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Court Victory in Source of Income Discrimination in Montgomery County

On November 30, 2007, the Maryland Court of Appeals delivered a resounding victory to local governments and low-income renters in a case in which the Public Justice Center participated in the preparation of an amicus brief. The decision resolves in Maryland the question of whether a local government may prohibit, as part of its fair housing law, discrimination by landlords on the basis of the applicant's source of income. The purpose of such a prohibition is primarily to prevent landlords from rejecting low-income applicants because they need to use a federally funded or similar government voucher to help pay their rent.

The case is Montgomery County v. Glenmont Hills Associates, Case No. 20 (Sept. Term 2007) and involved a large apartment complex that admittedly rejected an applicant solely because she proposed to pay her rent in part with a federal housing voucher. The applicant and the county public housing agency both filed complaints with the Montgomery County Office of Human Rights, which ruled that the landlord violated the county's ordinance prohibiting discrimination on the basis of source of income. The circuit court reversed, accepting the landlord's argument that federal law, which states that participation in the federal housing voucher program by landlords is voluntary, preempts local fair housing laws that prohibit source-of-income discrimination. Montgomery County appealed and asked the Court of Appeals to review the case immediately, which the Court agreed to do. The Court ruled in favor of the county, and therefore the low-income applicant, and rejected every argument presented by the landlord.

The PJC participated in the preparation of one of three amicus briefs filed in support of the county. The brief was authored by attorneys at Sidley Austin LLP and filed on behalf of ten amicus organizations.* The brief provided the Court with detailed information on the nature and severity of the affordable housing crisis in Maryland and the U.S., the significant disparate impact of that crisis on persons with disabilities, persons of color, women, children, elders, and other vulnerable populations, the fundamental goals of the federal housing voucher program in combating housing segregation and concentration of poverty, and the role of local anti-discrimination provisions in promoting, rather than conflicting with, those goals.

The decision protects Montgomery County's fair housing law and similar provisions in Howard County and Tacoma Park. It also preserves the option of passing such laws for other Maryland jurisdictions. But its importance extends beyond Maryland, because landlords across the country have begun challenging similar local provisions, and this decision should help determine the trend for courts in other states to follow.

*The organizations are: Maryland Disability Law Center, Public Justice Center, Legal Aid Bureau, Inc., Maryland Developmental Disabilities Council, The Arc Of Maryland, Maryland Adapt, Making Choices For Independent Living, Inc., Independence Now, Homeless Persons Representation Project, On Our Own Of Maryland, Inc.

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