Council OKs weakened housing bill Landlords may refuse subsidized tenants after 20% threshold; Ecker expected to sign; Gray supports change, says commitment to families 'still strong'


Lower-income people with housing subsidies can soon be turned away from apartment complexes that reach a 20 percent threshold of subsidized tenants, under a bill passed by the Howard County Council last night.

On a 5-0 vote, the council scaled back a 6-year-old law that barred landlords from discriminating against prospective tenants with housing subsidies. Housing and human rights officials recommended the change, saying some landlords threatened to sue unless a limit on the number of subsidized tenants was allowed.

Democratic Councilman C. Vernon Gray, in voting for the change, said the county's commitment to providing affordable housing to low-income families is "still strong."

The bill will take effect two months after County Executive Charles I. Ecker signs it into law -- which he is expected to do within 10 days -- but it is not clear what immediate impact it will have.

Housing Commission Executive Director Leonard S. Vaughan, who previously said no apartment communities have reached the 20 percent threshold, said yesterday "recent numbers" showed that three complexes probably are over the threshold.

Vaughan said those complexes are seeking subsidized tenants despite being over the threshold, but he refused to identify them. Other complexes might also be approaching 20 percent subsidized occupancy.

The African American Coalition of Howard County has agreed not to challenge the new law despite serious reservations. The coalition's vice president, Sherman Howell, said the group would rather see the anti-discrimination law weakened than eliminated.

"We would fight this change under ordinary circumstances, but if this thing were taken to court it's likely that the coalition would lose," Howell said yesterday.

Vaughan argues the new law will help the county achieve its goal of geographically spreading low-income residents. He acknowledges, however, that the anti-discrimination law is being changed primarily because landlords were complaining that their properties could lose value because of a stigma attached to subsidized housing.

"All we're concerned about is that the [anti-discrimination law] does not place a complex into a position that it's not able to market its market-rate housing," he said.

Vaughan has identified only one of the landlords who pushed for a change in the law: Steve Storch of the Storch Woods apartment complex in Savage. The complex is near southern Howard's U.S. 1 corridor, one of the few areas in the county where rental and housing prices are affordable for those with subsidies.

Storch could not be reached for comment yesterday and previously has declined to return calls.

Housing for the poor is scarce, with the county's high rental rates and few vacancies, but Vaughan says he doesn't believe softening the anti-discrimination law will make it harder for the poor to find housing. "I think it will have little or no impact on the ability of poor people to find housing in the county," he said.

Howell, though, is concerned that it will make finding housing more difficult for the poor. He argues that a far better way to spread out low-income residents is to require new developments to have some low-income housing, as Montgomery County does.

"If you had lower-income housing scattered throughout the county, then we would probably not be at this juncture," he said.

Pub Date: 6/02/98

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