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Roughly Speaking Dan Rodricks: Commentary and conversation on life in Baltimore, Maryland and the USA

Drilling into Baltimore's population loss

Reaction to Sunday's column on Baltimore's distressing loss in population ranged from genuine empathy to snarky glee. Some citizens took the opportunity to complain about city life: A woman in Roland Park said she has a rat problem and that her water has been brown for months. I told her to get on her landlord about the rats and her City Council rep about the water — and to call me if she can't get no satisfaction.

It's a depressing development, the city losing some 6,700 residents during the 12 months that ended in July 2016. After years when the city's falling population finally seemed to stabilize, even grow modestly, raising expectations that maybe we had turned a corner, the drop in 2016 was a true bummer.

But other readers, neither distressed nor snarky, wanted to know more: Who left town? Which neighborhoods did they leave? Is the erosion among middle-class parents with school-age kids, or is something else going on? And what would make a difference in the future: How do we retain citizens and attract new ones?

I don't have all the answers, but we've reported that black residents, more than whites, have driven population loss over the last decade and a half. Researchers at the University of Baltimore have been able to pinpoint the causes of population loss and suggested ways to reverse it. I've reported on these in the past, but they are worth repeating: Reduce the number of vacant houses, reduce home-to-work travel time and increase housing opportunities for low-income families with children.

Those were the recommendations in a report early last year from the Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance (BNIA), based at UB's Jacob France Institute.

Conventional thinking has always linked population loss with high crime rates and inadequate public schools, and those are still valid. But BNIA researchers found that a long commute to work had a stronger correlation with neighborhood distress, especially in regard 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 report said. Some people move away to reduce commute time; others become discouraged and lose their jobs. Neither is good for a neighborhood.

Seema Iyer is the associate director of the Jacob France Institute. She's a driller. She drills hard into all kinds of demographic data to come up with highly detailed profiles of Baltimore communities and the challenges they face.

I spoke with Iyer this week about the 2016 population loss. Nothing in the data she sees could explain 6,700 fewer people in the city in a year's time. "Oh my God, no," she said.

She might accept a net loss of a few hundred Baltimoreans, but not 1 percent of the city's population. Housing indicators, for one measure, suggest nothing like this.

For instance, Iyer says, the number of city households that do not receive mail dropped by 1 percentage point between 2014 and 2015, to about 7.5 percent. That means there are fewer unoccupied homes across the city.

Plus, houses are in demand in Baltimore. Since last winter, the median sale price in the city climbed 14.2 percent, the highest year-over-year increase in the metropolitan area. And, says Iyer, the median number of days houses are on the market dropped slightly during the most recent period she studied. And foreclosures are down.

So she's skeptical of the U.S. Census Bureau's estimate. Iyer sees nothing in housing market indicators to explain a 1 percent exodus. "You would have had a hard time selling your house if we had that kind of loss of population," she says.

Still, housing — specifically, the lack of affordable housing — has been a problem for a long time and likely a major factor in Baltimore's recent struggles with population loss.

For its research purposes, the BNIA divides the city into 55 communities. Eight of those communities have a big problem — at least 20 percent of their housing stock is vacant. That kind of abandonment correlates strongly with population loss, and population loss breeds all kinds of other problems, including crime. If we want to reverse all that, then we should concentrate redevelopment in those eight communities.

Too much of the city's housing stock has deteriorated, and there is not enough that's livable and affordable, Iyer says.

Hundreds of low-income Baltimore families, eligible for government rent subsidies, have moved to the surrounding counties because that's where they found decent, affordable housing.

That's why inclusionary housing — mandating real diversity in income levels among residents — needs to be constantly emphasized in Baltimore's redevelopment efforts. Montgomery County has had inclusionary zoning since the 1970s. Last year, its population grew by 7,630.

drodricks@baltsun.com

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