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A regional approach to close the Baltimore Metropolitan opportunity gap

The entire nation received a crash course on Baltimore's problems in recent weeks.

Like many urban areas, Baltimore has been hit hard by decades of disinvestment, segregated housing patterns, the loss of manufacturing jobs, an out-of-date transit system and a lack of affordable housing near expanding job centers. These factors, and others, have combined to severely inhibit opportunities for residents of many communities in Baltimore.

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But this is not simply a "city issue."

While residents of certain communities pay the steepest cost through lost economic opportunities, residents of the entire region are affected as well — through unrealized potential, increased social costs, workplace hiring challenges and more.

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Because these are historical issues that affect a broader area, we spent the past three years developing regional recommendations to address them — through the work of the Opportunity Collaborative. This public-private regional collaboration, which was funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, carefully examined the links among three main issues in the Baltimore metropolitan region: workforce development, transportation and housing.

We identified some thorny challenges, which we outlined in The Regional Plan for Sustainable Development, available at OpportunityCollaborative.org.

An in-depth survey of people in metropolitan Baltimore looking for jobs revealed that many face multiple obstacles to landing a job. They don't have reliable transportation or the right skill set. A criminal record is a major hurdle for roughly one in four job seekers surveyed. Finally, job-seekers are often hamstrung by issues such as child care, lack of a driver's license and inexperience. Overcoming one of these obstacles is difficult; moving past several obstacles without coordinated support would test any of us.

We identified a range of specific occupations — in fields such as logistics, advanced manufacturing and health care — which will have a healthy number of job openings throughout the region in the next several years. These are jobs that often pay good wages and are available to people without four-year degrees. But we need to focus more intently on such opportunities and create new pathways for job seekers to prepare for and move into these jobs. Industry-led training partnerships, stackable certifications, realistic career pathway models and creatively aligned support services are essential to this effort.

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The regional transportation system, developed mainly to take people in and out of downtown, needs improvement and modernization to help people reach the jobs where they are now. Rethinking our transit network to create access to job centers away from downtown is just part of the solution. Often, the "last mile" issue — the trip from a transit station to a job site — is the greatest hardship in a commute. From some parts of the city, the commute to suburban job centers can be as long as 90 minutes each way. One recommendation we have is to increase the availability of industry-led transit programs and address immediate needs through targeted vehicle access programs. A successful example in our region is the BWI corridor, where businesses operate a series of shuttles that save those businesses costs from constant employee turnover.

Finally, our housing analysis concluded that the region needs more than 70,000 additional homes that working families can afford. This includes roughly 14,000 affordable homes for people with disabilities, including older people. And we urgently need to create more affordable housing options in areas that are within commuting reach of new job centers far from downtown. To do that, we need a more unified approach to planning housing developments and transportation, keeping in mind where the jobs of the future will be. At the same time, we must continue to leverage federal and foundation dollars to bring much needed development to our highly challenged housing markets, like Sandtown.

Our plan recommends breaking down this kind of regional planning into smaller pieces that focus on corridors along major transportation routes. This approach would allow neighboring communities to plan together across jurisdictional lines to grow the region's economic opportunities while also meeting the needs of individual jurisdictions and residents.

Metropolitan regions such as ours are an integrated economic ecosystem with shared challenges and opportunities. If our economy isn't working well for all communities and residents, we're not reaching the Baltimore region's full potential. Taking action to meet these goals will require a coordinated approach from local government, nonprofit and private sector institutions and leaders. While the challenges are significant, the Opportunity Collaborative's regional plan provides a roadmap and concrete steps for addressing them.

Michael Kelly is executive director at the Baltimore Metropolitan Council and director of the Opportunity Collaborative. William H. Cole is president and CEO of the Baltimore Development Corp. and co-chair of the Opportunity Collaborative. Scot Spencer is associate director for advocacy and influence at the Annie E. Casey Foundation and co-chair of the Opportunity Collaborative. The authors can be reached at mkelly@baltometro.org.

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