Housing bias law may change In a work session, council indicates backing for a new bill; 'Hurting marketability'; Stringent measure may have encouraged what it was to prevent


Six years ago, hoping not to crowd low-income residents into any one neighborhood, the Howard County Council barred any landlord from discriminating against applicants who receive government housing subsidies.

Now, the county worries that the stringent law may be encouraging just what it was meant to stop.

Some landlords, concerned that their apartment complexes might take on the stigma of a public housing project if they can't reject low-income tenants, have persuaded housing and civil rights officials to recommend changing the law.

The proposed change, discussed at a County Council public hearing last night, would allow landlords to reject prospective tenants who receive government subsidies once 20 percent of their rental units are occupied by such tenants.

Council members appeared last night to be in support of the legislation, which is scheduled for a vote June 1.

Little opposition has come from the public on softening the anti-discrimination law, despite the scarcity of affordable housing in a county that has among the highest rental rates in the region and few vacancies.

One group with qualms, the African American Coalition of Howard County, is reluctantly supporting the change after meeting with county officials Friday.

The reason?

Housing officials told the coalition that some unnamed landlords were making noises about suing to get rid of the anti-discrimination law if they weren't allowed to start rejecting government-subsidized tenants.

"They told us that several owners of property had come to them, expressed this concern, and that if the county did not do something about it, they were going to take them to court," said Sherman Howell, vice president of the coalition. "The stated purpose is that it was hurting the marketability of the developments."

Housing Commission Executive Director Leonard S. Vaughan identified only one of the landlords pushing for the change: Steve Storch of the Storch Woods apartment complex in Savage.

Storch did not return telephone calls to his office and home seeking comment.

But in March he wrote a letter to Vaughan.

"If my property has set aside 20 percent of its rental homes for low and moderate income families, am I, as landlord, required to accept additional families with county vouchers or certificates should they apply for other vacant market-rate homes on the property?" the letter said.

Storch Woods is one of a handful of apartment complexes in the county, most of them in southern and eastern Howard, that have set aside 5 percent to 20 percent of their units for tenants with government housing subsidies.

Vaughan said those complexes haven't surpassed the 20 percent mark, but landlords say they are worried about the future.

He said the concern is that once subsidized tenants take up more than 20 percent of the apartments, the property could become viewed as a "project."

Property values would go down, and the county would begin seeing unwanted pockets of poverty, Vaughan said.

But will allowing landlords to turn away government-subsidized tenants prevent the county's working poor from finding housing here?

Howell and some other advocates argue that 20 percent is too low a threshold, but they say the proposed change is of far less concern for low-income county residents than is the general lack of affordable housing.

A county housing study published in February said the county has 1,704 rental-assisted units -- with only 281 rental-assisted units built in this decade.

Howell said the county needs to ensure that developers set aside housing for low- and moderate-income residents, as is being done with the Rouse Co.'s planned development in North Laurel.

"We really think that this [20 percent rule] is a distraction from the main issue in Howard County, which is the need for low- and moderate-income housing for teachers, farmers and police officers, and for the people who work over on the [U.S.] Route 1 corridor," Howell said.

Pub Date: 5/19/98

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