Last week, Baltimore City announced the reopening of its Housing Choice Voucher Program (formerly known as Section 8) waiting list for the first time since 2003. Any interested resident may apply for one of 25,000 spots, online, between Oct. 22 and 30. In Baltimore, as well as many other jurisdictions, however, there are no legal requirements that landlords accept all legal sources of income (SOI), including the federally subsidized vouchers, for rental purposes, undermining the ‘choice’ portion of this federal housing program.
Odette Ramos is the executive director of the Community Development Network of Maryland, which for the last year has been running the ‘Consider the Person’ campaign, designed to dispel myths surrounding the types of tenants voucher recipients are.
“In Maryland, it’s perfectly legal for a landlord to say, ‘Oh, I don’t like how you’re getting your money, so I’m not going to rent to you.’ And that, to us, is discrimination,” said Ramos.
According to Ramos, studies have found no correlation between persons with vouchers moving into a community and increases in crime, for example. However, stereotypes and assumptions drive a perception among many landlords that voucher recipients will engage in undesirable behavior, a perception out of touch with the reality that housing vouchers are a scarce and therefore precious resource, as shown by the closing of the HCVP waiting list in Baltimore City for over a decade.
“More often than not you get tenants who have a voucher who are great tenants because they have to follow the rules to keep that voucher,” said Ramos.
The Housing Authority of Baltimore City (HABC) is a partner in the Consider the Person campaign, and according to Anthony Scott, deputy executive director of HABC, Baltimore currently has around 4,000 landlords participating in the voucher program, a number that is constantly growing. Baltimore, however, has no legal prohibitions against discrimination based on source of income (SOI), so landlord’s are not required to accept voucher recipients.
Currently in Maryland, only Frederick, Howard, and Montgomery Counties, as well as the cities of Frederick and Annapolis have SOI laws requiring that all legal sources of income be accepted by landlords. According to Tiffany Smith, chief of staff of Howard County Housing, these laws protect various types of income against discriminatory treatment.
“It does cover the voucher, which is great, but it also covers social security, child support, alimony, and those are areas that were typically discriminated against by landlords in the past,” said Smith.
For Smith, what SOI laws do is create an equal playing field for all renters, and protects persons who would otherwise be model tenants from discrimination on arbitrary grounds. “If a person has excellent credit, has no criminal background, and just does not make as much money as another person, and you just say ‘I don’t want to deal with the voucher program,’ it tends to limit the places that a person can choose to live. And they probably would otherwise be a very good tenant,” said Smith.
But stereotypes and stigma are only one obstacle to a greater housing supply for voucher recipients. As Scott explained, any landlord canparticipate in the voucher program but their property must meet housing quality standards established by HUD and enhanced by HABC. While such standards are necessary to protect voucher recipients, Smith, who also worked for the HABC for many years, notes that an unintended consequence of this is to limit the available housing stock for voucher recipients in a place like Baltimore, whose older infrastructure means many landlords are not able to participate in the voucher program, even if they want to, without first making significant capital improvements to their rental units.
Another issue, according to Clifton Martin, CEO of the Housing Commission of Anne Arundel County, is that “some areas have extremely competitive rental markets, and this drives rent up. We see this in some areas in and around Baltimore and DC. Once this happens, voucher families are priced out of those markets.”
As Scott explained, voucher recipients, who generally have higher incomes than persons in public housing, pay 30 percent of their income toward rent with the voucher subsidizing the rest of the costs. Housing authorities are required to do surveys of area rents in order to establish reasonable maximum rent rates. If a person wants to live in an area with far higher than average rates, the housing authority is not permitted to subsidize the rental, which further limits choices for recipients.
Then, of course, there is the simple problem of racism, which further works to limit housing options for voucher recipients in jurisdictions without SOI laws. “We know that there’s a racialized nature to this, because in the Baltimore region, most of the families are African American that need the vouchers,” said Ramos. “There are White families, and other nationalities that need the vouchers as well, but the stereotype certainly is that it’s just African American families and we don’t ‘those people’ here.”