Howard housing measure contested Landlord suit calls anti-discrimination law unconstitutional

June 23, 1998|By Gady A. Epstein | Gady A. Epstein,SUN STAFF

When 62-year-old Solange Collen -- legally blind and living on Social Security and disability benefits -- found a small, no-frills place to rent in Columbia last summer, her son Steve was thrilled. The Columbia resident would have his mother close by, where he could help her get groceries and do other errands.

But Collen was unable to move in to Clary's Crossing Apartments. She can't afford the $700-plus monthly rent without her federal Section 8 voucher, and the complex doesn't participate in the subsidized housing program -- even though a county anti-discrimination law essentially requires participation.

Collen complained to county officials of discrimination, and now Clary's Crossing has sued Howard County in federal court to decide whether landlords can be forced to accept Section 8 tenants. The suit is the latest sign of growing tension between landowners in this property-rich county and officials concerned about making more housing available to the poor.

Howard and Montgomery are the only two counties in the state with anti-discrimination laws barring landlords from refusing tenants because their income or rent payments are subsidized by the government -- whether the subsidy is a Section 8 voucher, a Social Security check or disability income. The suit, filed in May and served on county officials this month, challenges Howard's law as unconstitutional, though public housing advocates say they are confident the suit will fail.

Solange Collen eventually found another place to live in Columbia and has moved there from Laurel. But public housing advocates in Howard and Montgomery say their laws are essential for others to find affordable housing in counties with some of the highest property prices in the state.

"The law was passed for one reason, to keep people off the streets," said Michael F. Dennis, compliance director with the Human Relations Commission of Montgomery County, which enacted its anti-discrimination law in 1991. "The point is that for many people who are on Section 8, the next step is homelessness. What use is a Section 8 certificate, if people don't have to accept it?"

The Augusta, Ga., owner of Clary's Crossing Apartments, a real estate investment trust called Merry Land & Investment Co., said it merely wants to exercise the freedom to not participate in the Section 8 program -- which is voluntary under federal law.

"[Merry Land] owns apartment communities across the country, and this is the first time that they have been told by a local government agency that they were required to join this federal subsidy program," said Edward J. Tarver, an Augusta attorney representing the company. "In this country you can't force people to enter into contracts against their will."

County lawyers argue, however, that the government can force landlords to accept Section 8 tenants. They cite rulings from Massachusetts and New Jersey state courts upholding similar laws on the grounds that local and state governments can enact laws tougher than the federal act.

Howard County passed the anti-discrimination law in 1992 as part of a plan to not only make affordable housing more available, but also to spread low-income tenants across the county. However, the law has increasingly sparked concerns among landlords as the county has seen the number of its subsidized-housing tenants double in the last four years to nearly 1,000 -- with most of the new tenants, such as Collen, coming from outside the county.

Earlier this month, the County Council voted to scale back the anti-discrimination statute, allowing landlords to turn away people with housing subsidies once 20 percent of their complexes are rented to such tenants. That change takes effect in August.

County public housing and human rights officials said they pushed for the change because landlords complained the law tTC could turn their complexes into virtual "projects" -- and because housing officials were concerned the original law would be challenged.

Some public housing advocates charge, though, that the county hasn't done enough to make affordable housing available, saying Howard should follow Montgomery's lead and require developers to set aside apartments in new complexes for low- or moderate-income residents.

"There's a lot that needs to be done in working with housing providers in Howard County to assure that all people, all residents of the county have access to decent, safe and sanitary housing," said William A. Ross, chairman of the Columbia-based Affordable Housing Alliance. "We've got just so far to go in getting people to understand that economic integration is just as important as racial integration."

The county does have a law requiring some higher-density developments to set aside some low-income housing, but one developer recently submitted a plan to build one fewer home than the number that would have triggered that requirement.

"It's very much a class issue," said Steve Collen, 36. Without the housing law, he says, it would have been tougher to find an affordable place for his mother.

"I would be limited to have my mom some place far away," Steve Collen said. "Why can't I have my mom close by some place so I can take care of her?"

Pub Date: 6/23/98

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