80 Percent Discrimination: City Council passes hedged, amended bill that increases housing access for some, not all

Photo by Brandon Soderberg

At the Fair Housing For All rally yesterday, social worker Deborah Woolford whirled a sign all around, way out in front of her then high above her head and danced to the chants of the 40 or so hollering out, “Hey hey, ho ho, discrimination has got to go.”

The group gathered downtown in support of Council Bill 18-0308, Councilperson Ryan Dorsey’s bill which prevents landlords from being able to discriminate against renters because of “source of income”—those using government housing vouchers and those who receive money for a disability, child support, alimony, and more.

“I think it’s unfair that people should be judged according their income and denied fair housing because of the source of income—that’s another sort of discrimination,” Woolford said, taking a break from getting the crowd going her sign by her side. “For an African-American and low-income person it’s injustice all around.”

The sign Woolford held during the rally read, “20% Non-Discrimination is 80% Discrimination.” It was a reference to a proposed amendment to the original bill that would make it so that landlords only had to provide 20 percent of their housing units to those using vouchers.

As far as Woolford was concerned, if 20 percent of renters are not discriminated against for source of income then 80 percent of renters are still being discriminated against.

“What if I was that twenty-first person and I’ve been waiting for long?” Woolford said. “I deserve fair housing just like everybody else, why would you deny me because of 20 percent? You’re still denying me; that’s still discrimination.”

Supporters of the amendment to bill said the amendment is about preventing more concentrations of poverty while supporters of the “clean” amendment-free version of bill like Woolford don’t see it that way. In a city where poverty is deeply-concentrated, the bill would help break up these concentrations long before it reconcentrated poverty; the amendment at best, means more incremental change in Baltimore.

Vernon Brehon stood on the lip of the curb, a sign above his head reading, “Vouchers pay the rent,” wearing a hoodie with the Black Panthers logo and the words “People’s Free Food Program” on his chest, trying to drum up support from cars and pedestrians passing by the group.

“If somebody is using public assistance for that help, they should be able to use it to have some place to live,” Brehon said. “Housing really is hope, it’s really a way to stop some of the cycles that affect the city and all of its inhabitants.”

The group then march a few blocks to the front of City Hall for more testimonials.

“We are gathered today to tell City Hall and the mayor that they have a sworn duty to provide a better quality of life for all citizens regardless of their ethnicity, their age, their gender, their disability, and their source of income,” Reverend Marlon Tilghman said.

“It’s been a long time coming,” Councilperson Mary Pat Clarke, one of the bill’s sponsors, said.

Sh was referencing years of discussion about eliminating source of income discrimination which has become policy in eleven states (plus Washington D.C.) and decades since the Federal Fair Housing Act of 1968, part of the Civil Right Acts which prevented discrimination based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status or disability.

The NAACP’s Lisa R. Hodges (who recently cowrote an op-ed that ran in the Beat) drew a direct comparison between the source of income discrimination allowed in Baltimore and the country’s racist past.

“They’re saying that you can’t use a voucher, that’s like saying, ‘Your money’s no good here.’ The same thing was said to those who stood at the lunch counters in the 60s,” Hodges said. “This is Jim Crow by another name.”

Tisha Guthrie first applied for housing vouchers in 2004 after she became legally blind due to Type 1 Diabetes and has endured source income discrimination:  “We want the opportunity to move where we desire, we want the opportunities to school our children where we desire, we want the opportunity to market where we desire. We want equal opportunity,” she said.

Mike Bullis executive director of The Image Center for People with Disabilities asked the crowd to imagine a situation in which someone is injured in car crash and must quickly learn to navigate a disability while looking for housing that will assist them using vouchers.

“She has a car accident, finds herself in a wheelchair, has a lot of life changes to work through, but then she’s told ‘you can’t live here’?” Bullis said. “We need affordable housing, we need accessible housing, we need integrated housing.”

Speakers often returned to the amendment, which was, they stressed a “discrimination amendment” that allowed 80 percent of people to still be discriminated against.

Photo by Brandon Soderberg

At City Council later that night, Councilperson Bill Henry, another sponsor of the bill, proposed an amendment to the 20 percent amendment. It would allow the 20 percent amendment to be part of the bill for its first four years and then that part could be reconsidered—an improvement over the 20 percent amendment though hardly the “clean bill” advocates demanded.

And that is what passed in City Council—10 to 5—the bill with an amendment to the amendment. Frustrated shouts of “eighty percent discrimination” from rally attendees in the council chambers followed.

After the vote, Dorsey reflected on the bills’ evolution—or devolution.

“There’s a belief that even if we passed the bill clean, that landlord’s are just gonna change other screening criteria so they justify rejecting the same tenants for different reasons so it’s not going to be effective anyways,” Dorsey said. “That’s not what the data tells us. Places that have these laws do better with voucher placement and voucher usage. But we got this landlord lobby that doesn’t want the bill at all. And the council president is a pretty firm believer in compromising.”

The 20 percent amendment was that compromise. The problem Dorsey said is that it is nearly impossible to prove when landlords are at the 20 percent cap or not. Landlords are legally prohibited from disclosing information about their tenants’ status and its unlikely that Housing Authority of Baltimore City would have the time or resources to look into individual landlords to see if they are under that 20 percent cap and enforce the bill.

Even if the cap was higher than 20 percent that same issue would remain.

“The problem with the [percentage cap] amendment is the inability to actually check in on them and verify their claim that they met the cap,” Dorsey said. “It’s unverifiable.”

Fair housing for all it seems, will have to wait at least four more years.

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