Black residents are leaving Baltimore in large numbers, heading to suburbs

City advocates point to a bright spot — the rise in the number of households with young professionals

Published 4/25/2023 5:30 a.m. EDT, Updated 5/23/2023 9:26 p.m. EDT

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Growing up in West Baltimore, Lamar Richards remembers childhood summers playing football on the streets of Sandtown-Winchester and using the $5 his parents gave him — while scrounging for some extra change — to buy a chicken box. Life was simple then, he said.

He knew he wanted to leave the city as an adult when it felt like crime was everywhere; when people he knew went to jail or got shot and killed; when gunshots became background noise.

“I think after a while, being in that environment takes a toll on you,” he said. “I think most people, that would take a mental toll on them.”

Richards, 27, moved out of the city in October 2021, long after he was ready to go, he said. Tired of the long commute, he finally made the jump when he was able to afford it after getting a job in Washington at the Department of Energy as a finance contractor. He moved to southern Prince George’s County.

He is among tens of thousands of Black residents who have led the decadeslong population loss in the city. Once the most loyal segment of the city, African American residents are leading the migration out. While they still make up the majority of the population at 57% of all residents, they are also moving out the fastest.

The city has lost more Black residents than white residents with about 57,000 Black residents leaving between 2010 and 2020, according to a Baltimore Banner analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data. That was more than double the drop in white residents. Growth in the Hispanic, Asian and multiracial populations offset losses in the Black and white population.

Black residents said they are leaving the city because of too few job opportunities and investments in majority-Black neighborhoods, while white neighborhoods such as Canton and Harbor Point have enjoyed new apartment buildings, retail centers, offices and growing populations. Black residents said they have found a better quality of life in neighboring counties, or other states, where they are also finding that they can pay less for the same, if not better, amenities. People also said they left because of persistent crime and better educational opportunities.

In Baltimore County, population growth during that same period was driven mostly by new Black residents, The Banner’s analysis found. An increase of about 46,000 Black residents accounted for most of the 50,000 person increase countywide, and the Black population grew faster than the area as a whole in 15 regional planning districts.

Richards grew up in Sandtown-Winchester, one of the majority-Black neighborhoods where the population declined — by 28%, according to the Baltimore Banner analysis.

Majority-white neighborhoods, such as Locust Point or Roland Park, had less of a population decline — and, in some cases, a population increase. In Locust Point, a neighborhood in South Baltimore with several new residential developments, the total population increased by 43%, and in Roland Park the population increased by about 1%. Although by a small number, the Black population also increased in both neighborhoods.

Citywide, the Black population increased in most majority-white neighborhoods while it fell in 94% of majority-Black neighborhoods, another indication people were escaping the neglect of Black neighborhoods even when they stay in the city.

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More recent population estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau say both the city and the county lost residents in 2021 and in 2022, though demographic data was not made available in the March release.

Why are Black residents leaving?

Lawrence T. Brown, a Morgan State University research scientist at the Center for Urban Health Equity, coined the term “Black Butterfly” in 2015 to describe the cluster of majority-Black neighborhoods on a map because they fan out like wings of a butterfly.

Brown thinks there are three main drivers of the Black population decline, including high death rate from homicides, diseases and overdoses, which are outnumbering the birth rate and people who are moving into Black neighborhoods. There is also a reverse migration of Black people returning to the South, where the cost of living is lower, generations after their ancestors left.

Brown said there is a general sentiment those leaving feel: “Simply that Black neighborhoods don’t matter.”

Decades of redlining and lack of investments into Black neighborhoods have contributed to hypersegregated neighborhoods, mass population decline and feelings of unwelcomeness, he said.

“It’s like a backdoor push out,” Brown said. “Like we’re not welcoming you, so, if people don’t feel welcome, they’re going to try to go someplace where they feel more welcomed.”

Neighborhood disinvestment

Keisha Allen, the board chairperson of the Westport Community Economic Development Corporation, said residents are tired of living in a place where their lives and quality of living are not valued.

“Even though this has been going on for 50 years, the bridge is finally weakened to the point where it’s ready to crash,” Allen said. “It’s just people don’t have to stay and suffer through the city’s lack of willingness to make quality of life a priority, and education.”

In Westport, a majority-Black neighborhood in South Baltimore, 20% of the Black population declined since 2010.

