The passage of the Water Accountability and Equity Act (WAEA) and the Housing Opportunities Made Equal (HOME) Act will impact housing and water bills for lower-income residents in Baltimore City and Baltimore County, respectively.
Baltimore City Council passed WAEA Nov. 18. The bill comprises two parts: an income-based water billing system and more transparency from the Department of Public Works (DPW). Mayor Bernard Young introduced the legislation. When the change is implemented, Baltimore will be the second city in the nation to bill its residents for water in this way. WAEA will proceed to a six month implementation.
WAEA received unanimous support from Baltimore City Council, according to Stefanie Mavronis, director of communication of the city council president.
Initially, however, there was “confusion about income-based billing, misunderstandings that it would increase rates for higher income households,” said Matan Zeimer of Jews United for Justice (JUFJ).
According to Zeimer, the legislation does not increase rates for anyone but rather accommodates those who need accommodation.
“Research has shown people will pay the bills if they can,” he said, and the city will end up being paid more reliably.
In a public statement, Rianna Eckel, senior Maryland organizer at Food & Water Watch, said the average water bill in Baltimore is roughly $100 per month.
“For the typical household, this is simply too much,” said Eckel. “DPW has historically failed to work with customers to discover the root cause of high bills.”
Brandon Scott, president of the city council, remarked that other problems among constituents include missing bills, erroneous bills, and disputes in general.
“This piece of legislation is based on structural change,” said Scott. “This bill creates an independent and transparent dispute resolution process, one renters can access, not just homeowners. It also ensures water is affordable for our most vulnerable neighbors.”
The Baltimore County Council passed the HOME Act Nov. 4.
It prohibits discrimination by landlords against renters based on their source of income, including federal housing vouchers, disability checks, career paths, inheritance, or property sale. Section 8 voucher recipients are required to pay 30% of their income toward rent, while the rest is paid by the local housing authority to the landlord, according to the Citizens Planning Association’s website.
The bill was promoted as a step against housing discrimination and introduced by Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski.
The legislation takes effect in approximately 30 days, but “in practical terms it could be years” until the housing market really changes due to the backlog of voucher applications, said County Councilman Israel Patoka, a member of the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation.
The legislation will not apply to small business “mom and pop” landlords, who perhaps rent a house on the side rather than their main source of income, according to Patoka.
“The HOME Act provides greater access to affordable housing and is a win-win for all of us,” said Tiffani Long, senior communications at Baltimore Regional Housing Partnership.
Long advocated for the bill on behalf of children.
“Research shows us that children who grow up in stable, resource rich communities have better life outcomes,” which “are intergenerational and contribute to our collective economic and social vibrancy,” she said.
Gregory Friedman, another member of JUFJ who supports the HOME Act, said Section 8 voucher discrimination hurts veterans, who are “a large number of recipients to this program.” Friedman also wanted people to know that the act does not expand the number of vouchers.
Patoka urges the public “to focus on the facts, not the myths” of the HOME Act.
“One of the myths is housing vouchers provide free rent. That’s not true. Another myth is it prevents background checks. Not true. Or landlords will have to accept income from criminal activity, that’s not true. Or that voucher recipient increases crime in a neighborhood. If you look at the data, that’s not true.”
The HOME Act does not impact landlords’ ability to run thorough credit and background checks, but others are still against it.
“Many of us work hard to rebuild and clean up our neighborhoods and diligently maintain our properties,” said Todd Crandell, a Republican county councilman for District 7.
“It is wrong to allow the federal government to force property owners into contracts which ultimately lower our property values and rob us of our efforts.
“If this bill was simply about discrimination, then the vote would be easier. The situation is far more complex, because property owners have legitimate complaints about doing business with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development,” wrote Independent County Councilman David Marks (District 5) on NottinghamMD.com.
“I am not comfortable telling property owners who have had negative experiences with the voucher program that they may not opt out of it.”
Mavronis pointed out that the city already banned source of income discrimination in May.
“The context in the city and county is different and our bills reflect that difference, but I see it as a positive sign of the city and county moving together on this,” she said.