Can Baltimore Pull Off Its $700 Million Makeover Without Displacing Residents?

A group of fair housing advocates have created a blueprint for how it could be done.

Image REUTERS/Kevin LaMarque
REUTERS/Kevin LaMarque

Baltimore’s Board of Estimates, the body that governs city spending, approved an arrangement with the state this week for the $700 million neighborhood revitalization program proposed by Governor Larry Hogan last month. The city has already started demolishing vacant buildings for the project, which has a goal of taking down 4,000 blighted properties over the next four years, and then converting them to green spaces for developers to later build new homes and businesses on.

Much of the focus will be in West Baltimore, in investment-starved areas like Sandtown-Winchester, Freddie Gray’s neighborhood, which has gone through urban renewal processes in the past. Those processes failed to improve the lives of those neighborhoods. Governor Hogan invoked the “Baltimore Uprising” in his announcement of Project C.O.R.E. in January. The state is pulling together roughly $600 million in bonds, tax credits, and federal grants to incentivize companies to eventually build new homes and businesses.

One worry is that these hypothetical new neighborhoods might be too pricey for low-income families if Project C.O.R.E. is successful. It’s a natural concern that follows renewal plans wherever they pop up. Residents in these neighborhoods would no doubt welcome new energy-efficient, safer homes and healthier food options, but that’s little help if the they can’t afford them.  

The Baltimore Housing Roundtable, a coalition of groups focused on community development, released a report in late January that offers ideas for how the city might steer neighborhood revitalization without displacing people. “We believe that the incoming tide of development can lift all boats only if it is principled and based on human rights values,” reads the report.

The Roundtable is asking the city to commit $40 million annually for what it has dubbed the “20/20 Vision for Fair Development”: $20 million per year invested in hiring the chronically unemployed to help demolish and deconstruct vacant structures, and another $20 million annual investment for rebuilding or renovating structures into permanently affordable housing.  

“We’re trying to push the envelope in terms of money that goes beyond what the city does now, but we’d have to give up some things,” says Peter Sabonis, legal director for the National Economic and Social Rights Initiative and principal author of the report. “We maybe wouldn’t renovate police stations for the next few years, but this is a higher priority. What we’re saying is, start with people’s needs, based on their fundamental need for housing that’s non-speculative—the prices won’t rise and push people out—and our fundamental need for jobs, especially those with employment barriers.”

With Project C.O.R.E., the city has pledged $18.5 million over the next four years for demolitions. As the state weighs Hogan’s spending plans, legislators representing Baltimore in the general assembly want amendments guaranteeing demolition jobs for people who’ve been incarcerated.

The Baltimore Housing Roundtable calls for the same targeted employment in its report, which notes that benefits from the city’s other major redevelopment projects, like the Inner Harbor‘s ongoing upgrades, have not “trickled down” to financially challenged residents. The report also states that while Baltimore’s police budget has increased 243 percent since 1986, black unemployment has risen drastically. Just 57.5 percent of African-American men were employed in the city in 2010 compared to 72.8 percent in 1970.

In 2014, the Baltimore-based Opportunity Collaborative conducted a survey among 1,000 Baltimore job seekers and found that 82 percent either lacked certified work skills, didn’t have money for transportation or work clothes, or had previously been incarcerated. Close to 55,000 people passed through the city’s criminal courts in 2014 alone, according to Maryland’s judiciary board.

Roughly 62,000 individuals in Baltimore are on Social Security Disability Insurance or Supplemental Security Income, or are enrolled in the Temporary Disability Assistance Program. These are people who are either too old to work or who suffer from some injury or medical condition that keeps them from full employment. Add this population to the number of residents who struggle to find jobs due to criminal records, and there are at minimum 119,000 Baltimore residents, the report estimates, who are “unlikely to substantially ben­efit from any job increases” coming from major economic development projects. This could be a very conservative estimate given the report’s focus on 2014 figures.

Baltimore Housing Roundtable “Community + Land + Trust: Tools for Development Without Displacement”

Reads the report:

As housing costs rise and the city offers no real solutions, Baltimore’s families have clearly strug­gled to keep a roof over their head. When significant numbers of people are constantly threatened with homelessness and the city can offer only trickle­ down development that, if successful, will further increase housing costs, the only reasonable conclu­sion is that involuntary displacement of a certain class of residents is a foreseeable part of the city’s plan and policy.

Project C.O.R.E.’s architects believe otherwise. The question of displacement is addressed head-on in the project’s FAQ webpage:

Will this initiative lead to the involuntary relocation of residents in the city?

No. Project C.O.R.E will not forcibly displace residents. For those residents living in affected areas, provisions will be made by Baltimore City for their relocation in accordance with the federal Uniform Relocation Assistance and Real Property Acquisition Policies Act of 1970 (or Uniform Act). The goal of Project C.O.R.E is to empower residents by improving economic opportunity and quality of life in existing neighborhoods. Additionally, it is expected that Project C.O.R.E will result in the creation of jobs and housing opportunities for new residents to live and work in revitalizing neighborhoods.

The C.O.R.E. website also states that the project “will result in a mix of affordable single family and multifamily housing.”