Allen said a big reason people continue to leave her neighborhood is because of policies that benefit property investors who are displacing people and who do not keep up their properties, leaving vacancies across Westport.

“City Hall could have long made quality of life and education and housing a priority, but they chose not to,” Allen said. “They chose to invest in the Inner Harbor four years ago. They chose to invest in the high-end neighborhoods and make the lower income neighborhoods like mine, fend for themselves.”

Richards, who left the city because of the stressful environment and what felt like rising crime, said he knew his neighborhood was not being invested in.

“I can just tell: this isn’t normal,” Richards said. “But nothing’s normal about how our community across the city is looking — this isn’t how it’s supposed to be. I think to myself, as much as I love home, as much as this will always be my home — I always say I’m from the westside of Baltimore with so much pride — I’m ready to go.”

Outside the city: more bang for your buck

The neighborhoods with less investment have also seen consistent rent and other cost of living increases said Marceline White, executive director of Economic Action Maryland.

White said that data from 1,400 tenants she served seeking rental assistance through the organization’s tenant advocacy program in the last year showed that they were spending 57% of their income on rent, higher than what she has ever seen.

“I think one of the things that we’re really having a hard time with right now in the city and across the state, frankly, is just a real cost of living crisis,” White said.

Cost of living is one of the main reasons Ashley Burton, her husband and three children are planning to move to York, Pennsylvania, in June.

“The house that we’re getting built there, we’d be paying close to maybe half a million dollars here for that same house,” Burton said.

Burton’s new home is 3,200 square feet, with four bedrooms and three-and-a-half baths, which is more than double the size of her Baltimore home.

Safety and schooling concerns

Not only is Burton moving for financial reasons, including high property taxes and water bills on her Baltimore home, but she also wants to feel safer and know that her children are safe in school.

Burton, who has lived in Chinquapin Park in Northeast Baltimore for 37 years, recently attended one of her son’s basketball games, which was interrupted because someone on school property had a handgun.

“That alone is terrifying enough that there’s something at elementary-, middle-school level where those kinds of things are occurring,” Burton said. “So as much as we try to shelter our kids, or think we’re protecting them, you just can’t. I think with us moving to York and a more rural and remote area, I feel more at peace with safety concerns that we have here in the city.”

What’s the impact of a declining population?

The population decline has a wide-ranging impact on communities. Schools close when there are no longer enough students living in the neighborhood. Neighborhood churches fill with people who no longer live in the city, or they follow their congregants to the county. There is less of a tax base to go toward public safety, trash pickup and school and other basic city services.

Baltimore City Public Schools closed 26 schools — or 16% of all the city’s schools — since 2012 because of population decline, according to Baltimore City Surplus Schools. In the 1960s, Baltimore’s school enrollment was 200,000 and has since declined to 84,000 students — a 58% decrease. The closures include Dr. Rayner Browne, a school in Biddle Street, a majority-Black neighborhood that had an overall population decline of about 20% and the Black population declined by 25%.

Donte Hickman, pastor of Southern Baptist Church in Broadway East, said that his ministry combatted the decline in creative ways and was able to sustain and grow the congregation, never seeing a decline in church participation. But that wasn’t the case for many churches.

“What we did to mitigate against it [population decline], was instead of taking our church out of the city, we invested in multiple site locations, where we have a presence in Harford County, in Howard County, we’ve been in Anne Arundel County,” Hickman said. “But never losing our anchor church in East Baltimore, so we can be not far from where you are.”

Other churches weren’t able to meet people outside of the city. Kevin Slayton, senior pastor at New Waverly United Methodist Church in Northeast Baltimore, said that his congregation has had a steady decline in participation, not only because of people moving away from the city, but because fewer people consider themselves religious.

Without church participation, Slayton said people are less involved in the community, and as attendance declines, churches become vacant and could become the next reinvestment project for developers.

The smaller tax base that comes with population decline means there is less wealth going back into the community, said Brett Theodos, a senior researcher at The Urban Institute.

Homeowners, renters and local businesses face the brunt of less investments because “that means that it results in vacancy,” he said. “That means fewer people, and that means more abandoned buildings and everything that can come with that. And so it matters quite a big deal.”

Theodos said investments going into the city indicate neighborhood health because neighborhoods with less investments are seen as “less desirable” to live and will result in less lending for homes and spending within the community.

