Wednesday, 30 January 2013 13:01

Antonia Fasanelli of the Homeless Person’s Representation Project discusses a map of housing voucher concentration in Montgomery County. Chapter 27 of the Montgomery County Code prohibits discrimination against tenants based on source of income.
photo by Nicole Rodman

Dundalk has highest voucher use in county

by Nicole Rodman

Residents and community leaders from Dundalk and Essex gathered at the North Point library last Wednesday to discuss the Housing Opportunities Made Equal (HOME) Act and the way in which it may help deconcentrate poverty in the area.
    Holding the meeting was 6th District Del. John Olszewski Jr., along with Matt Hill, an attorney with the Public Justice Center, and Antonia Fasanelli, executive director of the Homeless Person’s Representation Project.
    Both Hill and Fasanelli work to represent the homeless and those in poverty.
    Known colloquially as Section 8, the Housing Choice Voucher program aids families who are unable to afford a place to rent. In the county, the program is administered by the Baltimore County Housing Office.
    With just 5,600 vouchers available in Baltimore County, the waiting list to receive a voucher is between 5 and 7 years long.
    When using vouchers, recipients must pay 30 to 40 percent of their income toward rent, with the vouchers covering the rest.
    Working his way through a PowerPoint presentation, Hill began by noting that a concentration of poverty in any one area is bad for schools, neighborhoods and property values.
    He also noted that there is a high concentration of housing voucher holders living in the Dundalk and Essex area.
    In Baltimore County, there are currently 5,573 households using housing vouchers. No matter what happens, this number will not increase, according to Hill.
    Of these 5,573 vouchers, 1,494 (27 percent) are in use in the Dundalk/Essex area.
    In fact, within Baltimore County, Dundalk has the most housing voucher holders, followed closely by Essex and Middle River.
    But why is this?
    According to Hill, this concentration is due to the fact that landlords in areas outside of the Dundalk-Essex region often discriminate against tenants using housing vouchers.
    In a Jan. 8 survey of large apartment complexes both inside and outside Dundalk and Essex, this pattern can be seen.
    Out of 57 apartment complexes outside of Dundalk/Essex, 51 refused vouchers. Many hang signs on their doors reading “Section 8 need not apply.”
    In Dundalk/Essex, 16 of 22 apartment complexes surveyed did accept vouchers.
    Though an argument could be made that housing in Dundalk and Essex is more affordable than elsewhere in the county, all of the complexes surveyed had units affordable to people using housing vouchers.
    As Hill explained, most of the complexes refusing to accept vouchers were located in northern Baltimore County, in communities such as White Marsh, Perry Halll and Towson.
    According to Hill, the solution to this concentration of voucher holders in Dundalk and Essex is the HOME Act.
    Introduced in the Maryland General Assembly in 2010 and 2011, the Act failed to pass each time, a failure Hill ascribes to lack of education on the issue.
    The HOME Act is once again before the Assembly this year, as House Bill 168.
    If passed, the bill would make it illegal for large landlords to refuse to rent to people based on their source of income.
    This income can be from a job, Social Security, child support, retirement/pension funds or a housing voucher.
    There are, of course, some exceptions and limitations to the law.
    Income must be lawful, meaning landlords can still refuse potential tenants who cannot account for where their rent money comes from.
    Also, landlords would still be allowed to screen and deny tenants based on criminal record, credit history or rental history.
    In addition, small landlords (those owning one or two properties) and landlords renting part of a home they also occupy would be exempt from the law.
    Taking over from Hill, Fasanelli discussed the many jurisdictions that have already enacted HOME Act-type legislation.
    Eleven states and 40 local jurisdictions, including Washington D.C., have already passed versions of the HOME Act.
    As Fasanelli explained, in all cases, the adoption of HOME Act standards led to a deconcentration of voucher holders, as people were now able to move to areas where they were previously unwelcome.
    The HOME Act passed in the District of Columbia in 2002. Since then, the average number of voucher holders per neighborhood has dropped from 28 to 22, a decrease of 21 percent.
    In the neighborhood with the highest concentration of vouchers, the number dropped from 273 to 111, a decrease of 59 percent.
    As Fasanelli was quick to note, the HOME Act will not lead to an increased number of voucher holders in Dundalk and Essex.
    With a limited number of vouchers in the county, there is no way the legislation could add to that number.
    Additionally, most rental units in Dundalk are owned and rented by small landlords, who would remain exempt from the new law.
    Finally, as Fasanelli pointed out, there are plenty of rental units in Dundalk that do accept vouchers, meaning holders already have plenty of options in the area, even without the HOME Act.
    For his part, Del. Olszewski did send a letter to Maryland Attorney General Douglas Gansler asking about the legality of restricting the number of vouchers allowed per neighborhood.
    In response, the Attorney General noted that the proposed amendment would “restrict mobility and housing choice” and would, therefore, be illegal under federal law.
    For their part, most of those in attendance last Wednesday seemed open to the idea, asking questions about the effect the Act has had on other jurisdictions.
    Of those voicing concerns, most raised issue with voucher holders who do not care properly for the properties they rent, leading to neighborhood blight.
    As Del. Olszewski responded, landlords are responsible for their tenants and the condition of their property.
    Agreeing that this lack of landlord oversight is a problem, Olszewski promised to hold another meeting to address that issue independent of the HOME Act.
    As he noted, “We probably need to do a better job with inspections and holding landlords accountable.”
    As Dundalk Renaissance Corporation director Amy Menzer noted at the meeting, with just 1,494 voucher holders in the Dundalk/Essex area, many of the rental properties seen as blighted are likely not Section 8 housing at all.
    Those with concerns pertaining to blighted rental properties are encouraged to call Baltimore County Housing Quality Standards at 410-887-3352.
    Lending some perspective to the meeting, a woman named Angela stood up and told her story.
    Angela is a 42-year-old woman currently living in a homeless shelter. Having just received her college acceptance letter that day, Angela said she is looking to work hard and improve her lot in life.
    “I’m just a young lady that hit a bump in the road,” she explained.
    During her impassioned speech, Angela encouraged those assembled to look at voucher recipients and shelter residents not as a blight but as, for the most part, good people who have fallen on hard times.
    Putting a human face to the suffering — and determination — that poverty can bring, she concluded, “All I am looking for is a hand up, not a handout.”
    As the meeting came to a close, most agreed that something has to be done to deconcentrate poverty in the Dundalk and Essex areas.
    For his part, Olszewski encouraged everyone to take a look at the proposed HOME Act and contact him with any questions or concerns.
    Del. Olszewski can be reached at his Wise Avenue office by calling 410-282-1733, in Annapolis at 410-841-3458 or via e-mail by contacting john.olszewski@house.state.md.us.