By AMBRIAH S. UNDERWOOD, Capital News Service

WASHINGTON — Disability, race, gender, mental illness, and criminal history are used by landlords against low-income renters to deny access to public housing.

That’s according to Lydia Brown, a fellow with Washington’s Judge David L. Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law who advocates for people with mental disabilities.

“All we are doing is moving the fence instead of removing it,” Brown said Thursday in a keynote speech to a District of Columbia fair housing symposium. “All we’re doing is saying that only some people deserve to feel freedom and community here, but others only deserve inhumanity and violence.”

Public housing units. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development)

The federal Fair Housing Act makes it illegal to discriminate against someone in housing based on seven protected classes: race, color, national origin, religion, sex, disability and families with children.

Depending on the state, there may be additional protections covered under state laws. Maryland has three added categories: marital status, gender identity and sexual orientation, while the District offers an additional 11 protected classes under its Human Rights Act.

Three organizations in the District — the Office of Human Rights, the Office of Disability Rights and the Developmental Disabilities Council — partnered to host workshops for symposium participants on ways they can recognize and challenge housing discrimination tactics.

Susan McClannahan, senior fair housing program coordinator for the Equal Rights Center, said a type of discrimination used against people with disabilities is known as disparate impact, “which means that your policy on its face seems neutral, doesn’t seem targeted towards any group of people but that, when put in practice, is disproportionately hard for specific communities.”

McClannahan said the Equal Rights Center documented complaints of landlords documented illegally discriminating against people for how rent is paid, especially with the use of a housing choice voucher, which helps low-income families, the elderly and disabled afford housing, according to the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

“Ninety-two percent of housing choice pullers are Black in the District,” McClannahan said. “So, nine out of 10 times when a housing provider says, ‘I don’t want to rent to you because you have a voucher,’ they’re telling that to a Black resident.”

In Maryland, HUD documented more Black people living in public housing as the head of the household than the national average.

HUD’s resident characteristics report on the racial demographics of heads of households living on public assistance in Maryland said 54 percent of the families are Black while 42 percent are White.

Other deterrents used by landlords to illegally discriminate against voucher holders that McClannahan said her office has seen are advertisements saying, “Not set up to take vouchers, not sorry.”

In the long run, the roadblocks “push people toward a certain area not based on their wants or needs,” McClannahan said.

Remaining housing options for people in need of public assistance have their pitfalls, advocates said. The Baltimore Sun reported in March that Maryland had the second-highest failure rate of public housing inspections behind Washington.

Contradicting HUD’s claim that it is providing “decent, safe and sanitary” homes to people requiring housing choice vouchers, inspectors are encountering issues like water damage in homes.

Being on the autism spectrum, Brown understands and empathizes with the struggles associated with disabilities.

Brown envisions “a society in which every single person is able to live in safe and affordable, accessible and truly integrated housing that enables us to be connected to our community of choosing.”