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Baltimore County Council Chairman Tom Quirk said he’s skeptical about the impact of the recently passed HOME Act, calling it “more symbolic than anything."

Starting Dec. 27, rental applicants in Baltimore County can no longer be rejected by landlords based solely on whether they use federal housing vouchers, after the Baltimore County Council’s passage of the Housing Opportunities Made Equal, or HOME, Act.

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“I’d like to think I’m wrong,” Quirk, who represents the southwestern part of the county, said, but “I don’t think a lot of people will change decision-making because of it.

"I think a lot of people will still live in a [neighborhood] where there’s ultimately more affordability.”

Quirk and the other three Democrats on the council voted in support of the legislation, while the three Republicans opposed it.

Progressive housing advocates like Our Revolution Baltimore City/County, one of many groups that pushed for the passage of the HOME Act, see it as a steppingstone for voucher holders to potentially relocate to more affluent areas with, presumably, better job resources and schools, said Sheila Ruth, co-chair of the local Our Revolution chapter.

Quirk, like his northeastern counterpart Councilwoman Cathy Bevins, was reticent about his position on the bill leading up to the vote. He and Bevins both received threats after expressing their support.

The threat came from a member of his district; police are currently monitoring the individual, Quirk said.

The Oella Democrat’s support for the bill was predicated on Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr.’s commitment to more resources for county code enforcement, and “streamlining the process to make it easier for landlords” to rent to voucher holders, Quirk said. He also co-sponsored an amendment exempting landlords who manage three or fewer properties with four or fewer rental units.

Quirk voted in 2016 with five other council members against an anti-housing discrimination bill proposed under the late county executive Kevin Kamenetz.

The council was compelled by an agreement with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to reintroduce legislation ending income discrimination until it passed, after complaints alleging housing discrimination were filed against Baltimore County in 2011.

County landlords who opposed the bill said processing paperwork for applicants receiving federal aid was cumbersome, and that they must pay for inspections and bringing their facilities up to code.

“We just need to do a better job of being proactive when it comes to enforcing code,” Quirk said, and “if we get any bad apples in the system,” the county needs to do a better job of “weeding them out.”

Kathryn Honaker, president of the east and west Catonsville Manor community associations, said the association discussed code enforcement with Quirk and Olszewski during an October meeting on the bill.

“It’s not just the HOME Act,” the Ingleside resident said. “It’s everything with these landlords,” some of whom, according to Honaker, allow tenants’ families to move in with little oversight.

Honaker, who said she supports the act, added she remains concerned about who would be permitted to move into her community under the HOME Act, and wants assurance they will be “law-abiding citizens.”

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The law still permits landlords to conduct background and credits checks on applicants.

Landlords “can still filter and screen [applicants] based on objective criteria,” Quirk said.

Many reactions to the law were based in “fear and emotion, versus actual fact,” the council chair added.

Many of the issues raised by opponents had to do with code enforcement rather than the voucher program, said Baltimore County spokesman Sean Naron.

The county executive’s office plans to announce “in the near future” the next steps to examine the county’s code enforcement process, including dedicating resources in the county’s fiscal 2021 budget, Naron said.

Quirk added if the bill is truly successful, it will ultimately lead to fewer vouchers and “higher co-equality” in wealthier areas.

Baltimore County has issued approximately 5,600 vouchers, and 60% of voucher holders who live in the county are concentrated to its east and west sides. In Quirk’s district, 7% of voucher holders live in Gwynn Oak; 7% in Windsor Mill; 2% reside in Halethorpe; and 1.64% in Catonsville.

Ruth expects the legislation to “enable [voucher holders] to have more opportunities … to move near good schools and good jobs.”

But “it’s gonna take time,” she added.

A 2011 study prepared for HUD found that the concentration of “extremely low-income households” living in neighborhoods with a poverty rate lower than 10% was only slightly lower than voucher recipients living in the same areas, suggesting “the spatial outcomes of very poor households” compare similarly with voucher holders, according to the report.

“This belies the notion that vouchers expand geographic opportunity for the poor,” according to the report.

Matt Hill, a housing attorney with Public Justice Center, said the legislation will have a “significant” impact for county voucher holders, but not immediately.

“You’re gonna see some movement, you’re gonna see some people moving into new areas of the county,” Hill said.

The bill “I think, emotionally, means something, to be advocated,” Quirk said, but “a lot of the fear and the emotions of it [are] misplaced.

"I just don’t think it’s something that’s suddenly going to have this magical solution where rentals change that much.”

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