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Anne Arundel County Council debates changes to fair housing law

The Anne Arundel County Council spent much of its first meeting of 2020 discussing a potential exception to the fair housing law, which would allow landlords and property owners to give preference to potential tenants in public service occupations.

Advocates of the bill said it would allow county employees to live where they work, but critics said it could allow for discrimination based on occupation — something that is prohibited under the county’s recently adopted fair housing law.

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The housing exception bill, introduced by Councilwoman Jessica Haire, R-Edgewater, would allow the exception of certain public service occupations from fair housing provisions, meaning that landlords or property owners could give preference to potential tenants based on their occupation.

Occupations that could be given preference under this bill include military or veterans of the military, teachers, police officers, firefighters, or those who provide emergency medical services. Amendments were adopted Monday night to include detention officers and deputy sheriffs. The council delayed voting on the bill, due to adopted amendments and pending a legal analysis.

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Councilwoman Sarah Lacey, D-Jessup, warned against making decisions without adequate data.

“I cannot say it strongly enough, I don’t agree with passing this bill at all without more data and thorough legal analysis,” Lacey said.

Carol Ott, the tenant advocacy director of the Fair Housing Action Center of Maryland, said she understands the intention of the bill may have been to incentivize public service positions and allow them to live closer to their work, but she warned these practices could open the door to discrimination.

Councilwoman Lisa Rodvien, D-Annapolis, said she wants to work on the bill to eliminate any potential for discrimination. The goal, she said, is to allow people who work in the county to live in the county.

Pete Baron, government affairs officer, said County Executive Steuart Pittman’s administration would support this bill if possibilities for discrimination were cut out.

“We think the concerns that are being raised are serious enough to pause on this,” Baron said.

Steven Waddy, a representative of Anne Arundel County’s NAACP, urged the County Council to consider the impact over the intent of the bill.

Jessie Keller from the Maryland Multi-Housing Association said the organization supports the legislation. Dale Waldroff, the former leader of the detention officers’ union, was supportive of the bill because of how many of his colleagues are unable to afford to live in the county.

“I don’t want to see anyone get discriminated against,” Waldroff said. “But I believe in the intent.”

An official from the office of law was concerned that approving preferences based on occupation was contradictory to the county’s fair housing law which prohibits discrimination based on occupation.

The council delayed voting on the bill, due to adopted amendments and pending a legal analysis.

In other business, the council unanimously approved a bill that requires non-consensual car towing companies to have both a storage facility and redemption area — where cars can be retrieved — inside the county, or within two driving miles of the county line. It also gives the owner of a parking lot the ability to give a towing company blanket authorization to tow, if the lot is gated with restricted access and has signage indicating that parking without a permit displayed is prohibited. Under current law, parking lot owners have to give authorization every time a nonconsensual towing company seeks to tow a car.

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The council also passed two bills relating to county government personnel. One will create five new positions to be included in the Fiscal Year 2020 budget including two animal care attendant positions and three GIS-related positions.

Another will increase 20 Fire Fighter II positions within the Anne Arundel County Fire Department to accommodate for additional positions under the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response or “SAFER” grant from FEMA. The $8.5 million grant, which will allow the county to hire 70 new firefighters, can’t be used to fund existing positions. So changing the classification of these positions would bring the number of new positions to 70, when accounting for the 50 new Fire Fighter II positions that are being included in the county’s 2020 budget identified as being funded by the SAFER grant.

Voting on two bills from Councilwoman Lisa Brannigan Rodvien, D-Annapolis, relating to short-term rentals was delayed until Jan. 21 at Rodvien’s request.

One bill updates the name of the tax governing short-term rentals. Instead of calling it a “hotel occupancy tax” the bill calls it a “use or occupancy tax.” This makes the name a more accurate description of the tax’s purpose — it covers not only hotels but use or occupancy in any facility that offers sleeping accommodations to the transient public, according to the bill’s legislative summary.

Another bill would update licensing requirements for short term rentals and would require that a host be an individual rather than a business entity, that they be current on all taxes, fines, and fees owed to the county, and specifies that no host can register more than two short term residential rental unit in the county, among other new specifications about the licensing and registration process.

Rodvien said that public comment at the last meeting in December prompted more research, and she would like to come back with amendments at the next meeting.

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