Study finds deep racial disparities in way Baltimore allocates public construction dollars

A fresh analysis of $670 million of budgeted capital projects in Baltimore found that predominantly white neighborhoods were slated for almost twice as much spending over the past five years as mostly minority parts of the city.

The findings exemplify how Baltimore continues to be shaped by a long legacy of racial segregation, according to the city Planning Department staffers who conducted the study. That legacy left Baltimore a divided city with largely black neighborhoods flanking a ribbon of largely white areas in the middle.

“This reflects what people feel, but it’s surprising to see it in numbers like this,” said Kristen Ahearn, one of the city planners involved in the project.

Money in the capital budget shapes the city’s public spaces — helping to renovate schools, libraries and museums, upgrade community centers, pave streets and overhaul sewer lines. This year, the city is budgeted to spend $1.1 billion on such projects.

Over the past five years, the budget allocated an average of $15 million for projects in Baltimore neighborhoods where more than 75 percent of residents are white. In areas where more than 75 percent of people are minorities, the figure was $8 million.

The Planning Department also compared parts of Baltimore with differing rates of poverty and found a similar pattern. The average neighborhood with more than 40 percent of residents below the poverty line was allocated $3.5 million in funding, while areas where fewer than 20 percent of residents lived in poverty received $14 million.

Lawrence Brown, a professor at Morgan State University who studies how racism affects public health, said the numbers show the city isn’t spending its money fairly.

“It’s not equitable,” Brown said. “Equity means investing the most where people have the least, or in communities that have the least to help address historical injustices or imbalances. When you’re giving more to those who have more, it really begs the question: Where is the focus on equity?”

That’s a question that the team at the Planning Department also has, and planners are now pushing city agencies to do more to consider whether their budgets help or hurt parity between the races and between rich and poor. They call the approach the “equity lens.”

The analysis stemmed from discussions between staff members at the Planning Department after protests in Ferguson, Mo., after Michael Brown, a black man, was killed by a white police officer in 2014. The work took on additional urgency, those involved said, after Baltimore experienced rioting following the death of Freddie Gray the next year.

The findings have not been widely shared in city government — outgoing members of the Planning Commission were briefed on them in the fall, and they were presented at a professional conference in New York.

Mayor Catherine Pugh, who took office last December, called them significant and said she wants to see changes in the way the city spends its money.

“These kinds of studies lay the groundwork and provide the background for what we should be doing and I am going to do,” the mayor said. “When you look at the same kind of study two years from now, I think you’ll see a remarkable difference because we are intentionally focused on low-income neighborhoods.”

Sean Davis, a community planner whom Pugh recently appointed to lead the commission that finalizes the annual capital budget, said the topic of whether money was being spent fairly came up in discussions he has had with members of the mayor’s team.

“It’s obviously something that the planning director is pursuing, and I'm interested in learning more about how they're approaching it,” he said.

To reach their conclusions, the planners analyzed five years’ worth of capital budgets, mapping city building projects and looking at demographic data. They cautioned that there are gaps in their analysis. They could not get geographic information on projects like road paving, and some school construction programs also were excluded.

The team did not consider spending by the Department of Public Works, which accounts for three-quarters of the spending this year, in part because much of the department’s spending is court-ordered under a long-running environmental case.

The planners also did not take into account the special tax-funded bonds that have been used to support large projects in waterfront areas in recent years.

The analysis only looked at how money was allocated, not how it was ultimately spent. So, for example, it takes into account some funding related to the Red Line light rail project. Gov. Larry Hogan canceled that plan, a move civil rights groups said would disproportionately hurt black and poor Baltimore residents.

Stephanie Smith, an assistant planning director hired to head up the department’s work on equity, said she is seeking more data and that despite the gaps, she expects the broad conclusions will hold up.

“It was important for us to start somewhere and not to have a lack of perfect data as an excuse not to begin,” Smith said.

The planners’ work does not address why the racially unequal patterns in city spending persist.

In the past, politicians in American cities often used their power to ensure money went to their own racial and social groups, but today the reasons for the disparities are likely more subtle.

“Racism is very sophisticated and nuanced,” Brown said. “It’s hardly ever that explicit as just ‘Screw it, we’re going to do this.’ ”

Smith said one factor might be that the capital budget is less well understood than the city’s operating budget and so communities do less to lobby for their share of the money.

“We want to make sure that community members even know that they can be a part of letting people know about priorities,” she said. “People who are more connected are able to get more things.”

And within city government, Smith is meeting with agencies to encourage them to take a new approach to projects and is working on developing a tool to help them think about the racial effects of their spending.

Smith said her ultimate objective is a budget that leaves people feeling “like the city is for everyone.”

“Right now, I think if you ask people on the street, they don’t feel that way,” she said.

iduncan@baltsun.com

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