A nonprofit organization and a former resident of Baltimore’s Poppleton neighborhood filed a fair housing complaint on Monday with the federal housing department against the mayor and City Council, alleging that city officials have consistently violated neighborhood residents’ civil rights by discriminating against them and segregating them on the basis of race.

The administrative complaint, filed by Economic Action Maryland — formerly the Maryland Consumer Rights Coalition — and Angela Banks, alleges that the city has violated the Fair Housing Act repeatedly since 1975, when Baltimore officials first adopted a plan to redevelop Poppleton, a predominantly Black neighborhood in Southwest Baltimore.

“The city’s conduct has torn this neighborhood apart,” said anneke dunbar-gronke, an attorney with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law’s fair housing division, during a Monday news conference held opposite a vacant lot where homes used to stand. “It has caused the displacement of Black Poppleton residents, it has forced people out of the neighborhood that they grew up in, and it’s separated them from the communities that raised them in order to cater to big developers.”

In a statement, city officials said their commitment to promoting fairness and equity in neighborhoods is unwavering, and they look forward to engaging with federal housing officials on the matter. They also pointed to other investments Mayor Brandon Scott’s administration has made in under-resourced communities. He is named in the complaint along with the City Council.

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In 2005, the city entered into a partnership with New York-based development company La Cité, and has since seized control over dozens of properties in Poppleton, a majority of them belonging to Black people, according to the complaint. Many residents were moved out of the neighborhood — which sits just south of the section of U.S. 40 known as the “Highway to Nowhere” — or out of the city altogether.

Poppleton’s ongoing redevelopment has been subject to widespread criticism, with activists, housing attorneys and neighborhood groups lambasting what they believe is the city and developer’s damage to the neighborhood. Locally, the development project — which received one of the city’s largest tax increment financing deals in its history — has garnered a reputation as one of Baltimore’s most controversial projects. Neighbors allege that the clearance of residents has caused large-scale blight around Poppleton, lowering property values and incentivizing more vacancy.

The development came under intense scrutiny in 2021 when the developer, after years of pause, reignited demolition and relocation work in the neighborhood. Crews tore down historic properties and longtime neighbors said their goodbyes.

Meanwhile, a Poppleton family waged a court battle with the city to keep their property, arguing that the developer had not made clear what “public use” the seizure of the property would serve. Sonia and Curtis Eaddy, whose family had passed down the home to them decades earlier, learned last summer that they would be able to keep their home, and that 11 neighboring historic properties would be restored by a new community developer.

But on Monday, former residents and advocates made clear that the fight over the future of Poppleton isn’t over. The complaint alleges that Banks, who rented a home in Poppleton for about three decades, lost her housing in 2018 without justification and has not been able to return to the neighborhood due to a lack of available and affordable housing there. Because her landlord voluntarily sold the house to the city, Banks did not qualify for relocation assistance and experienced homelessness with her two young children.

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Banks found a house to rent near the city line, but it’s more expensive than her Poppleton home, and inconvenient for family, friends and social services. And occupancy restrictions imposed by their landlord means that she can’t live with her adult son, she said, who lived with her in Poppleton and has disabilities.

“They promised that within a year or so, Poppleton would be built up, it’ll be affordable, you’ll be able to move back, they’ll help you buy your property and you’ll be eligible to come back and purchase a home there,” Banks said in an interview with The Banner. “And it’s been, what, three years now. You haven’t done nothing down there, not even a new doorknob, not even a window, not even a mailbox.”

Two boarded-up three-story brick rowhomes.
Angela Banks’ former home on W. Saratoga Street. (Kaitlin Newman)

According to the complaint, other residents who were relocated out of Poppleton went to live in more deeply segregated areas of the city and have not been given “suitable and feasible relocation options.” The attorneys also allege that the development project disproportionately has harmed Black people more than any other racial or ethnic group.

“Eminent domain is a violence upon Black neighborhoods the way the city has perpetrated it. ... that reopens the wounds and scars of redlining that have marred the city for more than 100 years,” said Marceline White, executive director of Economic Action Maryland, at Monday’s event. She criticized the city’s use of tax incentives to revitalize the neighborhood for the next generation rather than tend to the needs of legacy residents.

“Our relocation assistance follows federal guidelines established by the Uniform Relocation Assistance and Real Property Acquisition Act,” said Jessica Dortch, a spokeswoman for Scott, in an email.

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The complainants are asking the city for compensation for all renters and homeowners in Poppleton who have been moved from the neighborhood since 2006, as well as creation of a relocation fund for former residents exercising their right of return. They are also seeking to change the city’s eminent domain policies as applied to occupied residential homes and to create a board of advisers to provide oversight for the spending of all development funds currently allocated for the redevelopment of the U.S. 40 corridor that aligns with Poppleton’s borders.

City officials and the developers, dubbing the project Center\West, said revitalization would help curb vacancy and blight there. Poppleton borders the University of Maryland BioPark and the University of Maryland Medical Center.

Since the city struck the agreement with La Cité, the developer has built two apartment buildings and announced a partnership with a grocery store. The agreement originally outlined four phases of development, all taking place by 2015, resulting in construction of 1,650 residential units and 100,000 square feet of commercial retail space. Per the agreement, city officials were tasked with using legal powers to acquire dozens of properties to sell to the developer.

In 2012, when it became clear that the project had lost momentum, the city attempted to terminate the agreement with La Cité, claiming the company had been unable to secure financing. Dan Bythewood, La Cite’s CEO, responded with a civil suit against the city and the housing commissioner. A judge sided with the company.

The city has since amended its agreement with the developer several times to account for the significant delays and provide them more time; another amendment is “in progress,” according to the complaint. Attorneys allege that the terms of the agreement have changed to such an extent that the new “affordable” units will not be accessible to Poppleton’s Black residents, many of whom earn incomes that fall at or below 30% of the area median income.

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