After a car accident left English Harper with a spinal cord injury, he was forced to move from his parents in Prince George’s County to receive inpatient care in Baltimore.
Eventually he found an apartment in Owings Mills that was wheelchair-accessible. But less than a year after he moved in, the building’s new management gave him two months to leave. They would no longer accept federally subsidized vouchers like the one Harper used to help pay his rent.
“It was embarrassing. They didn’t even have the decency to contact us,” said Harper, 27. He said management just put notices on the tenants’ doors. "The pizza man is actually the one that handed me the letter,” Harper said.
Baltimore County law allows landlords to turn away tenants because they use vouchers. Now the County Council is weighing legislation that would make that illegal by banning discrimination in housing based on “source of income." A vote is scheduled for Monday.
Harper, a former electrician apprentice who now works as an information specialist, says his eviction led to a search in which at least 10 landlords turned him away because he would be using a voucher. He wound up moving to Columbia in Howard County, where source of income discrimination has been outlawed for years.
He is among those who want the Baltimore County Council to pass the HOME Act, for Housing Opportunities Made Equal.
The bill, introduced by County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr., would prevent landlords from rejecting someone solely because the applicant wants to use a housing voucher, often referred to as Section 8. Landlords would still be able to review criminal history, run credit checks and request rental history, among other methods, to vet potential renters.
It’s the second time in three years that the county is taking up the measure. The County Council rejected the same legislation by a 6-1 vote in 2016, when then-County Executive Kevin Kamenetz introduced it.
Olszewski, like Kamenetz 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 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.
"We have decades of research that converge on a striking fact, which is that it’s not just a family a child is born into, but the neighborhood she grows up in that shapes her fate,” said Stefanie DeLuca, a Johns Hopkins University sociology professor who studies housing policy.
But the bill is drawing opposition from some landlords and residents.
The Maryland Multi-Housing Association, which represents owners and managers of rental housing, says landlords should not be forced to participate in the federal program and endure all the government regulations that comes with that.
“This has absolutely nothing to do with the people,” said Adam Skolnik, the association’s executive director. “This is about the bureaucracy.” Skolnik said many landlords have to hire additional help to complete the paperwork.
The program requires them to undergo inspections beyond what’s required by county law, and some also have complained about federal delays in approving renters and difficulties recouping costs if a property is damaged.
“What we don’t want to have to deal with is local and federal government telling us how to run our businesses,” Skolnik said.
Others note that the program also has advantages for landlords. The federal government sends them a portion of the monthly rent directly. Because it can be difficult to find a rental using a voucher, tenants tend to stay in their rentals. Skolnik said his experience is that voucher holders also maintain the property “just as well if not better than” other people in the same socioeconomic background.
Brock Reich, a property manager for CR of Maryland, called the complaints “blown out of proportion.” Eighty percent of CR of Maryland’s 300 properties in the county and the city have families using housing assistance, and most of those properties are in the county. The paperwork does take a week, but the HUD inspection is similar to the rental inspection required of some landlords by Baltimore County, he said.
More than 100 people attended a county council hearing on the bill Tuesday. Supporters and opponents were about evenly split, and most of the opponents who spoke said they were landlords.
Congress created the housing voucher program in the 1970s. Today, 5,600 households use vouchers issued by Baltimore County, while 25,000 families are on the county’s waiting list.
County data show its vouchers are being used in communities concentrated on the county’s east and west sides. A Dundalk ZIP code, 21222, has nearly 12% of the county’s vouchers.
But people who received their vouchers in Baltimore County have also chosen to move elsewhere, such as Howard County and Baltimore City.
According to nationwide HUD data, voucher households are typically small — between two and three people — and they are older, with more than half having a resident who is at least 51 years old.
One-quarter of voucher households include someone with a disability. Three-quarters earn less than $20,000 a year.
Nationally, the average wait to receive a voucher is 29 months, but it’s much longer in Baltimore County — more than 12 years. The county closed the wait list last year, saying it didn’t want to give people false hope.
Randallstown resident Niesha McCoy, 41, was on the waiting list for about a year while she was in a rehab facility for an injury. She has spina bifida and is unemployed.
People with vouchers just want a decent place to live that’s affordable, she said. McCoy wants the council to pass the HOME Act to provide more housing options across the county to low-income families and disabled people like her.
“Imagine ... being told ‘No you can’t live here because of the source of income that you have,’ " McCoy said. “That’s almost the same as people being told ‘No you can’t live here because you’re black or a minority.' ”
It’s not uncommon for landlords to say outright in housing ads that they don’t accept vouchers.
“No section 8, no cats, dogs will consider,” says a recent Craigslist ad for a one-bedroom apartment in Parkville.
“No pets and no vouchers,” says another listing for a three-bedroom home in Towson.
Windsor Mill resident Tiffany Jackson has lost track of how many times landlords have turned her away due to her voucher use. She thanks God for being able to have found housing seven times in the past, but she said most landlords in her experience assume the worst about voucher holders.
“I don’t know what areas my children and I would have lived in had it not been for the voucher," said Jackson, 37.
Jackson is in the midst of moving into a larger house with her 14- and 16-year-old sons. She said her children also would benefit from living closer to their school if they moved to Randallstown.
Voucher holders aren’t “bad people,” Jackson said, “we’re just out here trying to survive and take care of our families just like everyone else. ... We just don’t have the same opportunities that everyone has had.”
The HOME Act faces uncertain prospects on the council. Only two members have publicly stated support for the bill: Democrats Julian Jones of Woodstock, who supported the last bill as well, and Izzy Patoka of Pikesville, elected last year.
Jones is now considering amendments that could weaken the bill, requiring landlords to rent only a percentage of their units to voucher holders. The Maryland Multi-Housing Association is pushing the change.
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. The settlement requires the county executive to oppose changes that weaken the legislation.
Advocates say such an amendment would defeat the purpose.
“It would gut the intent of the legislation,” said Roland Patterson, chair of the legal redress committee of the county NAACP.
Patterson said he appreciates that Jones is trying to make the legislation “more palatable to his colleagues on the County Council,” but said caps would still allow discrimination to occur.
“When you give your child medicine, you just are going to have to give the full teaspoon of medicine,” Patterson said.
Research shows banning voucher discrimination can improve opportunities a bit for renters.
A 2011 study done for HUD showed the source-of-income laws made it easier for voucher holders to find a rental, but had only a modest effect on where they live.
The laws don’t dramatically change “locational outcomes,” that is, whether voucher holders move to more advantaged neighborhoods, said Lance Freeman, the study’s author and a professor in the urban planning program at Columbia University.
Voucher holders tend to concentrate in areas where housing is relatively affordable, Freeman said. “Even with the laws, you still see voucher holders concentrating in certain areas, just like single family housing tends to be concentrated in certain areas,” he said.
While there wasn’t a dramatic effect on where people live, Freeman said the laws still make a difference.
“In a world of limited resources and a desperate need for more affordable housing, such a finding should not be taken lightly,” he concluded in his 2011 study.
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If the council rejects the bill again this year, the issue is certain to re-emerge. The 2016 settlement requires the county executive to introduce it yearly.