Rights Groups Allege Rental Discrimination

By Miranda S. Spivack
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Two civil rights groups yesterday filed complaints claiming that six Montgomery County landlords are illegally turning away low-income tenants who want to use government vouchers to help pay the rent.

The groups say testers with vouchers were turned away or were shown only some available apartments, while testers without vouchers were offered a wide array of options and, in some instances, offered a rent break or some other incentive to sign a lease.

The complaints were filed with the county's Human Rights Commission by the Equal Rights Center and the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, both in the District. They are being assisted by three blue-chip law firms: Foley and Lardner; Howrey; and Morrison and Foerster. The commission is expected to get the complainants and the landlords together soon to discuss the allegations.

"Without the ability to use a voucher, many families are forced into substandard housing, into overcrowded conditions or onto the streets," Donald L. Kahl, executive director of the Equal Rights Center, said at a news conference in Rockville.

The landlords and property managers cited in the complaints said they were unaware of the incidents and do not practice discrimination.

"We do accept vouchers. We do participate with the Montgomery County program," said Susan Toland of the Donaldson Group, a large property management firm based in Rockville that manages Arbor Crest of Silver Spring. Ken Becker, a partner in a firm that owns and manages Topaz House in Bethesda, said his employees had no record of anyone coming in with a voucher and being turned down. "We don't discriminate. We know what the law is," he said.

Joann Gerhart of Dreyfuss, which manages Rock Creek Springs in Silver Spring, said the complex accepts renters with vouchers. "We'd like to have more," she said. "It is guaranteed rent." Similar comments were made by Marty McKenna, a spokesman for Equity Residential, affiliated with Fireside Park in Rockville, and Edward Schulman, general counsel of AvalonBay Communities, affiliated with Avalon at Traville in Rockville. Nancy Torres of Park Bethesda in Bethesda did not respond to requests for comment.

Montgomery, which since 1991 has banned housing discrimination based on source of income, is one of about a dozen jurisdictions across the country that prohibit discrimination in housing based on the source of income a tenant uses to help pay the rent.

The law was challenged by a landlord but upheld in 2007 by Maryland's highest court and denied further review by the U.S. Supreme Court. Similar bans are in effect in the District and Howard County, as well as all of Massachusetts and New Jersey, Kahl said. Virginia does not have a similar prohibition.

Montgomery is one of the most expensive housing markets in the nation, and the amount of affordable housing has dwindled. The median price of a new home topped $1 million in 2007 before housing values took a steep dive, and the civil rights groups estimated that the average rent for an apartment is more than $14,000 annually. The average income for a voucher holder is about $14,000 per year, Kahl said.

Montgomery's affordable housing program has about 5,600 vouchers and a waiting list of about 25,000 families seeking some form of subsidized housing. The voucher program formerly was known as Section 8.

The decades-old federal housing voucher program gives prospective tenants a piece of paper that can be used to pay up to 100 percent of their rent. It has long been viewed by supporters as a positive program that has helped thousands get out of shelters or sub-par housing and begin to make their way toward the middle class.

The goal is to spread low- and moderate-income residents throughout jurisdictions to encourage economic and geographic integration. The program is touted as a successful alternative to government-run public housing projects.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company