Linda Davis and her cousin used to take turns accompanying her aunt to the market. One weekend would be hers, the next her cousin’s. She followed her aunt like a shadow past the open-air vegetable stands, the butchery, the man selling oysters ― familiar faces of shoppers and retailers now long gone from East Cross Street.
The historically Black neighborhood of Sharp-Leadenhall where she still lives is no longer what it used to be. Sitting in the basement of the Martini Lutheran Church decades later, she recalls her neighborhood stretching to Oriole Park at Camden Yards and to parts of Federal Hill. Now Davis, whose family has lived in that area for generations, worries a new development could further erode the identity of her neighborhood, one of the remnants of a “once Antebellum African American” community as described by the Baltimore City Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation.
Workshop Development is looking to build an apartment complex at 810 Leadenhall St., which was once a warehouse for a furniture company. A third public hearing scheduled Monday that would change the region’s zoning could allow more than 160 market-rate units as part of the property.
Preservation is a “key point for survival” of Sharp-Leadenhall, residents and advocates said. This happens by preserving the community’s history of resilience, partially by ensuring that those who have lifted the neighborhood up are able to stay. For them, one of the only ways that can be done is through affordable housing.
The proposed development flares up old wounds in a community that has historically faced disinvestment and disfranchisement. Legacy residents, those who have built and cared for the community, could get priced out, housing advocate Tisha Guthrie said. And, without them, particularly those who hold the history of the neighborhood, what will be left behind, she asked.
Under federal regulations, cities that receive funds through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development are required to have a plan to further fair housing, said Lisa Hodges, the housing chair of Baltimore’s NAACP branch. The city hasn’t been in compliance with federal law since June of last year, when its inclusionary housing law, enacted in 2007, expired, Hodges said.
Hodges said the development in Sharp-Leadenhall and the dispute with the community illustrate what’s at stake without an inclusionary housing policy. But the new policy, which has stalled in City Hall for months, needs to go through a revamp. The city’s previous law created only 34 inclusionary housing units in the 15 years it was in effect. A 2022 study found the law “could have yielded 270-540 affordable units between 2016 and 2021.”
The city also used high-performance market-rate rental tax credits as incentive to developers, who often claim adding inclusionary units is too expensive. Tax breaks are supposed to give developers a buffer until they pay back the city, and the money would have gone toward affordable housing development. But the city rarely enforced the law. The Baltimore Sun reported in December that developers “who received the rental tax credit should have paid between $12 million and $60 million into an offset fund.”
A new inclusionary housing law would have to be more enforceable, housing advocates said. Although there is some affordable housing in the neighborhood, there is not enough and the new market-rate development will put it further off balance, Hodges said.
“Without inclusionary housing, there are neighborhoods that will never be desegregated,” Hodges said.
“I’m sure the argument that the developers of that project in Sharp-Leadenhall make is that, ‘oh, well, you know, there’s a lot of affordability all around us,” she added. “But they’re not guaranteed permanently affordable units.”
While Doug Schmidt, who is leading the Workshop Development project, said he would abide by city laws if an inclusionary housing law passes, he has made no other commitment to include affordable housing units in the building.
Without the breaks afforded by an inclusionary housing law, Schmidt said the project isn’t going to be attractive enough to banks and investors.
“The reality is that you take your project, you package it, and you go out in the marketplace, and you try to attract capital.”
If Workshop Development were to add inclusionary units without any extra help from the city, those units wouldn’t cover the operating expenses and mortgage said Schmidt. “It takes right out of the bottom line so it does significantly impact the return that you can offer.”
Schmidt pointed to the publicly subsidized housing project in the neighborhood but also said it is surrounded by “high-priced townhouses.”
“Who is being priced out?” he asked in a statement. “Our project will provide rentals in between the cost of the affordable units and the high end towns. Isn’t this mixed income?”
Without the guarantee of affordable units, market-rate development tends to sweep the neighborhood, Hodges said. It is what happened in communities such as Fells Point, Canton and Federal Hill.
