When the Baltimore County Council took up legislation in 2016 aimed at banning discrimination against renters who use housing vouchers, the vote wasn’t even close. The measure introduced by then-County Executive Kevin Kamenetz failed 6-1.
Now, County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. is trying again, with plans to introduce the same legislation Monday. Housing advocates say they are hopeful Olszewski will bring a fresh strategy and dedication to the effort, but it isn’t clear that he has enough support on the council to pass the bill, dubbed the Baltimore County HOME Act.
Only two of the seven council members have publicly announced support for the bill, which would make it illegal for landlords to reject a renter solely because of their source of income. The measure aims to give flexibility to those who use federally funded Housing Choice Vouchers commonly known as Section 8, which have been concentrated in neighborhoods on the county’s east and west sides.
“Discrimination in any form is simply wrong,” Olszewski, a Democrat, said at a Towson news conference where he unveiled plans for the bill. “It’s time for Baltimore County to finally take action.”
Democratic Councilmen Julian Jones of Woodstock — the bill’s lone backer on the council last time — and Izzy Patoka of Pikesville, who was elected last year, joined Olszewski as a show of support Friday.
But absent were the council’s other two Democrats, Tom Quirk of Oella and Cathy Bevins of Middle River. Both voted against the 2016 bill and haven’t disclosed their position on this year’s bill. Neither returned messages seeking comment Friday.
The council’s three Republicans, Todd Crandell of Dundalk, Wade Kach of Cockeysville and David Marks of Perry Hall, all said they plan to oppose it.
“We always like to have a positive outlook, but the reality is I think there are still some people who need to be convinced that it’s the right thing to do,” said Tony Fugett, president of the Baltimore County NAACP, which supports the bill.
As Kamenetz was, Olszewski is required to introduce the bill under a 2016 county agreement with the the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. That settlement stemmed from federal housing complaints by the NAACP and others that alleged county policy perpetuated segregation and discriminated against African Americans, families with children and people with disabilities.
The bill has to be reintroduced yearly until it passes, county officials said.
Supporters contend that the legislation will help reduce concentrations of voucher-holders by giving people more options of where to live. They said landlords still would be able run credit and background checks on tenants.
Backers pointed to stories such as that of county resident Sharonda Ellerby, who said she used Section 8 in the 1990s, when she was a teen mother. The White Marsh resident, who had her first baby at age 14, now runs her own businesses, including a Rosedale tax preparation service.
The housing assistance was “a stepping stone” to a better life, said Ellerby, who joined elected officials at Olszewski’s press conference. But it wasn’t easy to find a place to live.
“I also remember the struggle of always being told ‘No, I don’t accept Section 8,’” she said.
Today more than 25,000 families are on the county’s voucher waiting list, said Marsha Parham-Green, who directs the county housing office. Most people face a wait time of more than a dozen years.
Last July, the county closed the wait list because officials didn’t want to keep giving people “false hope,” Parham-Green said.
Democrats hold a 4-3 majority on Baltimore County Council, but that doesn’t guarantee Olszewski’s bill will pass.
“I’m sure that the county executive is working the Democrats, and we don’t know right now where they are,” said Adam Skolnik, executive director of the Maryland Multi-Housing Association, which opposes the legislation.
Skolnik said landlords shouldn’t be required to participate in the voucher programs. Some of them simply don’t want to deal with the requirements, such as inspections and paperwork, he said.
“There’s no discrimination,” Skolnik said. “This is just about the cumbersome nature of the bureaucracy.”
But the Rev. Marlon Tilghman of the ecumenical group Bridge Maryland Inc. said the measure would “help a vast number of citizens who simply have been placed on the margins by, in some cases, circumstance that they cannot control.”
In 2016, Tilghman said, council members worried that voting for the bill would hurt them in the 2018 elections.
Tilghman said he is optimistic that Olszewski will bring more enthusiasm to the issue this year. In last year’s campaign for county executive, Olszewski was the only candidate to support the legislation. He also supported similar state legislation as a delegate in the Maryland General Assembly.
“I think he simply has a passion ... to try to make this happen,” Tilghman said.
The administration of Kamenetz, a Democrat, often faced criticism from some council members who said he didn’t try to work with them.
Olszewski said his staff has made a concerted effort seek partnerships with the council and are hopeful they can find common ground on the housing issue.
“We bring people to the table,” Olszewski said. "We come together and we find progress.”
When the Baltimore City Council passed a similar bill this year, the final version required landlords to rent only 20% of their units to people with vouchers. While it remains opposed to the legislation, Skolnik’s group is pushing to include similar caps if it were to pass.
It’s not clear whether such an amendment — or any change to the bill — could increase the bill’s chance of passage in the county.
The council’s three Republicans said they don’t plan to change their votes.
“I can’t see a scenario where I would change my vote,” Crandell said. “I don’t believe that we should be forcing property owners into contracts with the federal government. I think there’s something wholly un-American about it.”
Marks said he worries the legislation would lead to too many rental units in some neighborhoods, adding, “in my opinion, spreading poverty around does not eliminate poverty.”
Still, Jones and Patoka pledged to work with their colleagues to try to pass the bill this time around.
“We were elected to make difficult but fair decisions,” Patoka said.
Although the legislation is mandated by the federal agreement, Jones said, “it’s within our hearts to support this."