The word may inspire a feeling of peace, comfort, or belonging. Home is both a physical place and a daily need. That’s why fair housing is a human right. But it’s one that society continues to struggle to extend to everyone.
The challenges facing fair housing are numerous, and elected leaders may run or wait to see which way the wind blows. That’s not good enough. In addition to good schools and access to jobs, we must have quality housing in order for communities to thrive. We need strong leaders with clear values and the courage to follow through.
In Maryland, we may be on our way to eliminating one housing practice surviving from the era of outright racial segregation in the housing market: source-of-income discrimination. Last Monday, the Maryland House of Delegates passed the HOME Act. The HOME Act prohibits source-of-income discrimination, the practice where landlords deny an application, refuse to negotiate, discriminate in the marketing of a property, or in the terms of rent or sale based on a person’s source-of-income.
Source-of-income discrimination affects a wide variety of individuals including far too many seniors, veterans, persons with disabilities, and single mothers. These individuals may use any of the lawful sources of income identified by the HOME Act to pay for housing, including private or government assistance, gifts, inheritance, pension, annuity, alimony, or child support. By creating a barrier to fair housing access, source-of-income discrimination is an unjust housing practice that compounds inequity, which hurts us all.
I have seen this first-hand both in West Baltimore County’s 10th Legislative District where I live, and as member of the Baltimore County Human Relations Commission where I presently serve as Vice-Chair. The Human Relations Commission fields fair housing complaints and monitors housing discrimination in the County. Fair housing advocates use the tactic of sending “testers” to study the responses of landlords or realtors to uncover discrimination; sometimes this work is funded through the Commission.
Though it does not prohibit landlords from considering other factors such as rental history, and does not apply to rentals made by an owner-occupier of a property, the association of laws prohibiting source-of-income discrimination with the Housing Choice Voucher Program (Section 8) has made the HOME Act a political challenge. Opponents claim that people who use vouchers will bring crime to County neighborhoods and reduce property values.
This language is just simply not based in reality. For example, the HOME Act fully allows a landlord to confirm that a tenant’s source-of-income is lawful and not from criminal activity. Furthermore, there is a direct correlation between crime rates, the quality of available housing, and the concentration of poverty. This program is designed specifically to improve housing mobility, which alleviates concentrated poverty and improves access to good quality housing for working families.
From my view on the Commission, there is blatant overlap of source-of-income discrimination with racial or other protected class discrimination. Ultimately, opponents’ language is the same language that has been used for decades to exclude people from opportunity based on race, national origin, or other protected class. Notably, the HOME Act contains prohibitions against intimidation and other practices reminiscent of the blockbusting and red-lining of the past.
The County lacks sufficient resources to monitor the real estate market closely enough to sort out instances where source-of-income discrimination is really prohibited discrimination against a protected class. That’s why the only conscionable way forward is to eliminate source-of-income as a valid reason to deny housing access to an otherwise qualified applicant. Let’s hope that the Maryland Senate and Governor Hogan see it the same way.
 Fair housing testers are pairs of individuals who differ in no relevant way from each other, but differ by race, national origin, disability, or other class protected from housing discrimination by law. In FY 2016 Baltimore Neighborhoods Inc. conducted 23 rental and 6 real estate tests on behalf of the Commission