Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski announces plans to introduce legislation that will make housing discrimination illegal.
A new county executive who brought renewed energy to an “exhausted” issue and activists inspired by election victories pushed Baltimore County Council to pass an anti-discrimination housing bill after a prior failure, county council members and others said.
Monday’s 4-3 party line vote caps years of debate, legal disputes and an agreement with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development about whether Baltimore County landlords should be able to turn away renters solely because they want to use a federal housing voucher, commonly referred to as Section 8. The last time county council voted on the proposal three years ago, it failed 6-1 under then County Executive Kevin Kamenetz.
Cathy Bevins was one of two Democrats who reversed a past vote to vote in favor of the bill Monday night.
Bevins, who represents Middle River and was assigned police protection after opponents posted threats and her personal information online, called her vote “the right thing to do” and said it’s “been overdue.”
Bevins said she first voted against the bill in 2016 because Kamenetz struck a deal with HUD to introduce the anti-discrimination legislation before he discussed the deal with the council. Bevins said Kamenetz, who died in 2018, called her into his office to discuss the settlement. He promised HUD "one vote or more” for the bill and said HUD wouldn’t bring it up until 2019 — after Kamenetz had run for governor — she said.
“I didn’t [vote for it] because I didn’t like the way it was rolled out. To me I didn’t have enough information,” Bevins said.
Democrat Tom Quirk of Oella also changed his vote to favor the bill this time. Quirk didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Don Mohler, former county executive who had served as Kamenetz’s chief of staff, said Kamentez’s efforts “planted the seeds" required for Olszewski to pass the bill.
“I look at him as the individual who actually planted the seeds in this garden, and then County Executive Olszewski was able to fertilize and water that garden and actually allow it to grow. I’m very, very proud of what the county executive did,” Mohler said.
Mohler also credited Olszewski and the council Democrats for their efforts to dispel the misinformation surrounding the bill and the voucher program. The bill’s opponents “demonized some of the most vulnerable people in our community," he said, when government’s role is “to lift others up.”
Several county officials also credited the bill’s passage to housing advocates. They worked hard “to try to put a face on people," Mohler said.
Olszewski agreed and called it “a team approach between advocates and the council and others on my team.”
Likewise, housing advocates credited the Olszewski administration and grassroots activists for rallying support of the legislation.
“The Olszewski administration deserves a lot of credit here for making this a priority and for doing the hard work of meeting with council people, meeting with the constituents of those council people, working to address the concerns,” said Matt Hill, an attorney with the Public Justice Center
Hill said activism from residents with “a progressive vision” for the county also had a significant effect.
“We’ve really seen … a growth in the presence in Baltimore County of folks who became active in the 2018 election,” he said.
In addition, Hill said there was “a night and day shift” between working with the Olszewski administration and the Kamenetz administration.
“You can just tell a huge difference when the executive is leading the charge, helping shape the messaging,” he said.
Tony Fugett, president of the county NAACP, said he “figured it was an uphill battle” to pass the legislation this year.
“I’m pleasantly surprised that a grassroots effort could be successful in doing the right thing in Baltimore County,” he said. “It’s a move in the right direction, a long time coming.”
Jones said he doesn’t think the county is going to see “some big movement afoot” of people relocating en masse to the county to use housing vouchers. The county could monitor the distribution of its vouchers, Jones said, and make adjustments to its laws or programs.
“We will continue to monitor the movement of the vouchers, if any, and make sure we don’t have any unintended consequences,” he said.
Olszewski said his housing office is in the process of developing education around the bill’s impact on landlords and renters. He also is working to announce plans soon to reform the county’s housing code enforcement process. Those reform efforts were inspired by residents’ concerns about housing complaints.
Bevins said she hopes their vote will inspire other jurisdictions to pass similar laws. The HOME Act is not going to “stop all prejudice and all discrimination,” but it will give tenants an opportunity to defend themselves against those experiences, she said.
After Monday’s vote, Bevins took a photo with Annapolis resident Jill Williams.
Williams told the council last week she obtained a voucher for homeless veterans years ago, but she could only find housing “miles away” from her Randallstown relatives. Bevins said the veteran’s story “inspired” and helped her in the days leading up to her vote.
“I’ve heard a lot of testimony in the past about this, how it’s changed people’s lives and given them a step up and they were able to go to school by being on a voucher," said Bevins, emphasizing source of income discrimination is not just about vouchers. “Her testimony was so compelling to me.”