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Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski announces plans to introduce legislation that will make housing discrimination illegal. Standing with him are, Councilman Julian Jones and Sharonda Ellerby, a former Section 8 recipient who is currently a business owner. The council voted this week to support that legislation, which goes into affect in 45 days.
Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski announces plans to introduce legislation that will make housing discrimination illegal. Standing with him are, Councilman Julian Jones and Sharonda Ellerby, a former Section 8 recipient who is currently a business owner. The council voted this week to support that legislation, which goes into affect in 45 days. (Kim Hairston/Baltimore Sun)

We weren’t so sure the Baltimore County Council was going to find the fortitude to outlaw discrimination against tenants who use housing vouchers to pay their rent. Last time the issue came up council members were pretty dead set against the idea, with only one person voting in favor of legislation in 2016. That despite the fact that the county is legally bound by an agreement with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to end the practice.

But the County Council was, in fact, finally able to eke out support for ridding the county of a practice based on stereotypical notions, with no empirical evidence to back it up, about low income people being fiscally irresponsible and unable to properly maintain homes. Unanimous support to end the bigoted practice would have been nice, rather than the 4-3 outcome along party lines (Democrats for, Republicans against), but we’ll take what we can get.

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We do, however, take issue with a last minute amendment to the bill that would exempt small landlords — those who own three or fewer properties with four or fewer units — unless they use a property manager. The amendment may be consistent with state and federal law, but small-time landlords shouldn’t be allowed to discriminate because they don’t want to deal with the paperwork of renting to tenants using vouchers or for any other reason. Rules and regulations are a part of doing business. The county is not filled with high rise buildings and multi-unit houses like downtown Baltimore, and we fear this exemption could allow too many people to bypass the law. Others may try to skirt the rules by creating different limited liability companies that own fewer properties. We anticipate abuse of the new law because of this amendment.

Thankfully, the council scrapped another amendment that would create a fund to help landlords whose properties were damaged by someone using a voucher. Baltimore County Executive John “Johnny O” Olszewski, who filed the legislation as required by the federal housing department, said he may reconsider the idea as he works with the council on finalizing the law. We hope this is not the case. It suggests that a person who uses a voucher is more prone to bad behavior, say busting holes in walls or other forms of deliberate vandalism. If that is the case, show us the proof. We expect the docket in rent court is filled with people of all means who face accusations of missing rent payments and not taking care of property. Remember, the news reports about landlords in Beverly Hills, Calif., who refused to rent to the very rich pop singer Justin Bieber because of his reputation for wild parties and trashing homes?

As we have said before, the best way to weed out potentially bad tenants, is through credit checks, rental history and criminal background checks. All of this will be allowed even with the new law. People on vouchers come from all walks of life, including the disabled, the elderly and people who have fallen on hard times. They have a right to a decent home just like anyone else.

Mr. Olszewski should get credit for making this more of a reality by bringing the controversial issue to a head early in his term. Too many people on vouchers said they have a hard time finding rentals in the county. Mr. Olszewski has made addressing inequities in the county a key part of his platform and so far is following through on his promises. We also applaud the enlightened Democrats — Cathy Bevins of Middle River and Tom Quirk of Oella — who changed their positions, despite the controversy around the issue and the heat they may face in their districts.

In the long-term, dispersing poverty throughout the county rather than having it concentrated in certain pockets is better for everyone. Currently, nearly 60% of Baltimore County’s 5,600 voucher users live in just seven ZIP codes.

Baltimore County landlords weren’t alone shutting out those with vouchers, and it’s time housing discrimination is eliminated in all counties. To that end, we implore the General Assembly to revive legislation that failed last year and would have prevented income discrimination statewide. This should be a priority of the next session.

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