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Baltimore County bill would end income discrimination against renters

Myesha Allender was hit and paralyzed by a drunk driver in 2005, changing her life forever. She now uses a wheelchair and faces the great challenge of finding a suitable home for her family in a neighborhood connected to good schools for her four children.

Ms. Allender is unable to work and relies on government assistance to pay for housing. For the past eight years, she has struggled to find a landlord who will accept her housing voucher and had to settle for homes that are not wheelchair accessible in neighborhoods where she is not comfortable. She says she would gladly trade accessibility to live in a neighborhood where her children will be safe and get a good education. But she should not have to make that trade-off.

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Unfortunately, Ms. Allender's experience, which she shared with the Baltimore County Council in support of the HOME Act, is all too typical. Thousands of renters in Baltimore County who rely on government assistance — such as the housing choice voucher program, disability, Social Security and pension benefits — find themselves with limited options.

There are 6,000 housing-voucher holders in Baltimore County, all of whom must choose from a limited selection of residences — despite more than 313,000 total households in the region — because only a small number of properties accept vouchers.

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The HOME Act would remove income as a constraint on renters, but other limitations will remain. Housing-choice vouchers are capped at a specific rent amount for Baltimore County, and voucher holders are expected to contribute 30 percent of their monthly income to their rent. So, affordability will still be an issue in many parts of the county.

To be clear, the HOME Act will not increase the number of vouchers available in the county. Landlords will still be able to screen potential renters based on their credit history, rental history and other criteria. But, landlords will have to look past their source of income and give renters a chance.

Regardless of a prospective tenant's rental history or ability to pay the rent, landlords in better school districts and more affluent neighborhoods often say they do not accept vouchers. Some of these same landlords or property management companies will accept vouchers at their properties in lower-income communities. The effect is that landlords have essentially concentrated the majority of the county's voucher holders in just a few communities.

Research has shown that well integrated, socio-economically diverse neighborhoods succeed. With little to no downside to the higher-income residents, simply living in high-opportunity communities helps low-income children do better throughout their lives. The more time they spend in areas connected to good schools and good jobs, the more likely they are to perform better in school, reach higher levels of education and eventually earn more money than their peers who grew up in disconnected, struggling neighborhoods.

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Other counties and jurisdictions in Maryland — including Frederick, Howard and Montgomery counties — already have the HOME Act or similar legislation. Their communities are not only thriving, but they have some of the best schools in the country. Nationwide, 11 states and more than 30 cities and counties have a similar law. We should be providing this protection to renters throughout Maryland because we have seen firsthand that it only helps build stronger communities. We will continue to fight for this legislation at the state level.

Behind each voucher there is a person who simply needs help to make ends meet; 32 percent of Baltimore County's voucher holders are elderly people, 30 percent are people with disabilities, and the rest are veterans, families and people working for low wages. They deserve a chance to live close to their families, close to their jobs, and close to good schools so their children have a better shot at a successful life. The HOME Act will help make this possible.

And Baltimore County is prepared to support the individuals and families who relocate to higher opportunity neighborhoods. Up to 2,000 existing voucher holders who wish to relocate will receive intensive counseling, including support on financial stability, maintenance and lease requirements, as well as other supportive services.

Ms. Allender told the County Council this month, "I don't want to keep being looked upon as a voucher, but as a human being."

This is why the Baltimore County Council should pass the HOME Act. We should be working toward stronger, united communities where we work together, live together and care about our neighbors. We should be opening up access to opportunity to all county residents. It's time for us to embrace a fairer and stronger county, and the HOME Act is a solid first step on that path.

Councilman Julian E. Jones Jr. represents Baltimore County's 4th District; his email is council4@baltimorecountymd.gov. Delegate Stephen W. Lafferty represents District 42A in Baltimore County in the Maryland House of Delegates; his email is stephen.lafferty@house.state.md.us.

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