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A plan to lift Baltimore region from good to great

I have read a lot of reports and recommendations for improving life in metropolitan Baltimore over the years — some interesting, some scathing, many bland or puny-minded, most ignored or forgotten. The regional plan released Monday by the Baltimore Metropolitan Council goes further in describing our problems than any report I've seen from a local government entity; it's refreshingly honest about the area's racial, economic and social issues, and it provides a road map to a "shared regional destiny" that is clear and even bold.

It's a great starting point of a once-and-for-all effort to lift the region from good to great. Gov. Larry Hogan, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and the leaders of the five counties surrounding the city should see the Regional Plan for Sustainable Development (RPSD) as an historic opportunity to finally take a multi-jurisdictional approach to fix what ails Baltimore to the benefit of the entire region.

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The plan was three years in the making, the work of a consortium of local governments, state agencies, universities and nonprofit organizations that operated with the support of the council.

The council is where the mayor of Baltimore, the executives of Baltimore, Harford, Howard and Anne Arundel counties, one of the Carroll County commissioners, a state senator and a state delegate convene to address regional issues. The current board chair is Kevin Kamenetz, the executive of Baltimore County.

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For years, the council's main interest was transportation. In fact, until recently, it seemed to have little to say about anything potentially controversial, such as poverty and affordable housing. But with the establishment of the Opportunity Collaborative — the entity that came up with Monday's report — the council ventured fully into the areas of housing and workforce development.

The report does not mention the rioting of April 27 directly, but it says the regional plan "arrives at a pivotal moment for our region," acknowledging historic disparities in education, housing, health and economic opportunities across one of the most prosperous metro areas in the country. The report describes a long period of robust growth in Baltimore's suburban counties while the central city struggled with population loss and a high concentration of poverty — a condition cited frequently since April's turmoil.

On the upside: More millennials and empty-nesters have moved into the city, and Baltimore's population has started to stabilize. Over the last 30 years, the report says, regional poverty has become somewhat less concentrated, with fewer people living in areas of extreme poverty (35 percent or more of the local population) and more people living in areas of moderate poverty (15 percent to 35 percent).

Even so, the report says, we have too many "broken pathways to opportunity." That means not enough access to education that leads to jobs that get a person out of poverty, not enough affordable housing near job centers, and a public transportation system that does not reliably get people to work in a timely manner, especially if they work the second or third shifts.

"In the Baltimore region," the report says, "existing systems and societal biases have reinforced the inequality between whites and minorities, resulting in a racially imbalanced job market. For example, African-Americans represent 28 percent of the region's working age population but account for nearly half of all unemployed people."

Though the region as a whole appears to have recovered from the Great Recession, the report said, it's clear that if we're ever going to hit our potential, more people have to be fully educated and skilled. There simply won't be enough jobs for unskilled workers, and those jobs won't pay a living wage. More Baltimoreans need to be trained for "middle-skill jobs" that require some technical training after high school (in community colleges, for instance) and pay a family-supporting wage.

Overall, we need to do more to connect people to the opportunities the region has to offer. That includes improving public transportation — the reports mentions the Red Line, not (ahem) maglev — and building more affordable, inclusive housing in central Baltimore County, central Howard County, north-central Baltimore, central Harford County and north-central Anne Arundel County.

The plan says the region needs 70,000 affordable housing units, and here's why: "Sixty percent of the region's extremely low-income renter households (a family of four earning $26,000 or less) pay more than half of their income on rent."

Families earning between $26,000 and $43,000 face a similar burden. The plan acknowledges that suburban developers do not build decent, affordable housing outside of Baltimore without some form of subsidy.

That situation is not sustainable; it perpetuates the status quo, concentrating poverty in the city, undermining redevelopment of neighborhoods and keeping the city and region from reaching its potential.

"The region continues to suffer from patterns of segregation first established in some cases more than a century ago," the report says, a fact rarely, if ever, acknowledged by political and leaders who for decades served suburban constituencies and wanted nothing to do with the city or with regionalism. Hopefully, this new report means those days are finally gone.

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Dan Rodricks' column appears each Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. He is the host of "Midday" on WYPR-FM.

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