Are city services worse in black Baltimore neighborhoods? Racial equity bill would require answers

Are water main breaks getting fixed as quickly in black neighborhoods as majority-white ones? Is snow plowed as promptly? Is the city approving tax incentives for black- and white-owned businesses in an equitable manner?

Those are the kinds of questions Baltimore agencies will have to wrestle with starting next year if a proposed charter amendment becomes law.

The Baltimore City Council unanimously approved legislation to create a racial equity fund, aimed at eliminating “structural and institutional racism.” Companion legislation, also approved, would require each agency to study whether it engages in discriminatory practices.

But Mayor Catherine Pugh has expressed doubts about the need for the bills, arguing that she is already mindful of racial equity as she leads the city. She notes she emphasizes hiring black- and women-owned firms to work on municipal contracts.

Pugh said this week that she is still studying the bills and has asked for a meeting next week with the legislation’s sponsor, City Councilman Brandon Scott.

Pugh and Scott have sparred in recent days over the direction of the African American Festival. He has criticized her office for scaling it back.

"Why does this festival have to be smaller?” he said. “It’s the black people that are getting the short end of the stick.”

On Tuesday, Scott said he looked forward to discussing the equity bills with the mayor. He says they’re a way to begin to address the city’s history of racist zoning laws and restrictive housing covenants.

More than a century ago, Baltimore was one of the first cities in the country to pass an ordinance that forced black residents into segregated neighborhoods.

“She works hard every day to make sure everyone in the city gets treated equally,” Scott said of Pugh. “But the mayor can only do so much as one person.”

The legislation, he said, is “something the city needs. It would make Baltimore a leader. Many cities have started to do equity assessments, but very few large cities have a dedicated fund.”

The proposal is an outgrowth of work being done in Baltimore’s planning department.

A department analysis of $670 million of budgeted capital projects found that predominantly white neighborhoods were slated for almost twice as much spending over the past five years as mostly black parts of the city. City planners said the study, done last year, underscored the way Baltimore continues to be shaped by a long legacy of racial segregation.

Scott’s legislation would require other city agencies to undertake similar analyses. It would establish an equity assessment program requiring agencies to “develop polices, practices and strategic investments to reverse disparity trends based on race, gender or income.” Agencies would have to “develop and implement an equity action plan,” among other requirements.

The legislation is one of three efforts to amend Baltimore’s charter this year.

Pugh signed two charter amendment proposals Monday that would allow public funding of local election campaigns and create an independent inspector general’s office.

If the mayor signs the racial equity bills, they would join the other amendments on the November ballot.

If Pugh vetoes the racial equity legislation, Scott could try to force a veto override to get the matter onto the ballot.

Voters could then get to decide whether Baltimore joins other cities across the country that have created racial equity legislation.

Scott initially proposed a $15 million racial equity fund, but agreed to strip the dedicated funding from the legislation as part of negotiations to get the bill passed.

Seattle’s City Council created a racial equity fund designed to address structural racism, but its vision for the program was much more modest than what Scott originally pitched. In Seattle, the fund gets $75,000 a year.

Among past recipients of these grants in Seattle: a group working to address disproportionate academic achievement and discipline rates in public schools, a summer camp for Native American youth, and a coalition that works with undocumented immigrant children.

Officials have said they struggled to meet organizations’ needs because of the limited funding. Seattle in 2015 received roughly $442,000 worth of requests — almost six times the size of the pot. Awards ranged from $5,000 to $18,000, and the majority of applicants were denied.

By last year, just two groups split the entire $75,000 pot.

Seattle also provides a window into what a racial equity assessment program could look like here. It partnered with Baltimore last year as part of an effort to help this city review its budget requests “through a racial equity lens.”

This method of assessing Seattle’s public agencies yielded results, according to Baltimore’s budget office, which worked with the Seattle team as part of a peer-to-peer exchange program.

Seattle Public Utilities decided to reduce the requirement for a college degree in positions where one is deemed unnecessary, a change that came after the department analyzed the requirement’s effect on workforce equity.

The Seattle Department of Transportation developed new criteria to prioritize improvement projects after identifying communities that usually miss out on those funds. And the Seattle Fire Department began holding fire safety training in different languages once it realized its former methods left out large swaths of the immigrant community.

The Seattle City Council also requires all departments to report on the progress of their Race and Social Justice Initiative work.

A growing number of cities are committing to using a “racial equity lens” in their work. The Minneapolis City Council last year established a Division of Race and Equity. Austin, Texas, required in 2015 that its budget office evaluate the effect of city policies on equity.

And more than 110 local and regional jurisdictions have joined the national Government Alliance on Race and Equity.

“There’s a slow and steady movement that’s taken place,” said GARE director Julie Nelson. “Government for multiple centuries had policies and practices that created and maintained racial inequity. … It’s essential for us to shed that so our policies, practices and budgets are proactively advancing racial equity.”

In a city like Baltimore, Nelson said, an equity assessment would likely delve into issues within the criminal justice, housing and education systems. She said the city must look at who is benefiting from government actions and who is being burdened.

A fund alone wouldn’t be enough, she said. An equity assessment plan must go hand-in-hand with the money.

“Implementing a racial equity analysis on a routine basis, supplemented by a fund, is great for getting better outcomes,” Nelson said.

Lester Davis, a spokesman for Baltimore City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young, said he expects the mayor will back the charter amendment effort.

“I think she’s going to sign it,” Davis said. “The mayor has worked well with the council and she supports racial equity.”

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This story was featured in The Sun's Alexa Flash Briefing on Aug. 1, 2018.

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