Within the past five years, Shantress Wise says, she has been forced out of one home by a developer, evicted from another apartment after losing her job, and lived in two homeless shelters.
Wise, of Baltimore, said the experience inspired her to join a spirited gathering of housing and community activists Saturday at an East Baltimore church to protest what they called unfair city housing policies and development that leaves the community out of the process.
The group called upon the city to do more to house the homeless and to build additional affordable housing. They also lambasted tax breaks for developers like the one awarded for the Harbor Point project and said community members are able to help rehab vacants through land trusts but aren't being given enough of an opportunity to do so. Activists also complained that developers aren't delivering on job promises.
"I feel that this housing situation in Baltimore City is broken and we need to speak up to change the system," said Wise, 39. "The developers that come in, they're supposed to give money back to the community and they're not doing that. And it's hard to find affordable housing because many of the houses are vacant."
The rally's organizers hung large posters with pro-community housing messages around a room in St. Wenceslaus Church in the Middle East neighborhood. In the shadow of Johns Hopkins Hospital, the neighborhood remains plagued by vacant houses despite efforts by Hopkins to revitalize its surrounding areas.
Kevin Harris, a spokesman for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, said in an email that the city has several efforts underway to improve housing problems in Baltimore, including the Vacants to Value program, a homebuyer incentive program, a comprehensive plan to make homelessness "rare and brief," and trimming the property tax rate. Harbor Point and other developments are necessary to create a stronger tax base to improve underserved communities, he said.
"While it's impossible to always please everyone, it's difficult to make a credible case that this mayor's record hasn't supported communities," Harris said. "Our goal is asking how can we do more to make sure we are communicating our record to the communities we are supporting."
The rally included a video of community-based revitalization in Boston's Dudley area, which once had many of the same vacant housing issues as many parts of Baltimore. Organizers said it was model they hoped to duplicate.
Those who spoke included a longtime renter who felt home ownership was out of reach, a homeowner who said vacant houses pulled down the property values of his neighborhood, and McElderry Park Community Association President Glenn Ross, who described issues with city housing that stretch back generations.
One of the rally's organizers, Donald Gresham, spoke of the despair that he felt while living in substandard housing — in his case, a third-floor apartment where the roof leaked and ultimately caved in a week after he moved out.
"I'm outpriced of living and I'm just existing," he said. "We're tired of the unfair development that's leaving the community out. We too want to be part of the process, so there's equal opportunity not just for the rich but for those who are less fortunate."