First in an occasional series of articles about issues in the Baltimore mayor's race.
Democrats vying to become Baltimore's next mayor each say they would intensify efforts to create affordable housing, rid the city of vacant properties and invest in struggling neighborhoods.
The seven most prominent candidates largely agree that addressing homelessness, finding new leadership for the city's housing agency and fostering mixed-income community development are priorities, too.
Samuel B. Little, assistant dean at the University of Maryland School of Social Work, said last spring's unrest brought renewed attention to the housing needs of vulnerable city residents — a guiding principle reflected in each of the candidates' platforms.
"They all touch on nerve centers that have to do with aggressive revitalization of families and communities in the city overall, but specifically in East and West Baltimore," Little said. "The candidates have done their research."
Former Mayor Sheila Dixon, lawyer Elizabeth Embry, civil rights activist DeRay Mckesson, City Councilmen Nick J. Mosby and Carl Stokes, state Sen. Catherine E. Pugh and businessman David L. Warnock have the most visible — and well-funded — campaigns. They are among a field of 13 Democrats seeking the party's nomination in the April 26 primary. Five Republicans and three Greens also are in the race. Democrats outnumber Republicans in Baltimore by a 10-1 margin.
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake is not seeking re-election.
The candidates' housing plans range from sweeping initiatives to smaller innovative strategies, such as proposals from Dixon and Stokes to explore how to use "tiny houses" to give seniors, homeless people and young adults affordable places to live.
Embry is among several candidates who want to bring back former Mayor William Donald Schaefer's "dollar house" program — the city sold homes for a dollar — and use CitiStat to track the progress of repairs at public housing complexes as well as the effectiveness of various housing incentives.
Mckesson says blocking the city's rent court from unfairly evicting families would be a priority addressed in the first 100 days of his administration.
Mosby wants to aggressively remove lead paint from city houses, using a task force to systematically check for the toxin and refer victims to private lawyers.
Pugh and Warnock want to put people to work tearing down vacant houses while teaching construction skills to unemployed men and women — including ex-offenders.
Whoever is elected must be prepared to deal with historic homes that are falling down, the need for mental health treatment for the homeless and Gov. Larry Hogan's commitment to demolish 4,000 vacant houses over four years, said Odette Ramos, director of the Community Development Network of Maryland, an advocacy group. It has a mayoral forum planned for April 2 to discuss neighborhood revitalization.
"The next mayor needs to be the one to bring people together and figure this out," Ramos said.
Jeff Singer, a longtime advocate, said affordable housing is one of the city's most pressing problems. Nearly 40 percent of households in the city cannot afford their monthly housing costs, he said, contributing to 150,000 eviction notices filed each year. At least 2,800 people sleep on the street on a given night, he said.
Vacant houses also lead to rodent infestations, lower property values and fires, Singer said. Poor housing conditions, such as peeling lead paint, are factors in the disparity between life expectancy in prosperous neighborhoods such as Roland Park, where the average life span is 83 years, and Upton, where people can expect to live until 63.
"A mayor can create a city-wide, long range plan to house all of our neighbors, as Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington D.C., have done," Singer said.
Dixon's plan calls for a "clear, data-driven foundation" to shape an affordable housing strategy with community input. She wants to ask Hogan to reallocate 10 percent of the $74 million he's committed for demolition to build affordable housing on the cleared sights.
The former mayor also said she will use community benefit agreements to create contractually-binding investments from real estate developers in exchange for a "community's support." Dixon says Baltimore needs more complexes for seniors to live independently. Closed schools should be renovated and turned into mixed-income apartments and community centers, she said.
Embry wants to speed up and more aggressively use the receivership process, which allows the city to petition the court to force the sale of a vacant property to a buyer who will rehab it. She said incentives to buy homes in Baltimore should be more vigorously marketed to stop "leaving money on the table."
Reinstituting a version of Schaefer's dollar house program, coupled with a city-backed low interest loan program, would put money directly into the hands of residents who can become homeowners, Embry said. Revenue bonds and philanthropies could help provide lower interest rates to builders who choose communities targeted for affordable housing development, said Embry, criminal division chief for the Maryland attorney general's office.
Mckesson says he will bring together organizations creating change, such as the Southwest Partnership, to create a cross-city network to share effective strategies. He wants to expand homeownership incentive programs like "Live Near Your Work," help low-income residents pay lower down payments and create a rent-to-own home buying program.
The Black Lives Matter activist said he wants to devote more resources to eliminating housing discrimination and segregation. He also wants to improve collaboration between city schools and homeless service providers to better serve children.
Mosby centers his housing plan on reducing property taxes by 15.3 percent for homeowners. He also wants to create targeted investment zones around neighborhood anchors — such as hospitals and universities — to bundle incentives, such as money for affordable housing, bike racks, street lights and small business loans.
The councilman says he will implement a tiered tax structure for abandoned houses to penalize their owners, as well as adopt a "housing first" strategy to rapidly rehouse the homeless, using vacant properties in some cases.
Pugh wants to create more of a division in the city's housing agency so it can focus separately on running federal housing programs and local community development efforts. She, like most of the leading candidates, wants to replace Housing Commissioner Paul T. Graziano, who has been under fire since allegations of a sex-for-repairs scheme at public housing complexes arose last year.
The Senate majority leader said she would work to create senior living communities that provide affordable housing with amenities that help the elderly live independently longer. She wants "imaginative tax incentives," such as the dollar house program, and land banks and land trusts that create green space and lock in affordable housing rates.
Stokes lays out among his priorities keeping a watchful eye on public housing complexes that are being sold to private developers. He wants to make sure residents get needed protections and employees keep their jobs.
The councilman outlined an 11-point plan to help stabilize neighborhoods using land banks, community policing, lead abatement and extended day school programs. He wants to use eminent domain to take nuisance properties from lending institutions that don't cooperate, sell houses for $1 to small developers and work with builders and nonprofits to hire and train residents in construction.
Warnock focuses his housing plan on using vacant properties to create as many as 10,000 jobs in deconstruction and remediation. He also would create more access to drug and mental illness treatment as a means for creating stable living conditions for homeless.
The venture capitalist and philanthropist also says he would require more audits of housing programs, work with Hogan to carry out the plan to demolish the vacant properties and use available incentives to bring in development.
Antonia K. Fasanelli, head of the Homeless Persons Representation Project, a legal services and advocacy group, said the lack of safe, decent and affordable housing has reached "crisis proportions" in Baltimore. Other East Coast cities, meanwhile, have found effective tools to combat the problem.
"It's time for a broad new vision — not shots in the dark," she said.
Other Democrats running for mayor are engineer Calvin Allen Young III, former bank operations manager Patrick Gutierrez, Baltimore police Sgt. Gersham Cupid, author Mack Clifton, former UPS manager Cindy Walsh and nurse Wilton Wilson.
The Republican candidates are Armand F. Girard, a retired math teacher; Chancellor Torbit, the brother of a slain police officer; Brian Charles Vaeth, a former city firefighter; Alan Walden, a former WBAL radio anchor; and Larry O. Wardlow Jr.