Racial, economic equity should guide Baltimore's capital budget

The report from the City Planning Department this month revealing that capital budget (construction) projects over the last 10 years favored white and wealthier neighborhoods over black and poor communities was not a surprise to us at the Baltimore Housing Roundtable.

In our January 2016 report, Community + Land + Trust: Tools for Development without Displacement, we compared a 1937 U.S. Home Owners Loan Corporation redlining map with a 2014 Housing Market Typology map used by the city. The maps looked eerily similar.

The typology map, developed a number of years ago by the city classifies each Baltimore neighborhood on a spectrum of market strength — from “stressed” and “middle market stressed” to “regional choice” and “middle market choice” — using housing related data such as vacant house rates, median sales prices and owner occupancy.

A June 2015 City Planning memo explained its use:

“Baltimore’s Housing Market typology was developed to assist the City in its efforts to strategically match available public resources to neighborhood market conditions. … Community and economic development tools for struggling neighborhoods are often different from tools for middle market neighborhoods or regional choice neighborhoods.”

But December’s planning department report shows that investing public funds primarily to chase private market activity fails the racial equity test. If the market has decided that certain neighborhoods in Baltimore are struggling, these communities need bolder visions and more public investment to lead the private market, not vice versa.

While the city has designated certain “community development clusters” within the “stressed” areas for greater investment, the scope and scale of that investment is not nearly equal to the desolation wrought by more than 100 years of racial discrimination and economic abandonment.

This disparity will continue until we put our values above those of the marketplace. Until the city revises its development plan to lead capital to those redlined neighborhoods without displacing current residents, there is no doubt that the investment patterns set in the redlining, racial covenant and urban renewal eras will continue, without the personal racism present then.

In short, the challenge for Baltimore is to alter and guide private investment decisions, not follow them. Linking the development of luxury housing to low-income housing and requiring developers to negotiate with impacted neighborhoods does not move private profit from the driver’s seat of development. In these cases, the city follows private capital.

The city must lead. Moving away from the institutional racism revealed in the planning department report requires recognition that structural racism impacts today’s capital investment patterns. And if the city’s primary goal is to pair public resources to private investment that is already planned, structural racism will be perpetuated.

City bond projects should be guided by racial and economic equity standards. As these create employment, the capital budget could be visionary, strategically directing projects and jobs to neighborhoods that were created by racial and economic discrimination and that have been ignored by private investors since.

The Housing Roundtable’s 20-20 campaign is such a vision — demanding that $20 million annually in capital funds (bonds) be spent on community controlled, permanently affordable housing, and that another $20 million be spent annually on projects deconstructing, demolishing and greening vacant properties. All 20-20 projects prioritize hiring city residents, particularly those with records. Community energy, participation and equity would determine the site of these projects, not market forces. By investing in 20-20, the city could provide a meaningful kickstart to comprehensive, neighborhood redevelopment (education, parks, public safety, jobs, commercial) without the displacement that often accompanies development in the form of rising rents.

Ironically, on the day the planning report was released, the Board of Estimates approved capital budgeting priorities through 2021. These resembled prior priorities, despite the Roundtable’s campaign and the mayor’s professed support for it.

Our attempts to influence the capital budget revealed that there is little opportunity for meaningful public participation in priority setting or budget preparation. While community mobilization may prompt a change in a project or two within a priority area, priority setting that involves major budgetary shifts is left to agencies behind closed doors.

The planning department report reveals where this has brought us. It is up to us to now determine how we go forward.

J. Peter Sabonis (peter@nesri.org) is a Baltimore Housing Roundtable Coordinating Committee member and the director of legal strategies at the National Economic and Social Rights Initiative.

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