- Associated Press - Thursday, December 15, 2016

ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) - Voucher holders’ options for housing may soon broaden if Maryland lawmakers reintroduce and pass the Home Act in the upcoming 2017 legislative session.

The state legislation is intended to stop discrimination in real estate based on source of income.

It would prohibit landlords from turning away those paying with vouchers, adding to a list of other current illegal bases for discrimination, like race, sex, color, religion, national origin, marital status, familial status, sexual orientation, gender identity and disability.

The bill is designed to help those with Section 8 housing choice vouchers. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the vouchers “assist very low-income families, the elderly, and the disabled to afford decent, safe, and sanitary housing.”

Public housing agencies receive federal funds to pay a housing subsidy directly to the landlord. Participating families then pay the difference between the actual rent and the subsidized payment.

Delegate Stephen Lafferty, D-Baltimore County, who sponsored the Home Act of 2016 (HB759), said the specifics of the 2017 bill are in progress. It failed to move forward in the 2016 session after its first reading and hearing in February.

Supporters of the bill say it would be critical in the effort to end homelessness and decentralize poverty in certain neighborhoods.

“I believe in providing as many opportunities to housing as possible,” Lafferty told the University of Maryland’s Capital News Service.

In an October work session of Maryland’s House of Delegates subcommittee on housing, supporters of the Home Act said many landlords who accept vouchers are in impoverished neighborhoods that lack quality health care, grocery and transportation access. Limited voucher acceptance elsewhere only perpetuates a cycle of poverty.

Utah, Oklahoma, Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Dakota, New Jersey, Oregon, Vermont, Wisconsin, the District of Columbia, and many local jurisdictions already have similar laws that prohibit discrimination based on source of income.

Lawmakers have proposed similar bills in the past to help voucher holders, but they have failed to pass through Maryland’s General Assembly.

Housing associations say the housing choice voucher program, or Section 8, is a voluntary program and the decision to accept vouchers should be left to the housing provider.

Housing and real estate agent associations said the Section 8 voucher program puts additional contract and administrative burdens on landlords that they would otherwise not face with non-voucher tenants. Concerns include rent and security deposit limits, rent increases subject to government approval, uncertainty with rental payments, constraints on evictions and additional inspections and paperwork.

Adam Skolnik, executive director of the Maryland Multi-Housing Association, owns 34 rental units in Baltimore and Baltimore County. Skolnik said 25 of his properties are rented to Section 8 voucher-holders. But he said the decision to do so should be optional.

“We believe in the fair housing laws,” Skolnik said. “This is genuinely different than religion or skin color. There are undue burdens that go along with the vouchers and that’s why we believe this bill should never see the light of day again.”

Skolnick said in a market-rate environment, he can move someone into a rental unit in about four days. But when dealing with vouchers, it can take 60 days, particularly in Baltimore. Skolnick said he loses money when this happens.

But supporters of the bill, like the Homeless Persons Representation Project and Maryland’s AARP, are urging legislators to move the Home Act forward into law.

The Home Act is intended to give voucher-holders more options in housing and prevent landlords from turning down possible tenants strictly due to their voucher form of payment.

“We have heard from veterans who have vouchers who have been denied (housing),” Lafferty said.

Veteran and housing-voucher-holder Jill Brown-Williams, 58, faced this issue. After serving in the U.S. Coast Guard for six years, she worked as a commercial truck driver. She quit that job to be her husband’s primary caretaker after he was diagnosed with cancer.

Her husband died, she suffered a stroke and found herself without income or a home.

Brown-Williams received a Section 8 voucher through the U.S. Housing and Urban Development - Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing program.

The then-homeless veteran wanted to live in Baltimore County near her family for their emotional support.

But landlords consistently turned down her Section 8 payment in areas in close proximity to her family, she said, so Brown-Williams was forced to use her voucher in an area where she would not like to live.

Lafferty said he hopes the Home Act will help people like Brown-Williams move to better neighborhoods in order to succeed.

“It is a very important issue that the state needs to grapple with,” Lafferty said.

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