With American Rescue Plan Funds, Baltimore Leaders Can Confront The City's Racial Wealth Gap
For so many working-class Baltimoreans, the American Dream has been a myth at best, and in reality, for many, it has been a nightmare.
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In East and West Baltimore, you’ll find blocks and blocks of vacant and abandoned houses, thousands altogether. I want to sell these properties for one dollar not to developers but to our city’s legacy residents — the people who have been holding up our neighborhoods in the face of disproportional disinvestment, and the resulting crime, grime and blight.
Using a substantial investment from the $641 million Baltimore will receive under the American Rescue Plan, we stand a real chance at confronting the city’s staggering racial wealth gap, closing the gulf between rates of white and Black homeownership, and stemming the tide of displacement that’s contributed to Baltimore’s further population decline.
Black Baltimoreans lost their chance at accumulating generational wealth across families and decades as a result of some of the country’s most pronounced racism. In the birthplace of America’s first racial zoning law, home equity in Black communities was suffocated by redlining, and white flight produced the hypersegregated neighborhoods and abject poverty that exist currently.
Today, less than half of families who live in Baltimore own their homes. And the rate is even lower for Black families — in a city that’s 60% Black. Foreclosures and evictions create more turmoil. 10,000 Black families in our city are forced out of their homes every year by banks and landlords.
Like most Black Americans, my family faced hardship as a result of policies rooted in bigotry. My grandmother was removed from her home when the city bulldozed through West Baltimore five decades ago to build the “Highway to Nowhere.” For my entire upbringing, my grandmother, aunt and cousins crowded into the same rowhouse in Northeast Baltimore that I shared with my mother and sister.
I returned to Baltimore after graduation from Tuskegee University, and my wife, Marilyn, and I bought a dilapidated house in West Baltimore that sat empty for 20 years. The first time I walked into my home, I looked up and saw the sky. That’s right: The roof had collapsed. Water damage was an understatement and rodents, mold and decay were the only occupants.
So by introducing this legislation to use federal relief aid to allow legacy residents to become homeowners, I am trying to lay a pathway for more people in this city I love to transcend the conditions they were born into.
For so many working-class Baltimoreans, the American Dream has been a myth at best, and in reality, for many, it has been a nightmare. This legislation will take on Baltimore’s intractable challenges — a sizable share of which are rooted in structural racism. Policy can no longer be the disease; it must be the prescription.
Good public policy is what will begin to eradicate the conditions that create health and economic disparities. We don’t need a miracle to improve conditions in our great but segregated city. We need the city’s legislative branch to put progressive ideals into action.
The American Rescue Plan gives us the best shot we’ve had to responsibly grow Baltimore. We know Baltimore is at risk of gentrifying — rapidly. We’ve got mountains to our west, the ocean to the east and the nation’s Capital and the Big Apple both just a train ride away. There was a reason Donald Trump disparaged Baltimore at every opportunity. It was a dog whistle intended to drive down real estate values, so investors could scoop up cheap properties and sell them at profits.
For proof, look no further than the Trump administration’s opportunity zones. Under the guise of spurring investment in distressed communities, these are vehicles for gentrification. Baltimore is home to a third of Maryland’s opportunity zones, the state’s highest concentration.
If we miss this chance to fortify our communities by investing in residents, it’s clear by looking at rampant gentrification in a place like Washington this window may be gone forever.
My legislative package, called “House Baltimore,” follows Council’s unanimous adoption of the “House America” pledge to work with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to ensure families can find safe, stable and secure homes. Under the plan, city workers who live in disinvested communities and Housing Choice voucher holders would also be able to buy a vacant house owned by the government for a dollar. The communities that will benefit are the very ones hurt by redlining and modern-day subprime loans.
Owning a house is often more affordable than renting one. Nearly half of Baltimore renters spend more than a third of their income on housing, and empirical data show many could save hundreds a month on a mortgage even with escrow on property taxes for a completely renovated dollar house.
In Baltimore, we see the consequences of this American racism story and in this moment we have a clear opportunity to do better. We need to grab ahold.
Nick J. Mosby is president of the Baltimore City Council. He can be reached out CouncilPresident@BaltimoreCity.gov.