Inside a church in South Baltimore, Taryn Gross-Ojekwe called out the developer who bought a property in the heart of a historically Black community that dates back to the Underground Railroad — a developer who residents say has repeatedly ignored them.
“How are you gonna tell me about my community?” Gross-Ojekwe said to a room with more than 30 people. Many were members of the Inclusionary Housing Coalition and residents from Sharp-Leadenhall and the surrounding neighborhoods of Otterbein and Federal Hill.
The community gathered Monday afternoon to discuss a proposed zoning change that, if passed, will allow Workshop Development to build an apartment complex with more than 160 units on 810 Leadenhall St. The city’s Department of Housing & Community Development said in an April memorandum that the proposed number of units is “appropriate for its proximity to public transportation.”
In a separate memorandum, the city’s Department of Planning said the shift to more residential “is compatible with the vast majority of the neighborhood,” which is largely residential, “as opposed to retaining industrial uses.”
The issue, residents say, was not necessarily the rezoning, or even development. It was, they say, the lack of community involvement and commitment to affordability by Workshop Development since it bought the building.
Community residents fear the development would price legacy residents out, said Betty Bland-Thomas, a community activist and former case worker who has lived in the neighborhood for more than 25 years. The neighborhood has witnessed years of “trauma” and “continued disinvestment,” she said, adding that some city initiatives like dollar houses only served to gentrify the community and push out Black residents.
“There’s a legacy here of fighting the good fight,” Bland-Thomas told The Baltimore Banner. “But there’s also a legacy here of disinvestment, exclusion, elimination … and not hearing our voices.”
Workshop Development and Eric Costello, the council member who represents the district, did not respond to requests for comment.
The zoning change would place the property in a transit oriented development district, a designation of the Federal Transit Administration for properties that can be repurposed to improve access to public transportation and promote affordable housing. The community is located south of downtown, sandwiched between South Hanover Street and Interstate 395.
But Bland-Thomas said the developer has not agreed to make 10% of the units affordable — the same percentage in a proposed bill that would renew the city’s inclusionary housing law, which expired in June 2022.
Without an affordability clause in the zoning, Bland-Thomas said, the developers and City Hall will be “completely ignoring” a city-backed master plan from 2004.
“Disinvestment and resident displacement have left their mark on Sharp-Leadenhall,” the plan reads, recommending that the city creates strategies to “help existing residents stay in the neighborhood; to create housing opportunities for a broad mix of incomes and backgrounds; and to improve the quality-of-life for everyone in Sharp-Leadenhall.”
The city plan also encourages “high-density infill construction” such as the development on Leadenhall Street, which could help in bringing “more residents to the neighborhood and creating opportunities for affordable units.”
Timothy Heath, who lives in the Little Montgomery Street Historic District, emphasized in the meeting that market rates usually are not accessible for many Baltimore city residents, where more than 50% of households struggle to make ends meet or are below the federal poverty line.
“That’s why it [the inclusionary housing law] must be a requirement,” Heath said. “It’s so that we can continue to provide for the citizens who help this city run and that’s who we’re leaving behind.”
Not enforcing inclusionary housing is to overlook what people actually need to survive, said Tisha Guthrie, a housing activist and commissioner at the city’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund Commission. Community-based development is the best practice.
The city needs to acknowledge the impact of affordable, safe and inclusive housing, Guthrie said.
“The part it plays in violence, the part it plays in physical mental and spiritual illness and lack of wellness,” Guthrie said.
Guthrie told the gathered residents that they could not just shame policymakers. They had to “bear the weight and put the pressure on” the city officials.
And so the residents will — a group will be protesting the zoning change at 2 p.m. Tuesday at City Hall.
And, Bland-Thomas noted, “there’s an election coming up.”