By andy Zieminski
ANNAPOLIS – Montgomery County landlords cannot turn away low-income renters simply because they receive federal Section 8 housing assistance, the Maryland Court of Appeals ruled Friday.
The high court rejected arguments that enforcing the county’s housing law, which prohibits discrimination based on income among other factors, would essentially require landlords to participate against their will in the voluntary assistance program.
“This is a victory for the civil rights community and for the affordable housing community. It’s a victory all around,” said Michael Dennis, compliance director for the Montgomery County Office of Human Rights, which investigates housing discrimination in the county.
Dennis said the decision directly affects Montgomery and Howard counties, the only Maryland jurisdictions with laws that prohibit housing discrimination based on a person’s sources of income.
A lawyer for Glenmont Hills Associates, which had challenged the county law, said Friday the Silver Spring landlord will “very likely” appeal the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“This was an interesting issue, but an issue that I thought was fairly clear, that a county could not force a landlord to participate in the Section 8 housing program when Congress had made that participation voluntary,” said Jay Holland.
Holland noted that his client voluntarily participates in other housing assistance programs, including one sponsored by Montgomery County.
The Court of Appeals did not agree that the voluntary nature of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Section 8 program pre-empts the county law requirement that a landlord not discriminate based on income.
“There is nothing in any of the relevant federal statutes even to indicate, much less establish, that voluntary participation by landlords was an important congressional objective” when the voucher program was created decades ago, retired Judge Alan Wilner wrote for the court.
Montgomery County in 1991 added income to its fair housing law, which prohibits discrimination based on several factors. The amended law banned discrimination based on a person’s income, which includes “any government or private assistance, grant, or loan program,” according to court documents.
The Section 8 program uses federally funded vouchers to help low-income families afford rent at the market rate.
The complaint against Glenmont Hills Associates began in 2002, when a woman identified in court documents only as “Ms. Walker” was told the complex would not accept applications from people using vouchers.
The landlord claimed in court documents that participation in the program carries excessive administrative burdens for landlords, including mandatory changes to lease agreements and additional property inspections, an argument the court rejected.
But the director of the county’s Office of Human Rights in December 2002 determined the landlord was in violation of the county’s fair housing statute. The county’s Commission on Human Rights agreed and fined the landlord $15,000.
Glenmont Hills then took the case to Montgomery County Circuit Court. It sided with the landlord, writing that “the county cannot force a landlord to enter into a contract with the federal government,” according to court documents.
The county appealed, and the high court decided to take the case.
Holland cautioned that Friday’s ruling could have a negative effect on affordable housing, which Section 8 is designed to promote. To avoid being forced into taking Section 8 tenants, landlords could push their rents above what the program will cover, he said.
“I think the unfortunate result of this could well be . . . less low-income housing in Montgomery County, rather than more,” Holland said.
But affordable housing advocates hailed the court’s decision.
“Great for Montgomery County for standing up for the working poor,” said Stuart Katzenberg, head organizer in Maryland for the Association for Community Organizations for Reform Now.
Katzenberg said that rent discrimination against low-income families is “a huge problem across the state,” especially in the Baltimore-Washington corridor.
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