The Grassroots Fight for Housing Justice in Baltimore
Wednesday, January 11, 2023
By Jaisal Noor for Yes! Magazine.
Broadcast version by Brett Peveto for Maryland News Connection reporting for the Yes! Media-Public News Service Collaboration
Sonia Eaddy never lost faith that she would be able to save her home at 319 North Carrollton Ave. in the Poppleton neighborhood of West Baltimore.
Like they have done to many predominantly-Black neighborhoods, developers have targeted Poppleton for years. Over the past decade, the city used eminent domain to evict residents and raze their houses, resulting in the displacement of longtime residents.
But last year, Eaddy, who is a third-generation resident of Poppleton, was able to mobilize a citywide coalition that staged rallies, packed public hearings, and collected over 5,000 signatures to save homes like hers from destruction. Even after most of Eaddy's neighbors were forced out of their homes, after surrounding blocks were demolished, and after she exhausted legal appeals, she never stopped fighting.
In July 2022, her activism paid off when the city agreed to allow Eaddy to stay in her home. But she says it's hard to call that a victory until her neighbors who were displaced have an opportunity to return. "We are continually working to help bring back those who were displaced," she says.
As part of the deal the city reached with stakeholders, some residents may have the opportunity to return to their homes. Eleven historic alley houses-which are small homes typically occupied by African Americans or immigrant laborers-on the 1100 block of Sarah Ann Street, located next to Eaddy's, will be renovated for homeownership in preparation for displaced former residents.
The group tasked with the renovation project is Black Women Build, a homeownership and wealth-building initiative that trains Black women in carpentry home restoration by rehabbing some of the 15,000 vacant and deteriorated houses in the city.
Black Women Build is one part of a larger ecosystem of grassroots groups addressing the racial and economic disparities created and perpetuated by unjust housing policy in Baltimore. Other efforts, working in tandem to strive for justice in housing, include housing associations, the city's affordable housing trust fund, a blight-fighting social justice group, and an equitable development company that restores abandoned homes to increase affordable housing stock.
Why Real Estate Tax Breaks Aren't Working
On a rainy mid-October afternoon in Baltimore, Maryland, four dozen residents, housing advocates, and lawmakers rallied in the heart of the city's business district. Their demand to officials was to stop subsidizing wealthy developers at the expense of the city's long-neglected Black, working-class communities.
Towering high-rise office buildings, swanky hotels, high-priced condos, and the Inner Harbor, a major tourist attraction, served as a backdrop for the press conference that laid bare the city's economic and racial disparities.
"The city is becoming unaffordable and unattainable to low- and moderate-income families," said Char McCready at the rally. McCready is executive director of Citizens Planning and Housing Association (CPHA), which trains tenant organizers to advocate for progressive housing policies. Like Black Women Build, CPHA forms a critical part of the housing justice ecosystem.
Officials have long sought to incentivize the creation of affordable housing by offering tax breaks to the real estate sector. But developers are raking in millions of dollars in credits and subsidies, while loopholes allow them to largely avoid building housing that is affordable for the city's majority-Black working people.
"We feel these tax credits may be used to support segregation and encourage gentrification and displacement of BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, people of color] communities," said McCready.
Developers in wealthy areas have received a disproportionate number of tax breaks compared with low-income ones, building 6,600 luxury apartments over the past 15 years, only 37 of which were affordably priced.
Investing in Residents, Not Developers
At the rally in Baltimore, McCready stood in front of 414 Light Street, a 44-story high-rise luxury apartment building dubbed the tallest residential building in the state. She called it "an example of one of the luxury apartment buildings we speak of," explaining it was "why we chose this location."
Questar, the company that developed 414 Light Street, received a $3 million tax credit from the city to build affordable housing, but officials say the company has yet to market a single unit of housing at an affordable price.
Speakers at the rally argued that if the city can provide subsidies to the wealthy, it can do more to empower communities struggling to overcome poverty amid rising rents for substandard housing, which remains in short supply. A 2016 report found that "more than half of Baltimore renters live in housing they cannot afford." City rents have increased 19% since the start of the pandemic.