What Baltimore has lacked, though, according to the roundtable, is a plan for providing housing for people who earn below 30 percent of the Baltimore region’s area median income, about $26,500 for a family of four. The roundtable’s report asks that Baltimore city government entrust more resources to nonprofits and housing organizations aimed at building community land trusts. Such entities, which give neighborhood residents more control over local residential and commercial developments, have found some success in controlling housing costs in communities in Cleveland and Philadelphia.   

“[Project C.O.R.E.] has no value unless we learn how to balance physical development with human capital development,” says Danise Jones-Dorsey, a longtime Fells Point resident, former Baltimore Housing Authority official, and current member of the North East Housing Initiative land trust. “For me, that means ensuring that we invest in individuals the appropriate amount of resources so they may achieve their most positive potential, to benefit themselves and their communities—that is absolutely essential not only for Baltimore but for communities across the country.”

Keeping housing costs low across entire metros, though, is a challenge that hardly anyone has been able to meet. Baltimore has an affordable housing program that asks developers of buildings with 30 or more units who receive public subsidies to reserve 20 percent of units for low-income families. But only several dozen low-income units have been created under that program since it began in 2007, as reported by The Baltimore Brew.

Ruth Louie, the chair of the board governing the city’s inclusionary housing program, told The Baltimore Sun in 2014 that the program “doesn't seem to have the capacity to provide significant affordable housing units in the market-rate housing that's being built.”

“There’s no current affordable housing plan for the city,” says Rachel Kutler, a community organizer who’s helped lead fair housing campaigns in Baltimore for United Workers. And while Baltimore seems to have one of the better-working housing voucher programs, Kutler says it has also caused problems. “The voucher program relies on the current housing market such that landlords are able to really inflate the price of housing to get the most out of the voucher. Folks who are renting in neighborhoods with a lot of housing vouchers end up having higher rents, so it’s had some unintended consequences.”  

Baltimore Housing Roundtable “Community + Land + Trust: Tools for Development Without Displacement”

Some researchers have found that displacement isn’t always a certainty when it comes to grand redevelopment plans. Other recent studies suggest, in fact, that gentrifying neighborhoods actually produce less displacement than non-gentrifying ones. Just this week, California’s Legislative Analyst’s Office released a report finding that neighborhoods in the notoriously expensive Bay Area with the most aggressive market-rate housing construction have experienced the least displacement of low-income families.

“Considerable evidence suggests that construction of market-rate housing reduces housing costs for low-income households and, consequently, helps to mitigate displacement in many cases,” reads the California report.

Still, market-rate families sometimes arrive with certain expectations about their environment that don’t include the needs of low-income families. Add racism to the mix and situations emerge where new wealthy neighbors and developers come up with creative ways to remove undesirables.

We see this in Philadelphia, where a local African-American minister, Brian Jenkins, serves the homeless population from his 300 Ministries church, which is located in a neighborhood zoned for industrial buildings. There’s little industrial operation happening there now and many of the buildings have sat vacant, some for over ten years. Developers have been looking to turn some of those empty warehouses into condos, but Jenkins has been fighting them off in court, arguing that those new residents would eventually push his homeless clients out of the area. Jenkins won his case against a developer last year over these concerns, but he lost a case against another developer last month on similar grounds.

The National Legal Intelligencer picked up on Jenkins’ battle and reported that it anticipates more fights like this, beyond Philadelphia, as vacants are converted to condos. Writes Martin J. Doyle and Igor Pleskov for the Legal Intelligencer:

The cases also highlights the challenges the city faces as communities change. What is an appropriate tipping point for a transitioning neighborhood whereby a developer faces an undue hardship by being bound by a no-longer-relevant zoning classification? What is the appropriate balance between a developer's desire to use its property as the market dictates and the rights of existing property owners who bought and developed their property with certain expectations as to the future use of neighboring properties?

In Washington, D.C., a law that’s supposed to stave off gentrification by allowing tenants the option to purchase their unit when an apartment building owner prepares to sell it to another company isn’t proving very effective. The building owners looking to sell are supposed to notify tenants about their purchasing options before evictions or demolitions take place. But residents complain that instead, landlords delay issuing these notices and then starve the building of repairs and services until a tenant’s lease runs out. D.C.’s Attorney General, Karl A. Racine, is suing a number of landlords over these complaints.

One of the landlords targeted in that suit has, like Project C.O.R.E., promised that “no resident will be permanently displaced” due to a new development. But it’s difficult to see how any single developer, including those who land contracts through programs like C.O.R.E., is able to keep that kind of promise.

“The question is going to become, unless you think through creating mixed-income properties, when that land is redeveloped the market forces began to make it difficult for the older residents to continue to live there,” says Jones-Dorsey. “You have to be aware of the market forces as you think through this so-called thing called gentrification.”

That’s not the only force to reckon with. As Jones-Dorsey’s fellow North East Housing Initiative board members, Chris Lafferty and Ty Hullinger, wrote about Project C.O.R.E. in an op-ed in The Baltimore Sun last month: “We sincerely hope that this kind of investment is the spark that reverses the spiral of disinvestment that has plagued Baltimore neighborhoods. The history of structural racism and failed development in the city has made us understandably skeptical.”

About the Author

  • Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.