With Mayor Brandon Scott’s announcement of a comprehensive plan to alleviate severe housing vacancies, Baltimore stands at the cusp of transformation with impending multibillion-dollar investments. But the mayor’s announcement might have unintended consequences.
Working inside the housing market are a great many speculators who will aim to increase their holdings in neighborhoods with high vacancy levels. The risk from speculation threatens the very communities these investments aim to uplift. House flipping that follows this speculation uproots residents, as gentrification can become a kind of urban colonialism and reduces the stock of affordable homes.
I recognize the urgency of preempting speculation and the displacement it causes. Last summer, Gov. Wes Moore announced the revival of the Red Line, and changes to the housing market were noticeable to city homeowners like me. We’ve seen that blighted properties near West Baltimore’s interstate dead end, known as the Highway to Nowhere, appear to have been taken off the market. Sales of some of those properties to nonprofit developers had been imminent.
We’ve noted an increase in calls from outfits attempting to purchase homes at below-market prices. The one to two calls a month became one to two calls per week.
This all underscores the need for action to protect communities from speculative practices and displacement.
First, a multimillion-dollar funding source is needed to empower community organizations and advocacy groups in the most blighted communities to expand anti-speculation and anti-displacement initiatives. This includes coordinating services that will remove vulnerabilities — ground rent, deferred maintenance, tangled titles, excessive water billing, etc. — that result in displacement. We can fortify communities against potential predatory practices, ensuring that residents are active stakeholders in the revitalization process.
A comprehensive media campaign is needed across Baltimore to educate residents about speculation, displacement and unethical real estate practices, including title theft. The campaign will direct the public to resources available to avert property, equity and neighborhood loss. Public awareness is a powerful tool to empower communities against predatory actors seeking to exploit vulnerable neighborhoods. By fostering a citywide understanding of these issues, we can collectively work toward a resilient and informed populace.
The city needs to establish an interagency task force dedicated to anti-displacement efforts. This would bring together specialists from diverse fields to monitor the dynamics of speculation and displacement; develop policies to address them, including enforcement measures for willful vacancy; and implement strategies to counter these challenges effectively, including support for individuals and communities targeted for displacement. The task force would oversee the deployment of funding for community empowerment and execute the citywide awareness campaign.
Given the level of harm displacement causes and the imminent threat of increased speculation, it is imperative that this proposal be executed during the next year. The initial investment needed to fund this effort is estimated to be $10 million. That’s about 5% of the $210 million that vacant houses cost the city each year, according to Johns Hopkins University’s 21st Century Cities Initiative.
Funding this work should be all the anchor institutions, businesses and philanthropic organizations that say they support equity and want to help build a better Baltimore.
As Baltimore anticipates transformative investments, it is crucial to fortify targeted neighborhoods against the threats of speculation and displacement. By implementing the proposed measures, Baltimore can ensure that the benefits of revitalization reach the residents who need them the most, fostering a city that thrives inclusively.
Nneka Nnamdi is executive director of The SOS Fund, an organization committed to disrupting and dismantling predatory housing systems in Baltimore.