At the time this article was written, apartments at 414 Light Street were priced starting at $2,100 for a one-bedroom-a price Baltimore City resident and housing activist Tisha Guthrie says is unaffordable for her neighbors, and she surmised the company's employees would also not be able to afford living there.
Guthrie also says that less than a mile away, in her neighborhood of Poppleton, the community faces crumbling infrastructure, a lack of basic services, and deep poverty. She's been a longtime supporter of residents like Eaddy's fight to save their homes from demolition. And she's advocated for the city to undertake community-guided investment in those communities instead.
As a commissioner of Baltimore's Affordable Housing Trust Fund, Guthrie helps oversee an annual city fund of $20 million to promote affordable housing through such projects as community land trusts. As YES! previously reported, the commission was created and funded as a result of a decade of sustained activism and grassroots pressure.
Guthrie has also been working to support her neighbors in Poppleton-like Eaddy-in their long-standing fight against displacement.
Poppleton is situated between downtown Baltimore and the infamous "Highway to Nowhere," an urban renewal program that tore a wide swath through the area and displaced 1,500 predominantly Black residents, before being abandoned in the 1970s.
The city has a long history of implementing such policies. In 1910, Baltimore mandated racial segregation. Over the following decades, officials supported "urban renewal" and exploitative housing practices that destabilized neighborhoods, decreased Black homeownership rates, fueled a massive racial wealth gap, and concentrated working-class Black communities in slum-like housing.
The harm caused by such policies is incalculable, says Guthrie. "It's not gentrification, it's just a complete dismantling."
Last year, activists painted a mural viewable from the Highway to Nowhere that quotes Sonia Eaddy. "Losing my home is like death to me," it reads. "Eminent Domain law is violent."
As part of her longtime opposition to the development project, Eaddy helped create The Poppleton Plan, an alternative vision for her neighborhood developed in collaboration with other longtime community members and a city planner. It aimed to preserve the character of the neighborhood and prioritize the needs of the community, but policymakers ignored it.
Instead, the city used eminent domain to relocate longtime residents and bulldoze several city blocks. Today, the project remains unfinished, and the neighborhood is littered with the remnants of the demolished buildings.
Fighting Blight and Rebuilding Neighborhoods
The Federal Reserve estimates close to 4 in 10 Baltimore residents are rent burdened, meaning they spend more than 30% of their income on rent. This is taken as an indicator that they may have trouble affording food, clothing, transportation, and medical care. A 2021 study found the median net worth for Black households in Baltimore was $0, compared with $59,430 for whites.
Studies show the housing crisis across the U.S. has destabilized communities and furthered cycles of violence. "We found that at least 50% of the homicides that have occurred up until August occurred within 100 feet of a property with a vacant building notice," says Nneka N'namdi of Fight Blight Bmore. Yet the city's spending on its police department far outstrips its spending on housing and other social services.
Just across the Highway to Nowhere, Parity Homes, an equitable development company, is rehabbing three properties that will be available to purchase or rent for legacy residents at an affordable price in spring 2023.
The organization works to address the concerns of the community by listening to their needs. "We really just try to think about all the ways in which people could inadvertently be pushed out of the neighborhood as it gets revitalized, and we try to mitigate that as much as possible," says Parity Homes founder Bree Jones. Jones has been a vocal supporter of Poppleton's residents.
One key part of its work is supporting wealth creation through homeownership. "We integrate wealth through homeownership for Black folks in particular, who have been excluded from that for decades," Jones says.
Jones and N'namdi are part of a coalition working to end the practice of tax sales. If property owners fall behind on their taxes, the city auctions off the right to collect that debt for pennies on the dollar to debt collectors. In 2020, over 1,000 residents lost their homes for what can amount to a few hundred dollars in unpaid property taxes.
The group raised money to purchase the debt of some of the homeowners. Jones explains, "We've paid off the debts of close to 100 homeowners across the city who are at risk of losing their homes."
In the absence of a response from authorities on a scale that will address the problem, Jones remains optimistic that it will be possible, with time, to create and develop an adequate supply of housing that does not cause displacement.
"We think that you can both revitalize the neighborhood and keep legacy residents in that neighborhood."
Jaisal Noor wrote this article for Yes! Magazine.
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