Baltimore bill would end landlord source-of-income discrimination

As families in Baltimore City and across the nation struggle to find safe, decent and affordable housing, a bill introduced Monday in the Baltimore City Council can play an integral role in eliminating a significant barrier to actualizing this goal for our most vulnerable neighbors — without costing taxpayers a cent.

Council Bill 18-0308, introduced council member Ryan Dorsey, will protect Baltimore City renters by prohibiting discrimination in housing based solely on source of income. In practical terms, it will require landlords to judge potential tenants in an equitable manner — and ban the widespread practice of refusing to rent to families enrolled in the Housing Choice Voucher (HCV) Program (formerly called Section 8).

People with vouchers still pay roughly 30 percent of their income toward rent; the voucher pays the rest. Children comprise almost half of HCV beneficiaries, as well as female-headed households, elderly persons, veterans and people with disabilities — the group that includes me.

I first applied for a housing voucher in 2004, when I became legally blind, which frequently interrupted my employment status and, thus, ability to afford rent. After five years on a waiting list, the voucher was finally issued. My excitement, however, soon morphed into frustration.

On my initial visits to apartment complexes, I was greeted by leasing specialists and given tours. I received email reminders of appointments, including some apartments offering enticements to new occupants — a clear indication that vacancies were available and apartments move-in ready. Yet, after disclosing that I was a voucher holder, the very personnel who courted me as a prospective tenant metaphorically slammed their doors in my face. No explanation was offered for why my applications weren’t accepted.

Reading between the lines, it appeared they simply did not take vouchers.

Required to use my voucher within 60 days, I was forced to apply for numerous extensions by filing pages of contacts documenting my efforts to find housing. After searching for an entire year, I finally found a landlord in Mt. Vernon who accepted my voucher. It is not a building in which I want to live, but my options are extremely limited.

We voucher holders wait years to receive a housing subsidy and often try for months to locate a landlord willing to accept it — and we are often unsuccessful. The limited number of landlords willing to accept vouchers contributes to concentrations of poverty and homelessness. Landlords often refuse to accept housing vouchers for properties in more affluent areas while converting their units in disadvantaged areas into “Section 8 only” apartments and actively enticing voucher holders to move there. Yes, the same property owners!

Studies show that voucher holders and their children experience better outcomes in education, health and economic opportunity when they are able to move to better neighborhoods. However, when a family is effectively redlined, poverty remains concentrated, and the improved outcomes are not actualized. In Baltimore City, the highest concentration of housing voucher households are still found in racially segregated neighborhoods with lower levels of economic opportunity, education and community health.

Ending source-of-income discrimination isn’t a new idea. As a way to decrease homelessness, the 2017 Baltimore City Mayoral Workgroup on Homelessness recommended enacting legislation to prohibit discrimination based on source of income.

National momentum around source-of-income protection is strong. Last month, U.S. Senators Tim Kaine, a Virginia Democrat, and Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican, introduced legislation adding source-of -income protection to the federal Fair Housing Act. In 2017, the American Bar Association adopted a policy urging governments to prohibit this discrimination. Thirteen states and over 72 local jurisdictions — including in Maryland: Howard, Montgomery and Frederick counties, and Frederick City and Annapolis — already prohibit discrimination based on source of income. But Baltimore City only prohibits the practice in properties covered by the city’s Inclusionary Housing Law.

Council Bill 18-0308 will end source-of-income discrimination in nearly all city properties, while still permitting landlords to reject potential tenants for rental history or criminal backgrounds, among other valid reasons.

If tenants have the income to pay for housing and are otherwise qualified to rent, there is no reason why they should be rejected. This form of discrimination is insidious. It hurts veterans, severely rent-burdened families trying to get on their feet, persons with disabilities and elderly people. It also contributes to and exacerbates homelessness.

Now is the time for Baltimore to end decades of discrimination, shatter the negative stereotypes of people who just need a little help to pay the rent and take one small step to create a city that better practices racial and economic inclusion.

Tisha Guthrie (zigtgut@gmail.com) is a fitness professional, a licensed social worker, and a health equity advocate living in Baltimore.

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