Court fight for housing subsidy

Montgomery judge backed landlord's refusal of voucher

January 14, 2007|By Rona Marech | Rona Marech,Sun reporter

Montgomery County officials are appealing a court ruling that a landlord does not have to accept federal housing vouchers despite a county law that says otherwise.

Circuit Judge Durke G. Thompson ruled that the owners of a Wheaton-area garden apartment complex hadn't discriminated in refusing to accept the vouchers, but rather had a legitimate desire to avoid the "administrative hassle of the program." The county's challenge to that decision will be heard by the Maryland Court of Special Appeals.

"Housing discrimination based on source of payment is clearly a violation of the county's law," said Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett. "We are working extremely hard to make affordable housing available to everyone who calls Montgomery County home."

The case springs from a 2002 incident in which a woman tried to rent a unit at the Privacy World at Glenmont Metro Centre apartment complex. Elaine Walker had intended to pay part of her rent through the Housing Choice voucher program - previously known as Section 8 - which is administered by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and subsidizes rent for low-income families.

According to records in the case, Walker was handed a pre-printed statement explaining that the complex does not accept federal vouchers. She complained to the Montgomery County Office of Human Rights, where a review board concluded that the owner of the complex had violated the county code, which explicitly prohibits landlords from denying rental property to a tenant proposing to use a housing voucher.

The Human Rights Commission fined the owners $15,000 and awarded Walker $5,000 in compensatory damages for her embarrassment. Thompson subsequently reversed that finding.

"This is not about whether Glenmont discriminates against people based on their source of income," said Jay P. Holland, a lawyer for the landlord, Glenmont Hills Associates. "What Glenmont did not want to do was enter into a contract with the federal government where it would be required to have a HUD lease addendum that it could not negotiate." Forcing a landlord to enter the voluntary federal voucher program is beyond the county's power, Holland said.

The addendum lease has some onerous provisions, Holland said, including one that says a landlord can't evict a tenant if the housing agency fails to pay the rent. The landlord also saw the required government inspection of the property as unfairly burdensome.

"It's not any one provision, it's cumulative," Holland said. "You're forcing somebody to take on all of this extra baggage."

County officials counter that the issue at stake is discrimination and that, in any case, the administrative tasks in question are not excessively demanding.

Assertions of bureaucratic inconvenience are "not relevant at all to whether you're discriminating," said County Attorney Marc Hansen. "But the practical answer is that it's not all that difficult from our perspective."

The inspection ensures that the government is paying for acceptable living quarters, and the lease addendum covers issues found in most leases, said Michael Fordham Dennis, compliance director at the county human rights office. The possibility of the government neglecting to pay is "slim to none," he said, but the provision protects the tenant.

Walker declined to comment.

About a dozen states and some local governments have laws that prohibit landlords from discriminating on the basis of the source of income, including housing vouchers. Maryland has two counties with such laws, Montgomery and Howard. This is the first time such a law has been challenged in the state, Hansen said.

Other courts have addressed this issue, and almost all of them have issued decisions that contradict Thompson's opinion, said Isabelle Thabault, director of the Fair Housing Project at the Washington Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs.

"It's really important for people with housing vouchers to be treated fairly," she said, especially in places such as Montgomery County, where rents are high and the inventory of affordable housing is shrinking.

County officials have attempted to address the affordable housing squeeze through a number of policies, including one that requires developers to set aside a percentage of affordable housing units in new multi-family developments.

"They are way ahead of a lot of municipalities and jurisdictions, but they have a long way to go still," said Rabbi Bruce E. Kahn, the director of the Equal Rights Center, a nonprofit civil rights organization.

Defending Montgomery County's law is critical, said Shane Smith, president and chief executive officer of National Fair Housing Alliance, a housing organization.

"This kind of legislation not only promotes economic integration, but racial and ethnic and religious integration," Smith said. "And it clearly helps families with children and people with disabilities secure safe and affordable housing."

rona.marech@ baltsun.com

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