Dan Rodricks

Dear Mr. Bloomberg: How about a billion bucks for Baltimore? | COMMENTARY

Among Michael Bloomberg's huge donations to the Johns Hopkins University was one that will help pay the tuition of undergraduates at his alma mater.

Dear Michael Bloomberg: Please consider this a formal request for a billion dollars. It’s not for me. It’s for the people of Baltimore. Forbes lists you consistently in the top 20 of the world’s richest men and women, with a net worth of about $59 billion. So I know you can afford to donate at least $1 billion to make Baltimore a better place in a lasting way. Allow me to explain.

You’re an accomplished executive, former mayor of New York City, a philanthropist and major benefactor of your alma mater, the Johns Hopkins University. You joined Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett in signing the Giving Pledge, a promise to designate the majority of your wealth to good causes.


Having donated a few billion to Hopkins already, you probably figure you’ve done enough for Baltimore. But while donating to a university certainly has benefits for the community, what I propose could be transformative for the whole city.

So, when pondering your next contribution, please ponder $1 billion toward increasing homeownership and small businesses in neglected parts of Baltimore on a scale that could move the city from one struggling with population loss and disinvestment to one that would grow in a sustainable and equitable way.


Your money could convert thousands of vacant rowhouses to homes, improve houses whose owners can’t afford repairs, seed small businesses, create jobs, stabilize neighborhoods and inspire more private investment.

My ideas for pulling this off are based on years of observations — seeing what works and doesn’t work — and are shared by people who have devoted their careers to increasing homeownership, luring capital to the city and supporting small business. Here are my suggestions:

  1. Designate $1 billion over 10 years for Baltimore Community Lending. That’s an unheralded but effective, federally certified Community Development Financial Institution in the renovated Lion Brothers building in Southwest Baltimore. It’s a nonprofit that has been around for three decades, doing what banks refuse to do. BCL has financed housing in underserved areas of the city, helping low- and moderate-income families become homeowners. More recently, it established a subsidiary to make loans to small businesses. BCL has a strong board and experienced staff that, with additional help, could handle the additional $100 million in annual loan capital it would get from you. Watchen Harris Bruce, BCL’s CEO, says she has a five-year strategic plan and would be happy to share it.
  2. A major portion of your money would go to buying some of Baltimore’s 15,593 vacant houses, from the city or private owners, and rehabilitating them into homes for sale at affordable prices. (We could call them Bloomberg Homes, if you like.) Habitat For Humanity of the Chesapeake has been doing this since the 1980s, helping hundreds of renters become homeowners. Neighborhood Housing Services of Baltimore works with people, most of them low-income, to help them buy, renovate or maintain their homes. Healthy Neighborhoods is another important player on the homeownership front, and the National Community Stabilization Trust has been working with a developer in low- and moderate-income neighborhoods to renovate abandoned houses. So this could be a collaboration. Through BCL, Bloomberg money could be used for renovations, subsidized down payments, zero-interest mortgages and homeowner education programs. Your money, as direct assistance to the homebuyer, would be huge; it would help expand and accelerate the work these organizations are doing. Baltimore is a city of renters; 52% of the housing is tenant-occupied, according to the U.S. census. More homeownership means more stable neighborhoods and families. Mike Posko, CEO of Habitat, says 150 of the organization’s clients have paid off their 20- and 30-year mortgages by now and most remain in their homes. Because their loans were affordable, they had money for other things — better food, a car, a college education for their kids.
  3. Some of your money would be used for direct grants for improvements to homes owned by people who can’t afford the repairs themselves. This is particularly true of older adults. Rebuilding Together Baltimore has been doing this work for years, carrying out home improvement projects for low-income families and seniors; that organization would make another good partner.
  4. Many neighborhoods still lack amenities such as supermarkets and other retail, restaurants and businesses that produce jobs. This is where Bloomberg philanthropy would have another important effect. If your money goes into redevelopment in the most distressed of the city’s 42 Opportunity Zones, it would create a buzz and attract capital from the private sector. Even with the tax breaks offered in the federal OZ policy, wealthy investors and investment funds remain stubborn; they are mainly interested in areas where redevelopment is already underway. Bloomberg Homes in OZs would almost certainly attract other capital to neglected but resurgent neighborhoods.
  5. Some of the Bloomberg billion would go to small businesses and developers as zero-interest loans. The BCL subsidiary, Baltimore Business Lending, has helped finance, among other businesses, a bookstore, a health drink bottler, a staffing service, a clothing store and home renovators. Last year, 85% of its clients were minorities and 45% were women-owned businesses.

Mr. Bloomberg — or Mr. Mike, as you’d be called in Baltimore — the socioeconomic impact of a billion bucks on the city would be immense. It would give the people and organizations long engaged on these fronts the means to bring their good works to transformative scale. I hope you’ll consider it.