Trick-Or-Treat: Conflicts And Confusion In New Fair Housing Law

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Halloween is almost here! As you are carving a pumpkin, making your costume or buying candy for trick-or-treaters, you may be wondering what will be the scariest thing you will see on October 31.

But the scariest thing may be what happens when Bill 55-19 goes into effect on October 27. It is the county executive’s new Fair Housing Act, the most restrictive fair housing law in the state.

Even before this law, housing discrimination has been illegal in Anne Arundel County for decades. Federal law already prohibited housing discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status and disability.

State law keeps those same prohibitions and adds prohibitions on discrimination because of marital status, sexual orientation, and gender identity. Anne Arundel County now adds even more, prohibiting discrimination for age, ancestry, citizenship, creed, gender expression, occupation and source of income. These rules apply to all landlords, whether you rent a room in your house or own an apartment complex. I proposed 16 amendments to fix some of the key issues with this new law, 15 of which were defeated on a party-line vote, including:

  • Occupation: The Anne Arundel County Association of Realtors testified this new law stops homebuilders and landlords from offering incentives or discounts to teachers, police and firefighters. Offering an incentive to a teacher, but not to a plumber or electrician, is discrimination under this new law.
  • Source of Income: You now have no choice whether to accept renters paying with housing vouchers (Section 8). Section 8 comes with many requirements. Some landlords choose not to participate. That used to be your choice; not anymore. What if you want to participate in the Section 8 program, but to do so you have to fix the property to meet Section 8 standards, and instead you choose not to rent to that tenant? Have you violated the law?
  • Citizenship: County law now conflicts with federal law (aka a catch-22). Federal law makes it illegal (with fines and jail time) to “knowing or in reckless disregard of the fact that an alien has come to, entered, or remains in the United States in violation of law, conceals, harbors, or shields from detection ... such alien in any place, including any building...” (8 U.S.C. 1324). But this new county law says if you know someone lacks legal status, you cannot refuse to rent to him or her. You now have to decide whether you will violate federal law or county law.
  • Ancestry, Creed or Gender Expression: I thought it made sense to define what these words mean. You should be able to read the law and understand it, right? Apparently not. Without defining what these mean, county law now makes discrimination on these grounds illegal, and members of the housing commission will decide what they mean.

In another bill (Bill 57-19), the council created a new housing commission to investigate and penalize occurrences of housing discrimination. Originally, the county executive wanted fines of $21,000 for a first offense, $52,000 for a second offense and $105,000 for a third (or more) offense. I felt these fines were exorbitant and not appropriately scaled given the offense. A compromise amendment I proposed to lower the fine to $10,000 for each violation was the only amendment I proposed that the council passed.

The confusion and uncertainty this law creates for landlords and renters alike may be the scariest thing you see this year. Happy Halloween!

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