Landlords comment on proposed HOME Act (UPDATED)
Wednesday, 20 March 2013 11:53

MMHA opposes legislation; vote expected Tues.

(see update at bottom)

by Nicole Rodman

    As this year’s Maryland General Assembly session winds down, the HOME (Housing Opportunities Made Equal) Act legislation continues to wind through the state Senate and House of Delegates.
    If passed, the HOME Act would make it illegal for large landlords to refuse to rent to tenants based solely on source of income (including housing vouchers, formerly known as Section 8).
    The Senate was tentatively scheduled take up the bill (SB 487) for a vote on Tuesday.
    Last week, 6th District Sen. Norman Stone signaled his support for the HOME Act, as well as an amendment that would apply the legislation only to areas of under-concentrated voucher use.
    If passed by the Senate, the bill will move to the House for a vote.


Landlords speak out
    While proponents of the HOME Act have been quite vocal in their support for the proposed law, members of the Maryland Multi-Housing Association  (MMHA) feel as if their voices have been largely shut out of the debate.
    MMHA is a non-profit trade group consisting of owners and managers of rental properties across the state.
    According to MMHA, they represent over 99 percent of Baltimore County landlords holding more than five rental units.
    In a phone interview with The Eagle on Monday, MMHA representatives Kathy Howard, Carolyn Cook and Adam Skolnik voiced their opposition to housing vouchers being included as a protected source of income in the HOME Act.
    According to the trio, the legislation would place an undue burden on landlords, since landlords renting to voucher holders must sign a lease with the Baltimore County Housing Authority as well as a lease with the tenant.
    They also pointed to the fact that the Housing Authority reserves the right to change the terms of the contract at any time and that the Housing Authority lease trumps the lease with the tenant if there are any discrepancies between the two.
    These and other regulations, Skolnik noted, represent a “genuine burden placed on the landlord.”
    Thus, they argued, accepting vouchers should remain optional rather than mandated by law.
    MMHA also argues that Dundalk is not over-burdened by the amount of voucher usage in the area.
    According to Carolyn Cook, Dundalk, Essex and Middle River do make up 27 percent of vouchers in the county, but they also represent the entire eastern portion of the county.
    The west side of the county, Cook noted, represents 38 percent of voucher usage.
    As Cook explained, of 20 census tracts in Dundalk, in 17 of them less than 6 percent of rental    housing is vouchered.
    In addition, she noted,  according to the U.S. Census Bureau, Dundalk is classified as a high-poverty area. Therefore, she said, rents are lower in this area than in other parts of the county.
    Thus, while the northern part of the county has less voucher usage, it is due primarily to that fact that rental housing is not as plentiful or affordable in that part of the county.
    Additionally, more of the land in northern Baltimore County is rural and, as such, is designated as slow-growth or no-growth land by the county.
    Because of this, northern Baltimore county has less available housing for voucher holders.
    Cook thus argued that passage of the HOME Act will only serve to reconcentrate, not deconcentrate, voucher usage in Dundalk because that is where available, affordable housing is located.
    Additionally, she noted, because there is greater access to work, transportation and social services in this area, voucher holders would be likely to remain in already-concentrated areas.
    The MMHA representatives also noted that proponents of the bill seem to be “feeding into a socio-economic bias against people that are low-income” in that they encourage the notion that all bad tenants/landlords are voucher holders.
    With only 1.96 percent of county housing rented by voucher holders, most of the problems with rental properties are not associated with voucher use, they argue.
    “There are more good tenants in Section 8 than bad tenants,” Cook noted.
    Howard agreed, explaining, “It’s a perception problem.”
    Cook also explained that the HOME Act may make it harder for non-vouchered poor to compete for affordable housing with voucher holders.
    As she argued, if it becomes illegal to refuse voucher holders, landlords may begin accepting voucher holders to the exclusion of non-voucher holders in order to avoid a charge of discrimination.
    In this scenario, she noted, “the non-vouchered poor lose out.”
    Finally, all three MMHA representatives argued that the organization has been shut out of the process, including the meeting held by Del. John Olszewski Jr. at the North Point Library in January.
    “I was very disturbed by the fact that no landlord was asked to talk at that meeting,” Howard noted.
   
Del. Olszewski responds
    In an e-mail to The Eagle on Monday afternoon, Olszewksi responded to many of the arguments set forth by MMHA.
    Responding to MMHA’s claim that the HOME Act would be an undue burden on landlords, Olszewski replied that smaller landlords with two or fewer units would be exempt from the law and “for larger rental property management companies, many have easily handled (and others could easily handle) the extra work that is associated with accepting Section 8 housing.”
    He also noted that, under his amendment, over-concentrated areas like Dundalk would be exempt from the provisions of the bill.
    Del. Olszewski also responded to MMHA’s claims that Dundalk is not over-burdened by voucher housing.
    “This statement insults the intelligence of the residents of eastern Baltimore County, and flies in the face of the facts about where vouchered housing is located in Baltimore County,” the delegate wrote, referring to the fact that Dundalk has a larger number of vouchered units (788) than any other part of the county.
    Del. Olszewski did agree with MMHA’s assertion that vouchered housing is often unfairly blamed for many of the issues that problem tenants and landlords bring to local neighborhoods.
    To this end, Olszewski noted that, in addition to the HOME Act, he is planning to meet with Baltimore County Code Enforcement leaders to “support their efforts in going after bad landlords and tenants.”
    In their arguments against the HOME Act, MMHA also argued that the legislation would hurt the non-vouchered poor.
    Olszewski rejected this notion, arguing that “even with some of the highest concentrations of vouchers in the state, there is an ample supply of lower-income housing (mostly also accepting vouchers) in Dundalk and Essex.”
    Finally, in response to MMHA’s complaints of being shut out of the process,  Olszewski said that he has been open to MMHA input since the legislative process began in January.
    As he explained, he did meet with MMHA before and after the January meeting.
    In addition, he noted, “I also encouraged them to attend the meeting at the library, which they did, though they did not share any comments or questions at the meeting.  They did not ask to present [their argument].”
    Finally, he explained, MMHA received follow-up information via e-mail following the January meeting.
    “I’d hardly call that ‘shut out of the process,’” he commented.
    For more information on the HOME Act (SB 487), visit the Maryland General Assembly website at mgaleg.maryland.gov.

 (UPDATE -- 3-21 at 2:17 p.m.)

    The Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, of which Sen. Norman Stone is a member, approved an amended version of the bill and has sent it to the full Senate for a vote.
    The text approved by the Senate committee includes language specifying that the non-discrimination provisions of the bill apply to both income earned from employment and income received from any public or private assistance program, as well as language specifying that income derived from criminal activity is not subject to such protections.
    The House version of the bill is slated for an upcoming hearing in the Environmental Matters Committee.