We may or may not be happier than our ancestors were in 1950, when Baltimore reached its largest population. But on average, we certainly live longer and earn more money. These are good things. Curiously, though, these factors contribute to the city’s population decline as measured by the U.S. Census.

Multigenerational households were once more common. Children lived with their parents until marriage and then moved in with their children after retirement, making for larger households. In 1950, the average Baltimore City household had 3.4 people.

Today, with longer lives and more money, we’re free to live independently before marriage (if we marry) and after retirement (if we retire). Single people living alone and married couples without children outnumber married-parent households, and 2 out of 3 American households have no children at home on any given day. All that has driven Baltimore’s average household size down to under 2.2 people.

With these smaller households comes a reduced city population. When Baltimore City had 950,000 people, there were about 280,000 households. If we had 280,000 households today, our population would be just over 600,000, which is close to what the Census says it is. We should consider this as a factor when we read that Baltimore City is losing population.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Losing population is a bad thing if people are moving away because a place is bad. But what if households getting smaller is a major factor in the city losing population? Is that a bad thing? Maybe not.

If we listen to people who grew up in Baltimore just after World War II, when the city’s population was at its highest, they often talk about how crowded it was.

We hear those stories about kids sleeping three to a bed, families doubling up in one home and mothers living under the rule of their mothers-in-law. These anecdotes are based in fact. Baltimore — and the whole United States — had a tremendous housing shortage after the war, and it took us about 20 years to build our way out of it.

As households began to get smaller in the 1950s, the city began to lose people, but it wasn’t treated as a problem. Kids were glad that they could sleep one to a bed, and Grandfather Duff was delighted to move into his own apartment and let his son take the old house. Though white families moved to the suburbs in large numbers, Black families in the Great Migration replaced them, and there were almost no vacant houses.

Baltimoreans didn’t worry much about population loss until we began to lose households. That started in about 1970 and kept going until about 2010. White flight continued, and Black families began to move to the suburbs. The Black population of Baltimore County grew from 21,117 in 1970 to 209,738 in 2010. Households kept getting smaller, too. The city lost about 40,000 households and 285,000 people. Suddenly, the city had vacant houses, vacant lots, whole vacant blocks.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

So that’s not a good thing.

Everybody wants to turn our population statistics around, but we probably can’t make households larger, so the best way to turn things around is to increase the number of households.

We’re glad to say that this is happening. The American Communities Survey, a function of the U.S. Census, reports that Baltimore gained 17,500 households in the five years between 2018 and 2022, and city housing production has increased dramatically since then. Building permit data shows that Baltimore is now building about 35% of all new housing in the metropolitan area, more than 3,000 houses and apartments every year.

Much of this is highly visible. It’s easy to see new apartment buildings sprouting up in the central core of the city, not to mention office buildings and hotels that developers are converting into housing.

But much of the city’s growth is in neighborhoods, where it is hard to notice but quite significant. You don’t see cranes in neighborhoods such as Barclay, Oliver and Pigtown, but these neighborhoods, and dozens of others, are all seeing more housing — most of it quite affordable — and fewer vacant houses.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

In fact, according to the American Community Survey, the city’s vacancy rate has dropped nearly 16% in the past five years. And it has dropped in every city ZIP code, not just in more affluent neighborhoods. The most dramatic aspect of this is the rebuilding of neighborhoods and rehabilitation and renovation of vacant houses. This is producing a net of about 400 households a year, factoring in demolitions and new vacancies.

Now that America is in the midst of its first housing shortage since the early 1960s, Baltimore is doing its part to meet the needs of its residents.

By 2030, if current trends continue, Baltimore City will have more households than it had in 1950. Will it have as many people? Probably not. Households will probably continue to get smaller on average. But the city will have fewer vacant buildings, fewer vacant lots, more people walking and more people shopping and chowing down on neighborhood commercial streets.

Good things all.

Peter Duvall is a consultant specializing in vacancy and blight reduction in Baltimore neighborhoods. Charlie Duff is the president of Jubilee Baltimore, which has worked to rebuild Baltimore neighborhoods since 1980.

The Baltimore Banner welcomes opinion pieces and letters to the editor. Please send submissions to communityvoices@thebaltimorebanner.com or letters@thebaltimorebanner.com.

More From The Banner