Coalition aims to end discrimination against housing voucher recipients

Tisha Guthrie applied for a housing voucher in 2004 when she became legally blind. After waiting five years for approval, she says, she still struggled for a long time to find quality housing.

She had lived in one Mount Vernon apartment for a year before she began a seven-month search for a place in Baltimore County, where she thought she'd find more adequate housing in a quieter setting.


"I'd stop by leasing offices and it'd be going well, but when I told them I have vouchers, they'd turn me away," she said.

Guthrie is one of the approximately 45,000 Marylanders in the Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher Program who a coalition hopes to help through a new campaign to end discrimination against those needing rent assistance.


"There are stereotypes that these people are troublemakers," said Kathleen Koch, who is one of the coalition members heading the project. "The [housing voucher] tenants are more likely to take better care of their apartments because if they violate the rules, their next stop is the streets."

The Community Development Network of Maryland's campaign, called Consider the Person, is being financed through an approximately $50,000 grant it received from the Opportunity Collaborative, a consortium creating a regional plan for sustainable development in the Baltimore area.

The network's main goal is to encourage more landlords to accept the vouchers, which they are not legally required to do.

According to the Community Development Network, approximately 60 percent of voucher recipients are elderly or disabled, and 38 percent are employed, though the average salary is about $15,000 a year. The program requires tenants to put no more than 40 percent of their income toward rents and utilities.

"There's a long waiting list — about 12,000 [applicants]," Koch said. "They could be waiting for years."

Under the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, local housing agencies are required to give voucher holders at least 60 days to find an apartment. But many, including Guthrie, have had to ask for multiple extensions because they had trouble finding landlords willing to participate in the program. Recipients who do not find appropriate housing risk losing their vouchers.

Guthrie, 39, who works as a Zumba instructor, has a master's degree in social work from the University of Maryland, Baltimore and is looking for employment in her field. When the Baltimore County apartment search didn't pan out, she moved to another place in Mount Vernon in 2011 that she says is more suitable than her previous home, which had heating and lighting issues.

"It was a very exhaustive search," she said.


Koch said having more landlords participate in the voucher program would help spread out low-income families instead of creating clusters of poverty. She said the housing voucher program is preferable to public housing because it can "inspire" voucher recipients living in more favorable neighborhoods to better their lives.

Richard Abramson, a landlord who rents more than 800 apartments throughout West, Northeast and Northwest Baltimore, said he has fewer problems with voucher recipients, who make up about 50 percent of his clientele, than he does with typical renters.

"[Vouchers] are a turnoff for some landlords because they think they're dealing with a lower class of people," he said. "But [voucher recipients] risk losing their vouchers — some people waited 10 years for them."

Abramson said having to work with the local housing agency, which requires regular apartment inspections and waiting on approval for the tenant to accept the lease, can be a hassle for landlords as well.

"The process is slower of getting the [voucher] tenant in the door," he said. "It takes about a month as opposed to the next day" for a typical tenant.