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Fair development for a fairer Maryland [Commentary]

People elsewhere in the nation are taking action to tackle the issue of the growing divide between the rich and poor, but here in Maryland, the richest state in the country, we have a seismic inequality problem and are doing little to address it.

New York City's new mayor, Bill de Blasio, has vowed to take on the "inequality crisis" by expanding paid sick leave, increasing taxes on the wealthy and requiring big developers to build more affordable housing. Last November, voters in SeaTac, Wash. approved a $15 minimum wage. In Baltimore, leadership continues to rely on the market-driven trickle-down policies of our recent past that have only further fueled the problem and left even more struggling.

Big developments like Harbor Point continue to be subsidized while neighborhoods face cuts to basic services from recreation centers to fire stations. The Inner Harbor offers a place to play for tourists, but it provides largely only temporary poverty wage jobs. In an interview last week in The Washington Post, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake reiterated her faith in the private market's ability to answer Baltimore's woes. This will not resolve the growing divide between the rich and poor.

For Maryland and Baltimore to lead on issues of inequality, it will require a new fair development agenda that prioritizes human dignity and strengthens public resources.

We see a start to this effort with Gov. Martin O'Malley's support for raising the minimum wage and the growing statewide movement for workplace protections such as paid sick leave. However, more remains to be done. In July, the governor himself criticized developer AirMall USA's failure to address workers' concerns over wages and job quality in the 10 years since it was contracted to manage the concessions program at Thurgood Marshall BWI Airport. A recent survey conducted by UNITE HERE Local 7 revealed that workers employed by AirMall's subtenants at BWI earn a median hourly wage of $8.50. New legislation — the Thurgood Marshall Equal Pay Act — seeks to adopt policies that would bring concessions workers' pay at least to the level of the airport's lowest-paid Maryland Aviation Administration employees, who earn an hourly wage of $13.45.

In Baltimore there is a growing push for fair development that's transparent, includes accountability measures, encourages wide participation and meets the fundamental needs of city residents.

Dozens of groups are coming together to address the vacant housing issue by developing a plan to create permanently affordable housing through community land trusts, administered by the local community.

"Vacants bring down property values, limit affordability options for potential renters and home buyers. Let's turn this equation around so that communities can reclaim these resources and do something to make affordable housing a reality," said Shantress Wise, a community leader of the United Workers.

We also see the need to reset the city's environmental agenda. We need a new program that provides green living wage jobs and develops true sustainable energy sources to light our streets, schools and homes instead of further contaminating neighborhoods that already register some of the nation's highest levels of toxic air pollution. We can cut down on utility costs and clean up our city's air if we work together.

"Opportunity is who we are," President Barack Obama said during his State of the Union address. "And the defining project of our generation is to restore that promise."

It's time for an agenda that truly puts people and communities first. Let's make good on that promise and take action together, here in Baltimore and Maryland.

Todd Cherkis is a leadership organizer with the United Workers. Roxie Herbekian is the President of UNITE HERE Local 7. Their emails are todd@unitedworkers.org and rherbekian@unitehere.org.

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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