Three things to make a better Baltimore

Lowering commute times, reducing vacants are key for improving Baltimore.

With his plans to improve mass transit (Baltimore Link) and to fund the demolition of vacant houses (Project CORE), Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan has picked two of the most important things that could be done to improve life in Baltimore.

There's a third thing he could do — use his influence as a popular governor and businessman to encourage the development of more affordable housing throughout the region — but targeting millions in state funds for better bus routes and urban renewal puts Hogan on the same page with University of Baltimore researchers who've used deep-dig data to come up with a prescription for a better city.

A new report from the Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance (BNIA), based at UB's Jacob France Institute, makes three recommendations for improving life in the most distressed city neighborhoods, and not one involves sending in more police.

Reduce the number of vacant houses, reduce home-to-work travel time and increase housing opportunities for low-income families with children — those are the things most likely to improve the quality of life in the city and the region, the report says.

The recommendations are based on years of research into all kinds of indicators of neighborhood health, everything from the number of teenagers having babies in a particular community to the number of housing permits being issued. The BNIA was a rich source of information for journalists who examined the city's long-festering problems following the death of Freddie Gray and the related unrest in West Baltimore.

"After the events of last spring, many people from around the world took a look at our data to better understand the neighborhood context that might have spawned such civil unrest," said Seema Iyer, the institute's associate director. "We put this report together to show that there are real issues in the places we live that impede healthy life outcomes."

Take commute time, for instance. You would not think to list that among the biggest threats to a stable city neighborhood — the thing that causes people to leave it. "Most people and the media attribute [population] loss to high crime rates or poor quality education," the report says. But BNIA research shows that a long commute to work is the leading reason for a neighborhood's distress, especially when it comes to population loss. "The percent of commuters in a neighborhood traveling more than 45 minutes to get to work has the strongest, negative relationship with population change," the reports says. Some people move away to reduce commute time; others become discouraged and lose their jobs. Neither is good for a neighborhood.

Also correlating strongly to a distressed neighborhood — its unemployment rate and the percentage of vacant houses.

The Baltimore neighborhoods that grew between 2000 and 2010 had vacancy rates at below 4 percent, the report says, while the poorest neighborhoods on the east and west sides of the city showed the highest concentrations of vacancy. "For some neighborhoods, the problem has become overwhelming," the report says.

In the Sandtown-Winchester and Harlem Park area, some 1,800 properties would need to be knocked down or renovated to achieve a vacancy level more in line with neighborhoods that thrive. In Oldtown and Middle East, the number is close to 450, and in Upton-Druid Heights, the report said, 640 properties would need to be demolished or rehabilitated for those neighborhoods to see growth again.

So Hogan's Project C.O.R.E (Creating Opportunities for Renewal and Enterprise), a pledge of $75 million to ramp up Baltimore's vacant house program, will be a substantial contribution to the city's most distressed neighborhoods. Add millions more in redevelopment incentives, also pledged by the Hogan administration, and we might even see some growth in the most distressed inner-city neighborhoods before the start of the next decade.

As for reducing commute times, Hogan's Baltimore Link plan is just $135 million, and it's hard to see how that limited state investment can be "transformative," as the administration claims. It's certainly no substitute, in terms of immediate job creation and long-term investment opportunities, for the multibillion-dollar Red Line project that Hogan killed last year.

Still, it shows Hogan, acting either on common-sense instincts or good data, has settled on two key ways to help the city.

The third piece of this, says the BNIA, would be an increase in housing diversity throughout the region. The most stable neighborhoods around here have housing for a range of incomes and a moderate level of government vouchers (a median of 20 per 1,000 housing units) that help low-income families relocate to better neighborhoods. Do more of that, the report says, and we'll have a stronger housing market, and a strong housing market correlates with better educational results for children. "If we truly want to end the cycle of racial and poverty isolation," the report says, "we must eliminate the disparity that exists between neighborhoods by promoting housing diversity everywhere."

Supporting that last recommendation would give Maryland's Republican governor a Baltimore trifecta.

drodricks@baltsun.com

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