HOME Act controversy continues
Wednesday, 13 March 2013 13:52

Final vote could come at any time

by Nicole Rodman

In Dundalk, the issue of housing voucher use is one that inflames passions in neighborhoods across the community.
    Colloquially called “Section 8,” the Housing Choice Voucher program provides assistance to low-income families who otherwise would not be able to afford rental housing.
    The voucher program requires recipients to pay at least 30 to 40 percent of their income toward rent, with a voucher providing the rest of the money toward rental costs.
    The waiting list for the program is long; with just 5,600 vouchers available in the county, wait times to receive a voucher are currently between five and seven years.

    While the program is available throughout the county, an overwhelming proportion of the vouchers are used in the southeastern area of the county.
    According to county figures, out of 5,573 vouchers currently in use in Baltimore County,  27 percent (1,494 vouchers) are in use in Dundalk, Essex and Middle River.
    Of these nearly 1,500 vouchers, 788 of them are in use in the 21222 ZIP code.
    While Dundalk and Essex alone account for nearly a third of housing voucher used, communities such as Timonium, Towson, White Marsh and Perry Hall represent a much smaller portion of voucher use.
    In Lutherville-Timonium, there are six vouchers in use, while Towson has 63 voucher holders, Perry Hall has 12 and White Marsh just one.
    At a meeting held at the North Point Library in January, 6th District Del. John Olszewski Jr., along with Public Justice Center attorney Matt Hill and Homeless Person’s Representation Project director Andrea Fasanelli, addressed the concentration of vouchers in the Dundalk-Essex area.
    According to a survey conducted by Hill’s office on Jan. 8, the reason for this concentration of voucher use in Dundalk and Essex is likely due to the fact that more local landlords accept vouchers.
    In a survey of 57 apartment complexes outside of Dundalk/Essex, 51 refused vouchers.
    Most of these complexes were in White Marsh, Towson and Perry Hall.
    In contrast, 16 of 22 Dundalk/Essex apartment complexes accepted vouchers.
    While it can be argued that this is due to the fact that housing in Dundalk/Essex is more affordable than housing elsewhere, all complexes surveyed had rental housing affordable to voucher holders.
    In an effort to deconcentrate voucher usage in over-concentrated areas, the HOME (Housing Opportunities Made Equal) Act is now winding its way through the Maryland General Assembly.
    Under the proposed legislation, large landlords (those renting more than one or two units) would be unable to discriminate against tenants based on legal sources of income (such as vouchers).
    In this way, proponents hope that voucher holders will be able to relocate to other areas of the county, deconcentrating voucher use in Dundalk and Essex.
    One proponent of the HOME Act is the Dundalk Renaissance Corporation (DRC).
    Testifying before the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee on Feb. 26, DRC executive director Amy Menzer voiced support for the bill, noting a belief that it will deconcentrate voucher usage in Dundalk as well as “enable low-income people to live closer to many job and educational opportunities.”
    In her remarks, Menzer discussed the DRC’s efforts to “strengthen and revitalize our neighborhoods,” referring to the HOME Act as a “criticial component in these efforts.”
    For their part, however, The New Norwood Holabird Community Association (NHCA) does not agree with the DRC’s stance on this issue.
    In an e-mail sent by NHCA president John Ayres to 6th District Sen. Norman Stone, Ayres notes that NHCA believes that the HOME Act “is a blunt way of handling the issue of housing assistance and the concentration of poverty.”
    As Ayres argued in the e-mail, which he forwarded to The Eagle, the HOME Act may actually reconcentrate poverty, bringing more voucher holders to Dundalk “since voucher holders are limited as to how much rent can be paid by the amount of their vouchers.”
    He added, “Other low income individuals who cannot obtain a voucher will be displaced when affordable housing is filled with voucher holders because landlords will choose voucher holders first to avoid discrimination claims.”
    According to the terms of the HOME Act legislation, however, no source of income may be discriminated against, including income from “any lawful profession, occupation, or job.”
    Ayres also added in his e-mail to Stone that the HOME Act will likely treat low-and-middle-income rental housing providers unfairly by forcing them to accept vouchers.
    In a phone call to The Eagle on Tuesday, Ayres explained that Del. Olszewski should have met with community organization leaders and taken their input into consideration prior to the bill being submitted.
    As Ayres noted, one main point not addressed in the bill as written is that community leaders are not just concerned with the number of vouchers in their neighborhoods, but the fact that landlords are not maintaining the properties according to federal and local government laws.
    Lastly, Ayres explained, with just a month left in the General Assembly session, he is afraid that the “11th-hour deals made behind closed doors” could negatively affect the bill’s impact on Dundalk and southeast Baltimore County.
    For their part, however, the North Point Village Civic Association supports the HOME Act legislation.
    In an e-mail to Ayres, sent to The Eagle by Ayres, NPVCA treasurer Brenda Patro explained her organization’s view that the legislation will likely aid in deconcentrating voucher usage in the Dundalk area.
    “It is a win-win for our neighborhoods and for the voucher holders. It will give them more locations to move to,” Patro wrote.
    In a phone call to The Eagle, NPVCA president Dave Patro added, “I fully agree with what they want to do [with the legislation]. People should be able to go anywhere in the state of Maryland they want to.”
    In an e-mail to The Eagle last week, Olszewski agreed with the assertion that the HOME Act is likely to deconcentrate voucher usage in over-concentrated areas.
    In response to the argument that the legislation could actually lead to more voucher usage in Dundalk, he wrote that “it’s clear that Dundalk and Essex are among the few places where there is no shortage of landlords that are willing to accept vouchers — even if this bill were to pass as originally drafted, it would be hard to imagine a scenario where more people would use housing vouchers in Dundalk/Essex, given how highly concentrated these areas already are, and the fact that additional vouchered housing is already available.”
    He added that, while his proposal to cap voucher usage by community was found to be pre-empted by federal housing laws, he is working on an amendment that would apply the HOME Act only to under-concentrated areas of Maryland, such as Towson and White Marsh.
    According to Del. Olszewski, the amendment “would exempt from the provisions of the bill, on an annual basis, all ZIP codes that are well above a jurisdiction’s expected voucher numbers.”
    As Del. Olszewski noted that, according to the state Attorney General’s office, this proposal would meet federal housing law requirements.
    “This could have the benefit of enacting the provisions of the bill that would open up housing opportunities throughout the county and state and deconcentrate voucher holders, while not requiring landlords in places like Dundalk and Essex to be required to accept vouchers until and unless there is a substantial de-concentration in those areas,” he explained.
    When reached for comment on the HOME Act on Monday, Stone explained that, while he is still looking at the proposed legislation, he is in favor of the bill’s intent to deconcentrate voucher use in the Dundalk area.
    “I think the idea behind it is to get the concentration out of our particular area and that’s what the bill is intended to do,” Stone said, adding, “If it does that, it’s good.”
    When asked whether or not he would support Del. Olszewski’s proposed amendment to apply the HOME Act only to areas of the county where voucher use is under-concentrated, Stone explained that he would have to examine such an amendment were it to come to the floor.
    “I would have to look at it,” he said of the proposed amendment, adding, “But if that’s the intention, probably yes.”
    While the HOME Act has been through hearings in both the Maryland House and Senate, it has not yet come to the floor of either body for a vote.
    When the act does come to the floor, it will be open to amendments such as Del. Olszewski’s proposal.   
    According to Olszewski, “Since the hearings have been concluded, a vote could be taken at any time.”