk future legal action.”

The bill needs at least four votes on the seven-member council to pass. The county executive has to introduce the legislation until it’s passed by the council or Maryland General Assembly, or until the agreement is terminated.

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