In baseball, they'll tell you that a loss is not always just a loss. Sometimes you learn things even when you don't come out ahead. While that may be easy to understand in sports, it's a little fuzzier when it comes to a city's population: If you're not growing, then you're losing, right?
Well, it's more complicated than that. Although Baltimore's total population has declined in the past 10 years, it was the slowest rate of decline in decades. And, through forward-thinking efforts to establish data-driven measurement systems in the last decade, we have fine-grained data available to learn from these losses — and there is much to be gained from what we know now.
While the city as a whole lost population between 2000 and 2010, more than a third of its neighborhoods grew. Combined, these neighborhoods attracted more than 10,000 people during the past decade. In the discussion about how to increase the city's population by 10,000 families over the next decade (a top goal of Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake), it's important to acknowledge these positive trends and reflect on what we can leverage to overcome some potential barriers to growth.
For more than 10 years, the Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance at the University of Baltimore's Jacob France Institute (www.bniajfi.org) has been tracking quality of life indicators, through the Vital Signs report, for Baltimore's many neighborhoods. The neighborhoods that grew over the last decade exhibit some interesting — and in some cases, surprising — patterns:
•Crime rates are not necessarily a deterrent to growth. The city's crime rate dropped significantly over the past decade and is now at historic lows. Interestingly, those neighborhoods that grew had an average Part I (serious/violent offenses) crime rate of 77 crimes per 1,000 residents, contrasted with a crime rate of 60 crimes per 1,000 people for neighborhoods that did not grow.
•Diversity is an asset. On average, neighborhoods that grew were more racially and ethnically diverse than those that did not. According to BNIA-JFI's Diversity Index, the average odds of choosing two people at random and each being of a different race or ethnicity in neighborhoods that grew was 46 percent; in the neighborhoods that didn't, the odds are only 30 percent.
•Accessibility is an asset. People who live in the city need easy access to the region's jobs, shopping and recreational opportunities. All the neighborhoods that gained population have easy access to a major interstate highway.
In addition, the indicators show some barriers to growth:
•Lack of public transit hurts Baltimore. One of the biggest differences between Baltimore and the other East Coast cities between Washington and Boston (all of which grew over the last decade) is the lack of a robust transit system. Many neighborhoods do not have access to transit amenities that enable households to choose to live without a car. In the neighborhoods that are transit rich and/or highly walkable, the growth rates are high. Harbor East is one example; it is one of the city's fastest-growing neighborhoods, and 66 percent of workers who live there commute to work via means of transportation other than a car. Access to safe, reliable transit will be a key asset for neighborhoods to attract population over the next decade.
•Vacant housing is a real barrier. Looking at the BNIA-JFI indicators, it appears that the threshold for new potential residents to live in a neighborhood with vacant housing is pretty low — just 4 percent of housing stock. All but one of the 22 neighborhoods with more than 4 percent of its housing stock vacant and abandoned lost population. These properties are a drain on the city in any number of ways.
Live Baltimore also sees positive trends in its data on the same neighborhoods that grew. The organization's biannual homebuying event, in conjunction with city government, offers up to $4,000 in down payment and closing cost assistance to eligible home buyers. Live Baltimore promotes Baltimore City as a great place to live by doing grass-roots marketing, home-buying tours and other activities designed to get people to love and live in our city. Since 1998, Live Baltimore has awarded nearly 900 of these incentive packages to home buyers across Baltimore, helping neighborhoods grow and remain stable. Most of these recipients are first-time buyers. Some recent home-buying statistics point to ongoing positive trends in the city's real estate market:
•Uptick in home prices: Just over half — 55 percent — of city neighborhoods experienced an increase in the average home price. More than 20 percent of those neighborhoods had an increase greater than 30 percent over their 2011 average.
•Broad appeal. The affordability (average home price of $167,968) coupled with the convenience and quality of life amenities commonly sought in cities continues to make Baltimore a solid choice. Approximately 2,200 homes have sold to date in 2012, with the top-selling neighborhoods being Canton (213 homes), Riverside (86), Belair-Edison (56), Patterson Park (46), Hampden (42) and Frankford (37).
•Interest beyond Baltimore: In the past year, one-third of Live Baltimore's new customers came from outside the Baltimore metro region: 26 percent indicated they were from a state other than Maryland, while an additional 7 percent claimed the District of Columbia as their origin.
Clearly, Baltimore's population loss over the past decade is not the same as its decline of the 1950s and 1960s. While Baltimore has experienced a reduction in the total number of residents, it is still a city of neighborhoods, and many of those areas are thriving. Data show accessibility, diversity and quality housing are the primary reasons why these places are attracting people to the city. It is important to understand these key positive trends about the quality of life in our neighborhoods and focus the conversation on strategies that can be effective to grow the city over the next decade.
Seema D. Iyer is associate director of the University of Baltimore's Jacob France Institute. Her email is email@example.com. Steven Gondol is executive director of Live Baltimore. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.