Illegal policies persist despite Maryland’s discrimination protections for tenants who use housing vouchers.
In March 2020, the Maryland General Assembly took an important step toward ending housing discrimination by passing the Housing Opportunities Made Equal (“HOME”) Act after 20 years of advocacy. This law prohibits landlords from discriminating on the basis of a tenant’s source of income. This means that, regardless of whether you’re paying rent with government-sponsored housing vouchers, social security, or disability income, you have an equal right to live in a home as a cash-paying tenant with the same qualifications.
But some landlords, determined to hold onto their prejudices, have found clever ways to maintain their former practices. Although there may be rational reasons for landlords to require tenants to provide proof of income that is at least 2.7 times the amount of rent when the rent will be coming out of the tenant’s income, such practices are nonsensical when a potential tenant’s source of payment is not employment income. Consider, for example, a person eligible for an apartment with a total rent of $1,200 who receives a housing voucher worth $1,000 per month and is therefore only responsible for paying $200 out of their own pocket. In this situation, it is irrational to require that the tenant earn $3,250 per month (2.7 times the total rent of $1,200) when she is only responsible for paying $200. Without that proof of income, many landlords are requiring potential tenants to secure a guarantor (a co-signor) who makes 10 times the amount of the total rent. Both of these options preclude the majority of voucher holders from securing an apartment. Such a practice, while not outright banning vouchers, prevents voucher holders from living on the landlord’s property.
Though this is yet to be litigated in Maryland, such conduct is discrimination based on the prospective tenant’s source of income, and it is illegal under the HOME Act.
Aside from its discriminatory nature, such a requirement is counter to the interest of the landlord or property management company. When a tenant’s rent is paid by a voucher, the landlord receives the payment directly from the government entity, all but guaranteeing that all but a small portion of each month’s rent will be paid. This provides a higher guarantee of rent collection than from a person paying out-of-pocket regardless of whether their income is 2.7 times the total rent. Without a rational business reason for requiring all tenants to provide 2.7 times the total monthly rent (rather than only tenants who will be paying the rent themselves), this practice is unjustified and violates the law. A New York court recently held that such practices violate a similar law in that state.
Similarly, it is illegal to discriminate based on a tenant’s source of income by requiring voucher holders to show additional documents to secure an apartment or providing different terms in a lease. For example, voucher holders cannot be required to sign a lease that has a different length than a person paying with cash or that imposes additional restrictions. Nor may landlords direct voucher holders to apartments that differ from those offered to cash-paying tenants.
Typically, an agent or receptionist of a property management office is the person sharing these policies with the applicant, without any understanding of the background or the rationale but instead only tasked with enforcing the rules. But always having done something a certain way is not a justification for continuing to do it. Landlords and property management companies must revise their tenant-screening processes to accept tenants who may be paying in less-traditional ways but are otherwise qualified for the apartment (the Department of Justice agrees). As a tenant, you should feel empowered to advise the landlord’s office that its policy is against the law under the Maryland HOME Act.
If you feel like you’ve been discriminated against for using a voucher or Social Security income as a way to pay rent, please contact us today.