By Ilana Kowarski
A bill that would require landlords to accept tenants through the federal Section 8 program sparked a debate about civil rights on the Senate floor Tuesday.
The bill, SB487, is intended to prevent landlords from rejecting tenants that receive public assistance simply because they are poor. But critics of the legislation said that it would force landlords to participate in social welfare programs and make them do business with housing authorities that send rent checks late and refuse to pay market rates.
Baltimore County Democrat James Brochin said that a landlord from his district was owed over $36,000 in back rent from government housing authorities. He claimed that such stories were legion throughout the state.
Brochin argued that it was unfair to require landlords to keep dealing with officials that do not pay them properly.
‘Mandates Section 8,’ opponent says
“This bill mandates Section 8,” Brochin said. “If you choose not to work with HUD [the Department of Housing and Urban Development], you’re going to have court action against you. If you start dealing with Section 8 and get tired of it, you won’t have a choice. You’ll have to keep doing it.”
Sen. Jamie Raskin, D-Montgomery, said that Brochin was “unfairly castigating” the legislation. As the lead sponsor of SB 487, Raskin said his sole mission was to stop discrimination and prevent ghettoization.
“I always stand with the underdog,” Raskin said, and he argued that his bill would enable poor people to escape slums and live in safe neighborhoods with good schools.
Raskin accused Brochin of “trying to tear down this civil rights legislation” with false allegations. He read a letter from Anne Arundel County Housing Commission CEO Clifton Martin categorically denying Brochin’s claim that the A&G Management Company was owed thousands of dollars in Section 8 rent.
“After review by accountants at both the Housing Commission and A & G Management,” Martin wrote, “it is apparent that there is no money owed to the company by the Housing Commission. To the contrary, there is apparent discussion that they may owe the Housing Commission refunds.”
Provisions include no rent increases
This rebuttal did not sway Raskin’s opponents, many of whom said that they were disturbed by the provisions of Section 8 contracts that said that leases could be terminated at any time without notice and that landlords could not increase rents without getting permission from the state.
Sen. Bobby Zirkin, D-Baltimore County, said that those contracts were “unfair,” and that he was particularly concerned by a provision that denies landlords the opportunity to receive government compensation when Section 8 tenants trash their apartments.
Zirkin said that participation in Section 8 ought to be voluntary, and he said that this view was not incompatible with a concern for civil rights.
“I’m not in favor of discriminating against anybody, but I oppose this bill,” he said.
Opposition is bipartisan
Several Democrats said that they would vote against the legislation, including Sen. Nathaniel McFadden, D-Baltimore City.
McFadden reminisced about the moment in his childhood when he and his mother moved out of the housing project. He expressed concern that the legislation would require landlords to prefer tenants who received government subsidies and make it harder for people like his mother to get cheap housing when they are “paying their own way.”
“This bill is not about preventing discrimination,” said Washington County Republican Christopher Shank. “It is about forcing participation in a government program.”
SB 487 faced substantial resistance earlier in the legislative process. It eked through the Judicial Proceedings Committee in a 6-5 vote, and similar bills have died in committee in 2012 and 2011. The bill was so contentious in the Senate on Tuesday that further debate was set for Wednesday.
The legislation also had enthusiastic champions.
Sen. Bill Ferguson, D-Baltimore City, said that his years as a teacher in urban schools made him realize the necessity of SB 487.
Ferguson said that many of his students grew up in ghettos with a heavy “concentration of the generational poor,” and he said that these children needed a way out of poverty. “Passing this law is a way to ensure that people can have social mobility no matter what zip code they are born in.”