Baltimoreans seeking more bold and decisive action from city leaders got what they asked for Monday when a coalition of three disparate city entities united on a single issue for the first time in over 30 years.

The Greater Baltimore Committee, joined by Mayor Brandon Scott’s administration and BUILD Baltimore, an interfaith community organizing group, released a “landmark” plan to remediate the city’s stock of vacant and abandoned housing, a conundrum it has faced for more than a generation. The last time the coalition united, it led to the creation of the CollegeBound Foundation, an organization that shepherds Baltimore students “to and through” institutions of higher education, of which Scott is an alumnus.

The historic agreement outlines a massive, speculative spending plan, using $3 billion in public funds to leverage another $5 billion in private funds. Scott committed the city to contributing at least $300 million, and the coalition has set its sights on landing another $900 million from the state over 15 years.

Hundreds of people packed the Greater Harvest Baptist Church to hear from the coalition Monday night, a crowd so big that even the church’s overflow room overflowed. The appetite for change is clear. But the plan’s details, at least for now, are less so.

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The plan is ambitious, but there’s a lot we don’t know

The report commissioned by the coalition lays out a suite of tools the city can tap to attack the problem at scale, from a new tax increment financing package and bonds to keeping control of a portion of the state sales tax collected in Baltimore City. At Monday night’s event, speakers lauded the strategy as creative, bold and transformative for the city.

The report also includes two Baltimore success stories where the comprehensive approach has worked: In Greenmount West and Oliver, property tax bases have more than doubled since 2011 and property assessments have risen considerably.

From there, the details surrounding how a plan would be carried out, and at what pace, become less solid. It’s not clear who will take the lead on pitching the plan to state lawmakers and donors, nor who would do the rehab work, though an agreement signed by the three partners sets a goal of “community-led development.” It also gives little insight into how the coalition would ensure current residents do not get priced out or forcibly removed from their homes, though the agreement commits to “development without displacement” — at least conceptually.

Notably absent from Monday night’s event: Maryland Gov. Wes Moore, who, in late October, stood behind Harborplace developer P. David Bramble as he peeled back the curtain on that plan. Moore, state Sen. President Bill Ferguson of Baltimore (who, just last week, pumped the brakes on the state’s high-profile lease agreement with the Baltimore Orioles), House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones of Baltimore County and other state lawmakers will be key to unlocking some of the more creative financing ideas — such as the sales tax and the $900 million contribution from the state over 15 years the coalition is seeking. The city’s finance department also has not weighed in publicly on the proposal.

The agreement also states a goal of building equity and “addressing the wealth gap through homeownership.” But for many Baltimore residents, homeownership alone may not inherently build wealth or correct existing economic disparities. The report doesn’t address how else that may be tended to — such as raising the minimum wage, for example, a move opposed by the GBC under previous leadership.

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It’s also not entirely clear what would happen should a new mayor or City Council want to change priorities before the project is complete. The report emphasizes the need for “consistency and stability,” two traits researchers from the Urban Land Institute noted in 2022 had been lacking in Baltimore and infringed on a strategy to revive its downtown corridor.

A row of vacant homes on the 1700 block of East Biddle street are being renovated by Rebuild Metro, as seen on June 8, 2022. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

Bigger works better

The coalition made several references Monday to a “block-by-block” approach, one that has been popularized by nonprofit and community development firms who have centered the voices and opinions of neighborhood leaders and residents when crafting their strategies. Eight billion dollars is a lot of money, but the belief is that more piecemeal approaches allow neighborhoods to slip back over the tipping point that leads to disinvestment, blight and residential flight.

One of the most prominent examples of this approach is taking shape in Johnston Square, an East Baltimore neighborhood within walking distance of the Johns Hopkins Hospital. There, ReBUILD Metro — a relative of BUILD Baltimore — has been systematically acquiring properties, securing public and private financing and remediating blight entire city blocks at a time. They’ve also been providing support to current homeowners and incorporating feedback — which, in Johnston Square’s case, has led to some vacant lots being converted into parking spaces.

ReBUILD Metro president Sean Closkey said last month that the group endeavors to provide housing options for buyers across the affordability spectrum. The neighborhood will soon feature reduced-price apartment units, market rate housing and commercial space specifically for artists.

Since 2010, ReBUILD Metro has worked on close to 1,000 homes. Within another few years, it hopes to have completed an entire area spanning from Baltimore Penn Station to the hospital.

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The coalition hopes to replicate the block-by-block approach citywide, even in areas with fewer economic anchor institutions as Johnston Square — an approach that has not yet been tested. Until now.

