Grant Welby, JHU:
In January of 2016 Governor Larry Hogan announced an almost unprecedented revitalization plan: the demolition of more than 20 square blocks of vacant Baltimore homes. Coming in at a price tag of $94 million over the next four years ($75 million from the state, $19 million from the city) for just the demolition, the plan will also be accompanied by about $600 million in subsidies to encourage redevelopment and growth. Calling it the Creating Opportunities for Renewal and Enterprise (or C.O.R.E) program, Hogan has so far followed through on his plan, allocating the first installment of $18 million for 2016 in February. The move was widely heralded by parties on both sides of the isle in Annapolis, with Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake going so far as to thank Governor Hogan for working with the city. The C.O.R.E demolition will be managed by the Stadium Authority, and will finance rebuilding by greatly increasing funding to existing state programs such as the Baltimore Regional Neighborhood Initiative (BRNI), Multi-Family bonds program, and Low-Income Housing Tax Credit program.
Over the years Baltimore has undergone a variety of programs intended to address the challenges of the dilapidated houses slowly wasting away. From the so-called “dollar houses” program in the 1970s, to the more recent “vacants to value” program, each attempt has had a mixed record. The dollar houses program managed to breathe new life into Barre Circle, the Otterbein, and Stirling Street, and contributed to the rise of the Federal Hill neighborhood. The program encouraged future homeowners to buy properties at a very low price, not quite as low as the “dollar” advertised, but still quite reasonable, and invest to renovate them. Vacants to Value has a similar approach, largely working with developers to purchase homes and rehab them. Although the program has experienced some success, it has been criticized for insufficient financing, which leaves many of the homes incomplete, and eventually leads to their demolitions. What these two programs do share however, is their failure to make a dent in some of Baltimore’s worst neighborhoods, areas like Sandtown-Winchester, which have received national attention following the death of Freddie Gray. These neighborhoods are some of the most poverty-stricken places in the country, with life expectancies in the mid-sixties, roughly equivalent to places like Yemen or Nepal. The intense urban blight found in these neighborhoods is exactly what Hogan seeks to fight. A recent map of the intended demolitions in Baltimore shows that many of them are located in Mondawmin, Sandtown-Winchester, and troubled areas of East Baltimore.
The question remains: what will the demolition and proposed revitalization mean for the city of Baltimore? Will it flounder and fail to help the most disadvantaged in Baltimore as other programs before it? Or will it somehow manage to jump all of the hurdles, and truly build a community where it is needed the most? The intention behind the program is laudable, but a cursory glance at Baltimore’s history reveals plenty of well-intentioned mistakes. The success or the failure of the program will depend on the willingness of government officials to get creative in mitigating the negative consequences of such a large program. For instance, an often-criticized aspect of a demolition program like this is the effect the program will have on current residents of the neighborhood. Some of the residents will be forced out of their homes due to construction. Although the state will be subsidizing relocation costs, likely through the Federal HUD Section-8 housing voucher program, this carries with it risks. The Section-8 housing voucher program itself is controversial given that although landlords must accept an application for an open unit from an individual covered under section 8, the law still leaves significant wiggle room for a landlord to avoid leasing to someone due to their section 8 status. Even not taking into account the difficulty of finding decent housing with section 8, displaced individuals face challenges adjusting to their new lives. Studies have shown adolescents may face adverse mental health outcomes when faced with relocation from high poverty neighborhoods to lower poverty neighborhoods. The result of this is relatively poorer outcomes than policy makers might hope when relocating families from the poverty stricken neighborhoods in which they currently reside.
Furthermore, after the houses are demolished, the C.O.R.E program needs to accomplish more than just a gentrification. The kind of development that occurred in East Baltimore, near Johns Hopkins Hospital, for instance, only shifts the problem elsewhere. The more than a decade old East Baltimore Development Inc. (EBDI) has failed to follow through on many of its promises to build low income housing n the neighborhoods it claimed through eminent domain. After moving out more than 700 families (albeit with generous compensation), the project has stretched on for 14 years. These kinds of delays and broken promises hurt the communities they are supposed to help, and prevent residents already invested in improving the area from doing so. One attempt at allowing those who wish to stay in the East Baltimore neighborhoods to stay was the so-called “House for House” program, which allowed residents to exchange their house for a newly renovated one elsewhere in the nearby area. This program has immense potential, but was only carried out on a limited scale; by 2013 only 40 such houses were available.
The new development needs to be accessible to those in the area, and not just successful while subsidies last. The city needs to work on locally sourcing the labor used to demolish and reconstruct the houses. In this area, the city is already making inroads, by reviewing a bid from Details Deconstruction, an environmentally friendly deconstruction company that employs primarily formerly incarcerated individuals. The company has deconstructed over 100 homes since 2014, and might be able to take on up to 300 over the course of the program. The C.O.R.E program needs to proceed with caution, and avoid the pitfalls and delays the EBDI faced. Lawmakers need to get creative in engaging with residents, and should make every effort to accommodate those who wish to stay in their neighborhood to contribute to the revitalization, and not simply evict and send the residents elsewhere. To its credit, the C.O.R.E program is structured significantly differently than the EBDI, and it may very well be successful. But until we see the kind of political will, sustained funding, and creative thinking necessary to make C.O.R.E work, the only thing we know for sure is that Baltimore’s future will contain a lot of bulldozers.