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Baltimore City Council passes scaled-back version of bill to bar discrimination against renters using vouchers

A bill that would make it illegal for landlords in Baltimore to discriminate against prospective tenants based on the funds they use to pay rent, such as government housing vouchers, won preliminary approval Monday from the City Council, but with one key amendment.

Under the change, there would be an exemption for landlords with more than five contiguous dwellings. Such landlords would have to rent only 20 percent of their units to people with vouchers. The amendment would expire after four years, unless the council conducts a study and finds that it should be kept in place.

Dozens of fair housing advocates who backed the original bill marched through the city before the hearing, then watched the council act. They were displeased with the amendment.

“Eighty percent discrimination!” one advocate yelled from the balcony of the council chambers after the council voted 10-5 to approve the amendment.

After the amendment passed, the bill then passed unanimously. The bill needs one more vote for final passage, but is expected to go through.

Vouchers, which are federally funded, help the elderly, poor people and those with disabilities pay rent.

Councilman Ryan Dorsey, the bill’s sponsor, said the amendment would allow discrimination to continue.

But he was happy for the overall passage of the bill, which he said was necessary because some landlords discriminate.

“It's clear that housing vouchers are concentrated in certain parts of the city and absent in other parts of the city, and that that's due to a very conscious and matter-of-fact decision on the parts of landlords,” he said. “Laws like this work to help voucher recipients find housing they deserve, and it’s our job as the government to protect the interests of equity and access to housing opportunity.”

Councilman Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer, who tried to limit the scope of the bill in committee, said he supports ending housing discrimination. But he worried that the Housing Authority of Baltimore City lacked the resources to implement the bill — especially if it applied to all landlords in the city.

Housing advocate Sakina Ilyas, 69, said she was homeless for 25 years, in part due to difficulty in finding housing. She said she rented overpriced properties that were little more than vacant homes, dealt with slumlords and was blocked from renting in other locations.

Fair housing, she said, “is a human right. And I’m tired. And if I do nothing else, I’m going to make sure the next generation has fair housing,” she said.

Antonia Fasanelli, executive director of the Homeless Persons Representation Project, said 75 local jurisdictions, 11 states and the District of Columbia prohibit such discrimination.

Meanwhile, for many of her organization’s clients in Baltimore, voucher discrimination “makes it very difficult for them to move out of homelessness and into stable housing,” she said.

Some landlords simply say, “’Oh, no, we don’t take that kind of money,’” she said, while others “steer” tenants with vouchers to certain rental properties, while denying them access to others.

“That kind of steering just speaks to the kind of housing discrimination we have seen in Baltimore,” Fasanelli said, and serves as “a pretext for discrimination based on race or disability.”

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