Discriminatory housing practices are alive and well in Maryland

Senator William C. Smith, Jr.
The Washington Post

In Maryland, the majority of severely rent-burdened people are single mothers and overwhelmingly people of color. According to data from the American Community Survey analyzed by Enterprise Community Partners, almost 32 percent of the state’s renters are severely housing-cost-burdened, meaning they pay more than 50 percent of their income on rent. (Typically, families pay 30 percent or less on housing costs.) These families are teetering on the line of instability and are just one illness, one unexpected expense, one preschooler getting suspended from school, one missed day of work away from homelessness.

Federal programs such as Housing Choice Vouchers (formerly called Section 8) and low-income housing tax credits were designed to respond to this lingering crisis. The Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development administers programs that ensure access to affordable housing, including Partnership Rental Housing and Rental Housing Works. While these innovative programs have had a profound effect, only slightly more than a quarter of eligible very-low-income households have access to affordable housing units. This has left thousands of working families in peril. Waiting lists for vouchers are in the tens of thousands across the state, with seven jurisdictions reporting more than 66,000 families on waiting lists.

Despite the dearth of affordable housing and the affordability crisis, the Trump administration has proposed $173 million in cuts to affordable housing and community development programs in Maryland. Even more confounding is that Maryland law permits discriminatory housing practices.

Under Maryland law, landlords and property owners can discriminate against an individual on the basis of his or her source of income, including money from any lawful employment and any government assistance, such as Housing Choice. This willful blindness to a framework of law perpetuates and excuses discrimination against low-income people. Policies of this ilk hark back to the days of redlining and other methods that prevented people of color and low-income families from gaining access to jobs, good schools and other opportunities vital to upward mobility.

The good news is that jurisdictions such as Montgomery County, Frederick County, Howard County, Frederick and Annapolis have laws that make discrimination based on source of income illegal.

The American Bar Association urges local governments to “enact legislation prohibiting discrimination in housing on the basis of lawful source of income.”

The trend in housing policy is moving in the right direction across the country. It is time for the Maryland General Assembly to end discrimination based on source of income statewide. The Home Act Coalition, made up of advocacy groups from across the state, has been working on this issue for years.

Following the lead of Del. Stephen W. Lafferty (D-Baltimore County), I served as the lead sponsor in the state Senate of legislation that would help to put Maryland on the right track. Simply put, our legislation, the Home Act, prohibits landlords and other property owners from discrimination against people seeking housing based on their source of income. The House of Delegates passed this legislation in the last session; it’s time for the Senate to do the same.

I know people think housing values go down and crime goes up when people who have Housing Choice Vouchers come into a neighborhood. That is absolutely untrue. In fact, a recent University of California at Los Angeles study shows no correlation between Housing Choice Vouchers and crime.

At the very least, sensible implementation of this legislation would ensure that our most vulnerable families have access to communities of opportunity and would help deconcentrate pockets of poverty. If we are intent on doing more than merely preaching the politics of inclusion and have a legitimate interest in providing everyone an equal chance and an unfettered start in life, we have to start implementing meaningful policies with which some may be uncomfortable. Few real solutions come easily.