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Development plan recycles poverty in Baltimore

Development plan recycles poverty in Baltimore
Kelly Little, executive director of Druid Heights Community Development Corp., walks behind a home in the 2200 block of Druid Hill Ave. that they have been attempting to rehabilitate. (Lloyd Fox / Baltimore Sun)

Recently I was at a developers meeting along with The Community Builders’ senior project manager, Patrick Wagner, who gave an update about their “Marshall Gardens” development in Druid Heights.

Since 2015, the public has been aware of a proposal by The Community Builders, a non-profit development corporation, to develop city-owned land to build mixed-income housing. According to a Baltimore Business Journal article, The Community Builders purchased the land for “$149, or $1 per property, because the developer's investment will help eliminate blight, promote economic development by generating tax income and improve the surrounding community [by replacing] the 149 properties with high quality, mixed-income housing. The project will create 90 new mixed-income rental townhouses and apartments.”

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But at the recent meeting, instead of hearing about plans to turn these blocks into mixed income, mixed use buildings, Mr. Wagner introduced a plan to create almost exclusively low-income rental housing using Low Income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTC). This move restricts rental rates and land use for 40 years, binding the area in stagnation for a generation to come.

Think about that: In a community where the median household income hovers around $16,000, with a 22 percent unemployment rate and a 60 percent poverty rate, The Community Builders’ plan is continuing the economic segregation that has plagued Baltimore. As one of the few Druid Heights homeowners said upon hearing about the plan, “the whole neighborhood is mainly low-income. We are recycling an impoverished community.”

We all agree that affordable housing is important. However, using LIHTC credits in this way is a missed opportunity to introduce sustainable growth in a disinvested community.

In 2017, I began Black Women Build – Baltimore, a homeownership initiative that trains black women in carpentry, electrical and plumbing by rehabilitating vacant and deteriorated homes in Upton and Druid Heights. We just signed contracts for several contiguous properties in Druid Heights and hope to obtain the rest of the block to turn these shells into homes. As neighborhoods that lag behind Baltimore City in almost every social wellness indicator, Upton and Druid Heights need high quality housing, businesses and job opportunities. Community advocates welcome real estate and business investments that are responsive to community input.

Mr. Wagner stated that rentals spur homeownership, a favorite trope used by many rental developers, without much evidence. I asked if he could provide any detail and/or data on actual outcomes in communities where they have worked in the past; I have yet to hear back.

As a new developer in the community and a community member myself, I have a few questions: How does this happen? How can a developer change the project they sold to the city and the community without community input? Or, if they did inform the “community,” who, in fact, were they speaking to? Once property is acquired, do they still have to remain accountable to the city and the community if funding avenues have changed for them? If three years ago mixed income housing looked like a good investment for The Community Builders, why not now – especially when more development is coming to the neighborhood? There are many developers in Upton and Druid Heights who envision a vibrant community, but The Community Builders’ plan does not support our vision.

Ultimately, we need safe, clean, well-built mixed income housing with generous lease terms and incentives for businesses in this area, in addition to homeownership. Mixed income housing helps a struggling community gain its socio-economic foothold. Black Women Build – Baltimore aims to bring these much-needed projects and homeownership to the community.

For transparency, Black Women Build – Baltimore had hoped to obtain the land that abuts our project, which The Community Builders now owns. Our organization rehabilitates houses and helps black women in the community and their families own the houses that they work to restore. We are concerned that The Community Builders’ project forestalls our participants’ ability to make gains on already low property values once our houses are completed.

The Community Builders should sell the land on Robert Street that abuts our project to us or another developer who will turn these into market rate houses for homeowners or lease-to-own properties or market rate rentals that may turn into homeownership in much less than 40 years. We reject the business of recycling poverty; instead we are in the business of building community, wealth, and knowledge together.

Shelley Halstead, executive director of Black Women Build – Baltimore, is a 2018 Open Society Institute Community Fellow and a member of the community development committee of the Historic Marble Hill Community Association. She can be reached at shelley@blackwomenbuild.org.

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