Housing commissioner Michael Braverman talks about approaches for community development and the Mayor's effort for a new era of neighborhood investment in Baltimore City. (Amy Davis/Baltimore Sun video)
The Baltimore housing department has a new framework for community development targeting specific neighborhoods and using new investment funds, under a plan released Wednesday by the Pugh administration.
Commissioner Michael Braverman said the city’s housing department is focused on addressing blight and developing strong neighborhoods since its split from the Housing Authority of Baltimore City, separating it from the management of thousands of public housing and Section 8 properties.
“This is about starting a dialogue and setting the compass,” said Braverman, who leads the agency with a $55 million annual operating budget. “We are not going to wake up at the end the process and ask whether or not we have been intentional and thoughtful about how our long-term residents view success and how we work together to get there.”
Mayor Catherine Pugh said the housing department’s focus is to find ways to reverse decades of disinvestment — and encourage development in areas away from the waterfront. The plan comes after she divided the housing department from the management of the city’s stock of subsidized housing to put an emphasis on community development. The agency began to separate from the housing authority in 2017.
“Other parts of the city are more than deserving,” the mayor said. “Baltimore has value outside of the waterfront. There are neighborhoods and communities, whether Park Heights or Harlem Park, that deserve a spark that will allow them to develop and grow and expand.”
A major redevelopment project in East Baltimore's neighborhood is spurring investment in nearby vacant rowhouses. People in the community say they think a revival is underway with investment from the Food Hub and American Brewery building to the $1.8 billion East Baltimore Development Inc. project.
Under the framework, the housing department is creating impact investment areas in which housing officials will work with community members to define a vision for what the neighborhoods could become, draw up a 10-year plan, put together a capital budget and develop a strategy for creating more affordable housing and dealing with abandoned properties. The investment areas are organized into four zones: east, west, southwest and Park Heights. Braverman said each is on the edge of more robust markets with anchor institutions and major redevelopment projects.
The east zone includes the Johnston Square, Broadway East and Coldstream Homestead Montebello neighborhoods. Included in the west zone is Upton, Druid Heights and Penn North. The southwest zone includes Poppleton, Hollins Market, Franklin Square and Pigtown. While each area is generally low-income, Braverman said, they have clusters of stable residents, for-profit and nonprofit stakeholders and beautiful architecture.
“We are going to continue to invest in all neighborhoods,” Braverman said. “But there are some distressed neighborhoods that we believe in the short term we can leverage significant investment to meet the aspirations of the residents who live there.”
The Park Heights zone, for instance, was selected because of the amount of recent investment there, activity by neighborhood associations and proximity to Cylburn Arboretum and Sinai Hospital on Greenspring Avenue. Pimlico Elementary and Middle School opened in the fall and Arlington Elementary School is set to open later this year — projects with a combined cost of $78 million. The $7.5 million CC Jackson Park and Recreation Center overhaul added computer rooms, community space and an athletic complex. The city Department of Transportation is spending $5 million to make it safer for people in the neighborhood to walk to Druid Hill Park. And the Board of Estimates approved spending $500,000 Wednesday to design a new library next to the rec center.
In the coming weeks, the city also is expected to select a development partner for the first phase of a long-planned 62-acre project to create homes and amenities at the center of Park Heights.
Baltimore’s latest effort to get the most vulnerable families into permanent housing and off the streets, out of shelters and no longer couch surfing involves an obvious solution: Pairing them up with vacant apartments in the city’s public housing complexes.
Marcus Pollock, who runs the neighborhood nonprofit Park Heights Renaissance, said the community has suffered dramatic disinvestment over decades, leading to a non-existent real estate market that has stopped owners from collecting on their investments and stripped families of generational wealth. The new attention from the housing department — and the public investment that is promised to follow — is necessary and overdue, Pollock said.
“When a community is stable, the real estate market is likewise stable,” Pollock said. “When you bring the kind of resources to places like Park Heights that the mayor is pledging to bring, the opportunities become much greater.”
Braverman also highlighted the dedicated pots of money the restructured agency has for distressed communities to improve and attract private investment: the $52 million Neighborhood Impact Investment Fund, the Affordable Housing Trust Fund that will grow to $20 million a year, and $5 million in Community Catalyst Grants.
The neighborhood investment fund is paying to help develop real estate projects and small businesses in parts of the city trying to overcome the affects of structural racism, stemming from the city’s historic housing policies and other forces. The initial $52 million has come from leasing city-owned parking garages, but Braverman said that investment is likely to grow as the fund leverages the money.
The affordable housing fund, approved by voters in 2016, will expand the number of homes that Baltimore’s low- and extremely low-income families are able to buy or rent. Money for that fund is coming from a slight increase in the taxes paid on certain real estate deals.
“These are real dollars and types of sums in a city like Baltimore that can make a difference,” said Braverman, adding that the money builds on other community development tools, including using code enforcement to force the sale of abandoned houses, demolishing heavily blighted properties and making grants and loans to homeowners for repairs, weatherization and lead paint removal.