Landlords in Howard and Montgomery counties cannot turn away low-income renters who pay for their housing with federal vouchers, Maryland's highest court ruled yesterday.
The unanimous ruling upholds fair-housing laws in those counties and, housing advocates say, provides momentum for a drive to pass a statewide law requiring landlords to accept rental vouchers. Such a law, advocates say, would make it easier for poor people to live in affluent communities with better jobs and better schools.
"It's appalling that we do not have this as a state law and that people can be denied housing" solely because they are paying with a voucher, said Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett. He said landlords who don't accept vouchers are "impacting quite severely the level of affordable housing that may be available to people."
The Housing Choice voucher program -- formerly called Section 8 -- requires recipients to pay a portion of their income, usually about a third, toward rent and covers the balance with money from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The federal law does not require landlords to accept the vouchers.
But a dozen states, as well as Howard and Montgomery counties in Maryland, have passed laws requiring participation. When a garden apartment complex in Wheaton refused to accept a woman's voucher, Montgomery County's Human Rights Commission fined the owner $15,000 and awarded $5,000 in compensatory damages to the would-be tenant.
The landlord, Glenmont Hills Associates, appealed the decision. A Montgomery Circuit Court judge found for the landlord last year, saying its refusal to participate was based on a legitimate, nondiscriminatory desire "to avoid the administrative hassle of the program."
The Maryland Court of Appeals overturned that decision yesterday. An attorney for the landlord, Jay Holland, said he was "extremely disappointed" and that he and his client are considering petitioning the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case. At issue is whether federal law, which makes the program voluntary, can be trumped by a state or local law requiring participation.
In its decision, the Court of Appeals quoted from the 1995 HUD regulations creating the program: "State and local governments can of course impose additional requirements."
But Holland said the practical effect of the ruling might be that landlords will set their rents so high that voucher recipients cannot afford them.
Glenmont participates in Montgomery County's rental assistance program and has its own program to provide apartments at discounted rates to low-income residents. But the apartment complex owners felt the additional rules that come with the federal vouchers were burdensome, Holland said.
Affordable-housing advocates say that reasoning is often a red herring.
"Landlords say they don't want the administrative burden, but in many cases they don't want poor people in the buildings, and sometimes it's a surrogate for racial discrimination as well," said Bob Bruskin, senior counsel at the Washington Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, which filed a friend-of-the-court brief supporting Montgomery County in the lawsuit.
Others who supported the county said the requirement was critical to integration efforts, both in terms of race and socioeconomics. They said that to qualify for the vouchers, families must pass credit and criminal background checks.
"I don't think America really wants to be so snotty and segregated as to say, `I don't want somebody who's working but doesn't make as much as I do to live in my neighborhood or have their children go to school with my children,'" said Shanna Smith, president and CEO of the National Fair Housing Alliance.
Montgomery County has about 5,400 rental vouchers in use, compared with 1,100 in Howard County and more than 11,000 in Baltimore City, which does not have the "source of income" law requiring participation. The law is critical in Montgomery County, officials said, because of the high cost of housing there.
"In this county in particular, where for years you've had a very hot housing market, it's important to make sure that [more] than high-income people have access to housing," said Montgomery County Attorney Leon Rodriguez.
He said the Court of Appeals ruling should put to rest any concerns that other jurisdictions or state lawmakers might have about the legality of local laws pre-empting the federal law. A statewide fair-housing law would make it easier for low-income people to find housing, advocates said.
"If such a law were mandated statewide, that there couldn't be `source of income' discrimination, it would have a significant impact upon the ability of people with vouchers to find housing and would reduce the specter of homelessness" for the poor, said Gregory Countess, an attorney with the Legal Aid Bureau of Maryland, which focuses on housing issues.
Baltimore City's housing commissioner, Paul A. Graziano, has said that he supports a statewide fair-housing law.