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Baltimore is stronger than its crime rate would have you believe

As I meet people from around the state, it’s clear that everyone is aware of our city’s depressingly high murder rate. Indeed, most seem to feel that between crime and population decline, the city is becoming a full-scale urban dystopia.

This view of the city is inaccurate. The crime rate is obviously a major problem, and we can only hope that the new police commissioner will find solutions that have eluded his predecessors. But other indicators tell a more positive story about Baltimore — one of housing production and renewal, employment growth and an increase in general prosperity. Even the notorious recent decline in population doesn’t paint a complete picture; in fact, the data actually indicate growth in the number of city households.

Over the past four years, Baltimore has seen a boom in the number of new apartment units built, with total housing production averaging more than 2,000 units per year. At the same time, the number of vacant buildings recorded by the city has remained steady, and vacancy as recorded by the U.S. Census’ American Community Survey has declined.

If housing production is strong and the vacancy rate is stable, why has the city’s population not increased? Because household size has been declining rapidly. In fact, Baltimore would have needed to build over 4,000 housing units per year to hold its population steady during the past two years. Fortunately, since average household size rarely drops below two, it will bottom out in just a few years. The current level of housing production, which should continue for at least the next two years, should lead to population growth before 2023.

Employment growth is another encouraging trend. Low regional unemployment seems to be pulling people into the labor force, leading to significant job gains. This is probably because the city has by far the region’s largest population of discouraged and underemployed workers. In a regional economy facing labor shortages, struggling workers become an asset rather than a problem.

City employment statistics are also encouraging with Baltimore City payrolls up by 7,000 jobs (1.8 percent) over the past year. Although some of these jobs are undoubtedly going to non-city residents, this solid growth coupled with low unemployment elsewhere in the region, means that a substantial number of jobs are being created for Baltimoreans. Meanwhile, the city’s labor force participation — a somewhat different measure of employment health — precisely mirrors the national average, at slightly more than 50 percent.

New housing construction and employment growth have resulted in substantial income gains and income tax growth over the past few years. Piggyback tax receipts (the city’s tack-on to the state income tax) have grown more than 5 percent per year over the past four years, much faster than the statewide rate. Income growth reflected in census estimates is less dramatic but still substantial. Greater city prosperity, combined with a falling school age population, means that state aid is edging down for the city while increasing substantially elsewhere. (Prince George’s County, not Baltimore City, is now the largest state aid recipient.)

And while areas of the city clearly still suffer badly from poverty and disinvestment, the trends I’ve identified here reveal benefits that are widely shared across racial lines. Census data show that, since 2015, black unemployment has dropped substantially, and black income growth has been strong (although income gains for whites were even stronger).

Yes, Baltimore has big problems, none thornier than its stubbornly high rate of violent crime, a phenomenon that economic factors fail to explain. Other cities have even greater poverty rates but less crime — Philadelphia, for example. But the city still has reasons for optimism. How well might a less violent Baltimore do in competition with the rest of the state and the rest of the world? I’m one city resident who would like to find out.

Peter Duvall, community revitalization coordinator for Strong City Baltimore, has studied housing and demographic trends in Baltimore City for two decades. His email is pduvall@strongcitybaltimore.org.

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