Despite what some fear-mongers might say, the legislation Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz is pushing to forbid landlords from discriminating against potential tenants based on whether they receive federal housing vouchers wouldn't do much to change the nature of county neighborhoods. Although it is part of a settlement with the federal department of Housing and Urban Development aimed at breaking up areas of concentrated poverty, a source of income discrimination ban would not by itself lead to a mass migration of lower-income renters from one place to another. It is a necessary element of a just and equitable housing policy, to be sure, but only one component. County Council members can vote for the legislation with the assurance that their constituents probably won't even know the difference.
The Baltimore region has for years been part of a federal effort to help voucher holders move from poor neighborhoods with limited educational and economic opportunities to ones with better schools and more jobs. But the effects have been limited. It typically takes extensive counseling and other assistance for voucher holders to find appropriate and affordable housing in high-opportunity neighborhoods. The non-profit Baltimore Regional Housing Partnership's Mobility Program has received national attention for helping about 3,300 voucher recipients make the move to better neighborhoods throughout the metro area, but it has only succeeded because of the comprehensive support services it is able to provide. Within the next few years, the partnership expects to serve about 4,000 families, but that remains a small fraction of the number of voucher holders in the region.
Those who are on their own are likely to find the process of moving to a high-opportunity neighborhood daunting even if Baltimore County passes source of income legislation. The Baltimore region is, at least for now, left out of a HUD program that would provide higher maximum rent subsidies in opportunity neighborhoods (and lower ones in areas of concentrated poverty), so many families will remain priced out of more expensive neighborhoods even if this bill passes. Security deposits are generally not covered by vouchers, providing another barrier to moving. And the legislation would not prohibit landlords from rejecting tenants for a variety of other reasons, including bad credit, a criminal record or poor references from previous landlords.
There are also subtler forces at work that keep voucher holders in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty. Eva Rosen, a post-doctoral fellow at Johns Hopkins' Poverty and Inequality Research Lab, published a study in 2014 detailing tactics Baltimore landlords use to steer voucher holders to some neighborhoods and away from others. It's in their economic interests, she writes, because it is difficult to find stable, market-rate renters in poor neighborhoods, which makes HUD vouchers holders attractive fits for certain units. Mr. Kamenetz's legislation wouldn't change that.
We understand the argument from landlords who say they don't want to be forced to participate in a government program and to navigate the bureaucracy that entails. Renting to a HUD voucher holder means additional paperwork and inspections, and some landlords complain that means longer than necessary periods when units sit unrented. The flip side, though, is that income from vouchers is guaranteed and predictable.
But there is an overriding public policy interest at work. Growing bodies of research demonstrate the corrosive effects of neighborhoods of concentrated poverty and the benefits, particularly for children, of moving to more prosperous areas. Baltimore County is under court order to begin addressing the issue, and it's not just a question of whether poor families from the city can move to the suburbs. Baltimore County has its own areas of concentrated poverty, and this legislation will help determine whether the more than 6,000 housing voucher recipients in Baltimore County will remain clustered in the east side communities of Essex, Middle River, Rosedale and Dundalk or whether more prosperous communities like Towson, Timonium, Catonsville and White Marsh house their share of lower-income households.
Baltimore County's history of progressivity in housing policy isn't good. Dating back to the post-World War II suburban boom and white flight to the suburbs, running through the virulent protests against HUD's Moving to Opportunity program in the 1990s, and continuing even in this decade with the council's rejection of a proposal to construct new affordable housing units in Rosedale, the county has often sought to pretend that it can erect barriers to keep the poor out. It hasn't worked, and now leaders there are forced to wrestle with the question of whether they sacrifice some communities to poverty and disinvestment or move toward a policy in which burdens are shared and opportunities are widened. This legislation won't by itself change the landscape of poverty in Baltimore County, but it is a crucial step in the right direction.