Baltimore County Council members face a challenging decision: whether to outlaw housing discrimination based on how a tenant pays his rent.
County Executive Kevin Kamenetz plans to introduce a bill Tuesday that would prohibit such discrimination. Though the measure encompasses all types of income, it's targeted at eliminating discrimination against people with government housing vouchers, commonly known as Section 8 vouchers.
Kamenetz's bill has the backing of a coalition of groups that advocate for the homeless and the poor. But it faces opposition from property managers and landlords, as well as from some residents who worry it will lead to more low-income housing in the county.
"There's a lot of fear-mongering, and it's been going on for a long, long time," Kamenetz said.
Kamenetz is required to introduce the bill as part of a housing discrimination settlement with the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development that was reached this year. The county also must spend $30 million over the next decade to encourage developers to build 1,000 homes for low-income families and move 2,000 families with housing vouchers to areas with few such families now.
If Kamenetz's housing voucher discrimination bill does not pass the County Council, the HUD settlement requires it to be reintroduced in future years.
The Kamenetz administration and supporters of the legislation say it would be one step toward breaking up heavy concentrations of poverty and housing vouchers in parts of the county.
Right now, they say, people who are approved for vouchers can have a difficult time finding a landlord who will rent to them in their preferred neighborhoods.
"That is a major problem in the county today. There are many landlords who will deny all vouchers," said Matt Hill, an attorney with the Public Justice Center.
Other landlords may accept vouchers in some of their rental complexes but not in others. "It steers people with vouchers into particular areas of the county that often already have a concentration of low-income people," Hill said.
Housing advocates say that when poverty is concentrated, residents have fewer job opportunities, lower-quality schools and a poor quality of life. When poor people move to more affluent neighborhoods, they have a better shot at climbing the economic ladder, these advocates say.
"It's all about having choices and having options," said Tony Fugett, president of the Baltimore County chapter of the NAACP.
Property managers and landlords counter that they shouldn't be forced to accept tenants with housing vouchers. They say the paperwork and inspections required by the program are cumbersome and time-consuming. It takes longer to get a housing voucher tenant into a unit than a traditional tenant paying all of their rent themselves.
"That's just an added expense that is just not necessarily affordable to anybody, because it makes the rent go up," said Katherine Howard, general counsel for property management company Regional Management. She's also legislative chairwoman for the Maryland Multi-Housing Association.
Some of the association's members rent to tenants with vouchers, while others don't. The association wants to ensure that landlords have the freedom to decide whether to accept vouchers.
"We don't want to have to deal with the government in our business unless we choose to," said Thomas Tompsett, director of government affairs for the multi-housing group.
Tompsett questioned the assertion that voucher-holders can't find places to rent in desirable areas of the county. He said vouchers are used in neighborhoods such as Timonium and White Marsh.
Thirteen vouchers are used in Timonium and one is used in White Marsh, according to data provided by Baltimore County's Office of Housing. According to Baltimore County data, the use of vouchers is concentrated in the eastern and western sides of the county.
A total of 6,261 families and individuals have housing vouchers in Baltimore County. More than 90 percent have tenant-based Section 8 vouchers, while the rest are in voucher programs for the elderly, veterans and people with AIDS.
In the west-side neighborhoods of Woodlawn, Gwynn Oak, Windsor Mill, Randallstown and Pikesville, there are 1,743 vouchers. In the nearby northwestern communities of Reisterstown and Owings Mills, there are an additional 782 voucher holders.
The east-side neighborhoods of Dundalk, Middle River, Essex, Rosedale and Sparrows Point have a combined 2,189 vouchers. Dundalk has the most vouchers of any community in the county, with 751 vouchers in the 21222 ZIP code.
Before the voucher discrimination bill has even been introduced, it's drawn attention.
In April, hundreds of people donned lavender T-shirts and packed a County Council meeting to show their support for the measure. A few dozen opponents spoke against the bill at the same meeting.
Baltimore County's Campaign for Liberty has been using email and social media to garner opposition to the bill — attracting the attention of writer and filmmaker David Simon, whose work includes "Show Me a Hero," a miniseries about a housing desegregation battle in Yonkers, N.Y. Simon linked to a post about the Campaign for Liberty on Twitter on Friday and wrote to his 42,500 followers: "Je suis Yonkers," which means "I am Yonkers" in French.
The Campaign for Liberty did not respond to a request for comment sent through the group's Facebook account.
Council Chairwoman Vicki Almond, a Reisterstown Democrat who represents the northwestern part of the county, said she's already heard repeatedly from supporters and from opponents of the bill.
Almond said she's not sure which way she's going to vote.
"I've been one who's been on the fence, I admit that," Almond said. "I've talked to all sides."
She said she is sympathetic to the goals of the bill but also cognizant of the possible burden to landlords.
"It's a tough issue," she said. "I can see both sides of the issue, which is why I'm having a tough time."
Councilman Tom Quirk, a Catonsville Democrat, said he's heard from dozens of people. He said he's keeping an open mind on the bill.
"I'm certain I'll hear from a lot more constituents," Quirk said. "This is an issue that tends to create a lot of passion and interest from all different groups and people."
Councilman Todd Crandell, a Dundalk Republican, said he's concerned the legislation could end up bringing even more vouchers to his district.
"Requiring property owners in my district to take vouchers when they don't want to means more vouchers in our area," Crandell said. "My district has suffered from a devastating amount of job loss, combined with an influx of vouchered housing," Crandell said, adding that he's "a firm 'no'" on the bill.
Across the county, Councilman Julian Jones, a Woodstock Democrat, said he's firmly in support of the bill.
"To me, it goes back to discrimination or prejudice, where you're taking a predetermined position about somebody without ever seeing them," Jones said. "At least let them come and make an application."
Jones said that too often, prospective tenants are immediately told that vouchers aren't accepted. "If they were given an opportunity to walk in the door and speak with some of these property owners, they would, in turn, give them an opportunity," Jones said.
The other three council members did not respond to requests for comment: Republicans David Marks of Perry Hall and Wade Kach of Cockeysville and Democrat Cathy Bevins of Middle River.
Del. Stephen Lafferty, who has tried unsuccessfully to get a statewide voucher discrimination bill passed, said decisions on housing policy can be difficult given the emotions people have about their communities and the spread of misinformation.
"Low-income people are perceived as not being good neighbors," said Lafferty, a Towson Democrat. "A lot of it, I believe, is misinformation. I think the antagonism from residents of parts of the county with a number of vouchers sort of misses the point. This is an opportunity for more options."
With housing vouchers, the tenant pays a portion of the rent — the amount set based on the tenant's income — and the government voucher covers the remainder. When an individual receives a voucher, he has 60 days to find a rental unit and have it approved by the county. The average voucher is worth $887.
Marsha Parham, director of the county's Office of Housing, said counselors are available to help voucher holders find places to live. But it's not always easy.
"The thing I hear is: 'I can't find a place to live where I want to live,'" Parham said.
With rental choices often limited, voucher holders end up concentrated in complexes that will accept them. "They go where they know they can lease," Parham said.
The County Council plans to hold a public hearing on the bill during a July 21 work session, with a vote set for Aug. 1. All council meetings are held in the Historic Courthouse, 400 Washington Ave. in Towson.