Increasing households, decreasing household size

Just like in Burton’s case, more families than single residents are leaving the city. Although family size in Baltimore decreased to an average of 2.5 people per household, the number of households increased by 0.63% from 2010 to 2020, according to U.S. Census Bureau data from 2020.

The 2020 number of households is the first increase since the ‘60s, said Annie Milli, executive director of Live Baltimore, a nonprofit focused on growing the city’s economy and population.

“That is a really important indicator that we are actually in a growth trajectory toward a growing population,” Milli said.

Kyara Uqdah, the CEO of Charm City Buyers — a real estate development and consulting firm — said she too has noticed more families leaving. Uqdah’s company purchases vacant properties and renovates them into livable homes in the very neighborhoods people are leaving because of decades of disinvestment.

“What we found in those properties that we’ve done is our buyers tend to be Black, young professionals,” she said. “Folks who work and live in the city, or are relocating into the city for work. But they also tend to be single or newly married. So, thinking about those families, we’re not replacing as quickly because a lot of the folks moving into the city are younger professionals who don’t come with the entire family.”

Christian Richardson and her husband moved to Charles Village from New York City in 2021. Richardson said she saw opportunity that existed in Baltimore to invest in majority-Black communities, something that resonated with her as a Black woman.

“Some of the neighborhoods were shocking, if I’m being completely honest. ... But I didn’t let that deter me, and we kept searching and kept looking, and then I got to discover the beauty of Baltimore and just some of the most wonderful neighborhoods I’ve ever seen in my life with all the charm and all the community,” she said.

To attract renters and homebuyers to Baltimore, Milli said Live Baltimore runs ad campaigns that target people who signal they are looking to move through their online behavior, markets the city’s neighborhoods and makes people aware of down payment and closing cost assistance programs that the city has to offer. To retain residents, Milli said they help people understand programs for renovation, tax credit and other incentive programs.

Live Baltimore’s primary client is a single, Black female between the ages of 25 and 44 and earning between $44,000 to $106,000 a year, Milli said.

Another homebuyer who moved in 2020 to Baltimore from Prince George’s County is Kellen Leech, a 37-year-old veteran who said moving was a “no brainer” because he wanted to become a landlord and entrepreneur. He also saw the city as a place to grow generational wealth because of less expensive properties than the D.C. area.

“I saw an opportunity in Baltimore,” Leech said. “I saw opportunity to build; I saw opportunities to join the communities in Baltimore.”

Because population loss has been at the forefront of the city for decades, former Baltimore City Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake focused her platform on growing the population through immigrant families and refugees. During her 2010 inauguration, she set a goal of increasing the city’s population by 10,000 more families in ten years.

In 2013, Rawlings-Blake created the New Americans Task Force to plan to attract immigrants to the city. The task force released a report with recommendations on how to achieve the mayor’s goal, and it cited that in 2011, the city’s foreign-born population made up 7.3% of the city’s population.

One decade later, in 2021, Baltimore’s foreign-born population increased to 8%, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Council member Odette Ramos said that although there is not a specific strategy the city implemented to target population growth, she feels optimistic about the direction Baltimore is moving because of services like Live Baltimore.

Space and peace

Dennis Scott, 41, said he moved out of the city for better housing opportunities, better educational opportunities for his children, better pay and overall a better quality of life. He moved to Prince George’s County from Pen Lucy in Northeast Baltimore in 2006.

When Scott and his wife were looking for homes, where they chose to live came down to taxes, safety, space and amenities, he said.

“The county gives me one thing that the city did not give me enough of, and that is peace — a lot of peace,” Scott said.

He said that currently, almost every person he knows who he grew up with in the city has left. Most of his friends and family moved to Baltimore County, other parts of Maryland and even outside the state.

“Everybody’s moved out of the city,” he said. “My sister, my brother — nobody is still in the city. They’re all gone. A lot of it is because of professional opportunities and also just quality of life.”

Burton is also looking for a sense of peace in her upcoming move to Pennsylvania, and although she is excited to move away, she said she will miss knowing her neighbors.

“The sense of neighborhood and community is always going to be something that I miss,” Burton said. “Living in urban homes, you get to know your neighbors that live on both sides of you or across the street or maybe two blocks over — everybody knows each other. That will be something that I will miss.”

Learn more about our analysis and reproduce our findings by visiting our GitHub page.

This article has been updated to clarify Lawrence T. Brown's title.