Remington Renaissance

Thea Harvey-Brown, Johns Hopkins University

The balkanization of Baltimore lends itself to an admixture of dynamic cultural pockets and persistent poverty. The last ten years have seen dramatic revitalization of some neighborhoods—including Remington, Midtown, Highlandtown, and Station North—while other communities have remained isolated and bereft of economic development. Baltimore is becoming more of a beacon for young people, too, as evidenced by a 92% increase of millennials in Baltimore’s urban core over the last four years.

The recent changes in Remington offer insight into the cultural and economic impacts of gentrification in pockets of in Baltimore.

First, a look at the cultural shifts:

Just like Station North and the now very revamped Hampden, cheap rent and an appetite for urbanity has attracted artists and the like to Remington. Small businesses have filtered in, vacant homes have been renovated, and housing prices have remained steady.

But there’s a weird threshold that this youth-driven brand of improvement inevitably crosses, and it almost always occurs in working-class white neighborhoods. These little pockets get cool, with interesting shops and restaurants, creative spaces, and a vibrant mix of people—but then the bubble bursts, and creative ideas give way to yuppie drivel. Your local coffee shop rebrands itself, serving $5 cold brew and adding the prefix “artisanal” to just about every breakfast item. The regulars filter out like the steady stream of drip coffee, and new patrons come in, eager to boost or bust the four-star Yelp rating. Authenticity falls prey to affectation, and real crazy gets replaced with curated crazy. The barrier to entry gets ever higher, and the economic pressure to find cheaper rent displaces the original residents.

The latter point is the real concern for cities like Baltimore with these changes. Cities around the U.S. are losing their lower income minority and immigrant communities to the outer edges or even to the suburbs, creating economic and cultural segregation just when integration is most sorely needed. The Remington Renaissance is real, but it poses the challenge of making sure that everyone benefits, not just the newcomers chasing neighborhood novelty.

At the helm of all the Remington expansion is the Seawall Development. They’re responsible for Miller’s Court, a large complex that offers discounted apartments for teachers and office space for nonprofits; 26 townhouses, renovated last year; Remington Row, a five story apartment complex, with rent for a one-bedroom unit starting at $1,100; the R. House, a food incubator with 10 “stalls” for “chef-driven concepts;” and, most recently, a 4,000 feet yoga studio called the Movement Lab.

The upside of these additions is obvious. There are now more places to live, eat, drink, and experience all of this within an enthusiastic, progressively safer community. This is all very exciting. But the Remington Renaissance comes at the cost of affordability for long-time residents, which is a convenient euphemism for livability. In 2012, the median home price was $88,000, compared to $133,000 this month.

So as Seawall continues to retrofit Remington, and other private developers look to monetize the budding neighborhood, they have to make sure these changes don’t knock anyone out. This will require legislation that protects current and future low-income residents, and ensures that they share in the gains.

It is devilishly difficult—actually unnatural, in a market economy—to raise the amenities of a neighborhood without raising prices.  But some interventions can make sense.

  • Require new developments to include some fraction of carefully designed affordable housing. Locations as diverse as New York City and Aspen, Colorado, have had success with this.
  • Condominiumize existing apartments—but only where it is clear that existing residents can afford the purchase using existing rent cash flow.
  • Form community banks that offer fast, easy mortgage terms for people who wish to convert their rentals into ownership, to enable the above.
  • Put an incremental sales tax on property sales greater than a given price threshold—$750k, say. Use the funds for affordable housing.
  • Use city-wide sales tax to build more public amenities in non-gentrified neighborhoods.
  • Rent control—which has problems, but also successes.

There are two categories of solutions: protecting and building affordable housing (as outlined above), and creating local jobs and training programs. Job opportunities always accompany development, and people’s incomes rise commensurate with expenses. Job training programs and a preference for hiring local employees will help ensure that the whole community gains.

Urban revitalization will always be in tension with affordability. This is worth recognizing and not being shy about. Market forces will continue to clash with community interest, but the right practices and legislation will help ensure that the changes are well received, both in and outside of Remington.

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