Many Christians around the world began the season of Lent by marking their foreheads with ashes. Ashes are an ancient symbol of repentance, of recognizing how we have missed the mark of loving God with all our heart, soul and mind, loving our neighbors as ourselves and recommitting ourselves to these principles.
Last month, at the Greater Harvest Baptist Church in West Baltimore, across the street from a string of homes that have stood abandoned for almost a decade, Mayor Brandon Scott stood with nearly 300 faith and community leaders from Baltimoreans United In Leadership Development (BUILD).
Mayor Scott recommitted his administration to work with BUILD to end the decadeslong crisis of vacant and abandoned properties in our city.
This is no small commitment.
The crisis is rooted in our city’s long history of destructive and racially discriminatory housing policies and practices, including redlining that was pioneered in Baltimore more than a century ago. These vacant and abandoned homes have stubbornly existed through the administrations of multiple mayors and governors. This isn’t because they haven’t made an effort, but because their proposals have not met the scale of the need.
To solve this crisis once and for all, BUILD believes — and Mayor Scott agrees — it will take a bolder, more comprehensive strategy than has ever existed before. For this strategy to work, two long-term pillars must work hand in hand.
First, we must invest at a scale that meets the enormity of the crisis.
BUILD and Mayor Scott share the estimate that solving this crisis will take at least $7.5 billion. This investment must include $2.5 billion in public capital that would be spent over time, up to $200 million per year. That public investment would leverage another $5 billion in private capital.
This level of investment is required because of the scale of the problem in our city. In Baltimore, approximately 15,000 vacant buildings, 21,000 vacant lots and 34,000 houses are at risk of vacancy. That’s 70,000 properties directly affected.
More than that, fully 31% of residential properties in the city are vacant or houses next to vacant properties. These houses — most often row homes — impact whole blocks and whole communities. As the report we released makes clear, we must be prepared to invest in whole blocks and communities — not just in individual homes — if we want to succeed.
Second, BUILD and Mayor Scott agree that solving this crisis will take the creation of a special purpose entity, one that can raise the needed capital from the bond market and other public sources. It must be able to facilitate the work on the ground with the powers necessary to ensure the strategy succeeds at the speed and scale required.
For BUILD, this entity must be locally accountable, driven by the values and principles we have used successfully in our work in East Baltimore. Development must be community-led, not displace current residents and create income-integrated and right-sized neighborhoods. Standards for developers would be based on these values and guide the disposition of property once vacant properties in a particular area have been acquired and aggregated.
This entity must also be able to issue and accept money from revenue bonds at scale, based on the future tax revenue of rehabilitated properties. It could leverage relationships with the state and city to ensure a higher investment rating, larger bonding capacity and lower borrowing costs. Without such an entity, Baltimore will never be able to access the capital needed to address this crisis at scale.
We know some will question if BUILD’s two pillars are realistic. But we have no other choice than to act because the current situation is too costly.
A recent study from Johns Hopkins’ 21st Century Cities Initiative by Mary Miller and Mac McComas laid out both the scope and the financial cost of our status quo. The financial cost to taxpayers of doing nothing is at least $200 million per year.
The human cost is even greater. We see every day the immeasurable cost in lives, in spirit and in hope, as block after block of abandoned lots and boarded-up buildings in our historically disinvested neighborhoods remain neglected.
What is perhaps less mentioned is the opportunity this level of investment will create for our city.
This public investment and strategy would be the largest single investment in our city’s core neighborhoods in Baltimore’s history. It can and must be a vehicle for the creation of Black wealth and for the creation of wealth for current residents in the neighborhoods most impacted by persistent chronic vacancy.
We estimate that this investment and strategy would restore $4.5 billion in wealth for residents in these neighborhoods. It would also prioritize MBE developers and locally accountable CDCs and nonprofit developers.
We can act together now in this concrete way to end the legacy of redlining in our city once and for all.
Last October marked the 20-year anniversary of a tragedy in our city, a fire that took the lives of Angela and Carnell Dawson and their five children: Keith, Kevin, Carnell Jr., Juan and LaWanda. The fire was set in retaliation after the Dawsons reported drug activity in front of their home on Preston Street. It was out of their appalling, unacceptable deaths that BUILD’s vision and strategy of reinvesting in East Baltimore was born.
In the Oliver and Broadway East neighborhoods today, where BUILD and ReBUILD Metro have worked the longest, we have reduced the vacancy rate to only 7.8%, down from 48%. The population has increased by 45%, compared to a decrease in population citywide. Our work has increased the wealth of nearby homeowners by more than $50 million, all while the neighborhoods themselves have remained more than 90% Black.
What is more, the homicide rate in these neighborhoods has been cut in half.
This reduction in violence should not be a surprise. A recent study in Philadelphia corroborates that crime and gun violence decrease in neighborhoods when we address vacant and abandoned structures. The correlation is clear on a map of Baltimore that BUILD created, overlaying homicides on neighborhoods where chronically vacant and abandoned homes and properties exist.
The tragedies we see nearly every day in our city — from fires to gun violence — demand our courage and our action. May the ashes many of us placed on our foreheads and the ashes of all who have died needlessly hallow the ground in our neighborhoods and communities. Together we must act now to breathe new life into the city that is our home.
The co-authors are clergy leaders with BUILD and serve on the organization’s strategy team. Rev. George Hopkins serves as clergy co-chair. Bishop Kevin Daniels is the pastor of St. Martin Church of Christ. Rev. Cristina Paglinauan serves on the clergy team at Church of the Redeemer and Rev. Andrew Connors is the senior pastor at Brown Memorial Park Ave. Presbyterian Church.