Eliana Wharton and brother Christopher Wharton play outside of a vacant home on West Saratoga street during a press conference hosted by Build One Baltimore on February 16, 2023.
Eliana Wharton and brother Christopher Wharton play outside of a vacant home on West Saratoga Street during a press conference hosted by Build One Baltimore on Feb. 16, 2023. (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)

Tough economic conditions

Anyone looking to buy a house right now will tell you how inaccessible the market has become to most buyers, especially those looking for affordable options. Some of the country’s leading economic minds have made compelling arguments this fall against homeownership for now, at least until prices have more time to cool or interest rates become less prohibitive. A recent Wall Street Journal headline declared “There’s never been a worse time to buy instead of rent.”

As the state and the city prepare to deal with projected budget shortfalls the next few years, greenlighting a plan of this magnitude, with homeownership and home construction at the center, may not make sense from a purely economic standpoint.

But there is a moral argument for investment and for treating the plan as more than another line item on a budget sheet. As Rev. Andrew Connors put it Monday night, “If we can find close to $1.5 billion in lean times for our football and baseball teams, if we can find hundreds of millions of dollars for the Inner Harbor for a second time, then we all know we can find money for a first-time investment in our neighborhoods.”

The coalition’s proposal also aims to leverage at least $5 billion in private funding, with much of that secured from social impact bonds and private philanthropic donors. But as interest rates rise, donations — often tied to stock market profitscan recede. Inflation, which has leveled off after spiking last year, can also mean less money available for philanthropy.

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Investors willing to lend capital to difficult-to-measure social problems may be tougher to pin down. The report does not mention how these economic headwinds — which inevitably will change — might affect the plan. The 15-year runway may be key.

Then there’s the matter of the tax increment financing package. In the past, TIF deals have financed large-scale development in other parts of the city, including Harbor Point, Port Covington and East Baltimore — and they’ve been decried by economic watchdogs for their riskiness.

Now, the coalition wants to flip the script on TIF deals, but that doesn’t mean it would incur any less risk for the city. In fact, it may even be a riskier prospect in neighborhoods that do not generate enough property taxes to repay the loan, which would put the city on the hook for the payments and could limit the ability to pay for other priorities.

Mayor Brandon Scott speaks outside of vacant homes on West Saratoga Street during a press conference hosted by Build One Baltimore on Feb. 16, 2023.

For Scott, Monday was a campaign stop

The mayor on Monday night covered a lot of ground during remarks, from his upbringing in Park Heights and the closure of his elementary schools to his first memories of encountering vacant homes in his vicinity.

“While I enjoyed mattress flips and wrestling matches in vacant lots like most Baltimore boys, I didn’t understand why no one cared that we had to live with that reality,” Scott told attendees, who murmured in agreement. “I asked my mom why, and she said, ‘You want change? You’re going to have to do it. No one is coming to Park Heights to save you.’”

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Scott said he has been working to “right historical wrongs” ever since. He has become a student of the city’s painful, racist history and has worked to shine a positive light on its successes. It’s the birthplace of redlining, he noted, but also of Civil Rights Movement leaders like Thurgood Marshall, Elijah Cummings and Lillie May Carroll Jackson.

“Yes, sir!” one gentleman called out in response to Jackson’s name.

From there, Scott pivoted to other accomplishments during his tenure, including rolling out a comprehensive gun violence reduction strategy that is showing promising results at curbing homicides; opening new recreation centers; and accelerating economic growth and activity in Baltimore, which data shows is exceeding most other U.S. cities this year.

Make no mistake: Monday night served as an important campaign stop for the mayor as he sets his sights on a second term next year. And BUILD, among the city’s most powerful organizing voices, can be crucial to ensuring Scott can get there.

The mayor is now walking a tightrope, with commitments to support the roughly $900 million overhaul of Harborplace as well as historic investment in “uptown” neighborhoods. He has a Department of Finance calling for judiciousness in one ear and constituents demanding more bold action in the other. Scott has often said he views investments as “both/and” rather than “either/or” opportunities. We’ll have to see if the mayor can have his cake and eat it, too.

Another person walking a fine line: Mark Anthony Thomas, who took over the GBC last year and promised to rebrand, retool and refocus the civic group. He’s tasked with maintaining existing membership and expanding into a new base that may have been turned off by the pro-business advocacy organization in the past. On Monday, with remarks that acknowledged his “outsider” status as a newcomer to Baltimore and nodded to the event’s more religious undertones, Thomas proved he could win over grassroots communities. How the business class will react to Monday’s plan is another matter.