He said “it is concerning that this seems to be more about fighting for the sake of fighting than merits of the positions.”
Little by little, Black communities in South Baltimore are diminishing, said John Williams, who has lived in Sharp-Leadenhall for 30 years. He remembers the shops run by neighbors, the Christmas parties and community cookouts. Davis remembers as a little girl that the streets would get so dark at night that she would go out only if her grandmother went with her.
But the younger people won’t know what it used to be, Williams said.
“If the community don’t come together, it breaks,” he said.
New affordable housing projects began to pop up around Sharp-Leadenhall in the early 2000s after an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit against the Housing Authority of Baltimore City and the city. It led to some action, said Betty Bland-Thomas, a community organizer who moved to Sharp-Leadenhall in 1998, including a home ownership program that an affordable housing developer put together.
But Bland-Thomas said there could have been more outreach to residents who were displaced due to historic disinvestment. Some people left thinking that a project known as the Highway to Nowhere was going to come through their community. The city ultimately changed course after protests, but the plan was still a “devastation” for many Black Americans in the city who felt like an afterthought, Bland-Thomas said.
Residents of Sharp-Leadenhall have stressed that they are not against development. What they need is more meaningful engagement with developers and city officials, they said.
During the zoning change hearing in June, Councilman Eric Costello and the developer stressed that they had at least three community meetings with residents. When pressed for more information on the hearing, Costello agreed that many of the residents had raised concerns about the project, and many who testified at the hearing said they were worried about pricing Black residents out.
Costello did not return multiple requests for comment on this story.
Bridget Purcell, an anthropologist and resident of Otterbein, a neighborhood close to Sharp-Leadenhall, noted that Black households used to make up 68% of the neighborhood in 2010. They now comprise 45%.
“The multiracial class interactions that now make my everyday life, and I would argue make Baltimore great, will gradually be erased,” Purcell said. “This is what we lose when we let one narrow vision of economic development dictate the founding of our city.”
Schmidt testified in the hearing that Workshop Development was going to do what it could to address issues of “poverty, racism, displacement and other things.” But he questioned the connection between inclusionary housing and the development. Schmidt said he thought it was “a little unfair” to put what he said is too much responsibility on one project.
An inclusionary housing law alone may not address all of the concerns residents in Sharp-Leadenhall may have. There’s still a chance that even if the city did pass a law, housing costs could go up.
”If you’re a developer coming in and building a project, and you have to include some affordable units on site, you have to compensate for the loss in the cost by building by charging more for your market rate units,” said Yonah Freemark, who studies land use and affordability at the Urban Institute, a nonprofit that studies economic and social policy.
City officials are trying to come up with something that is going to be effective while also trying to appease developers, said Matt Hill, an attorney for the Public Justice Center. Having an “impactful and enforceable” inclusionary housing law that is citywide is a step toward addressing inequity and exclusion in developments in Baltimore.
“I looked around the country: Nobody else tried to do inclusionary housing the way Baltimore tried it,” Hill said.
Odette Ramos, the city councilwoman who represents the 14th District, said she is hoping to take the inclusionary housing legislation to a vote by summer’s end. Housing advocates hope that is the case. It’s been too long, Hill said.
Sharp-Leadenhall residents said they have a legacy of “fighting the good fight” that dates back centuries. A Black Methodist church that separated from another congregation due to discrimination was a meeting ground for scholars and activists. Baltimore Abolitionist Society members created a school to educate Black children.
So in the last years, when Bland-Thomas and other residents faced barriers, they told themselves: Let’s build up our strength. Let’s build up our pride. Let’s build up our engagement.
And they are.
“What do we want? Inclusionary housing,” Bland-Thomas said in the zoning hearing in June. “When do we want it? Now.”
This story was produced in partnership with WYPR reporter Emily Hofstaedter. Listen to Hofstaedter’s radio piece at wypr.org.
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