City Councilman Robert Stokes is developing two rowhomes in his longtime neighborhood of Oliver through an investment fund for women and people of color run by a prominent local developer, but the properties aren’t listed in his City Council financial disclosure.
Stokes purchased 1830 and 1832 North Broadway from the city in August 2022 through a program meant to rehabilitate vacant properties. The two vacant rowhomes, in blighted states after two decades of city ownership, were sold to Stokes by the Board of Estimates.
That November, state property records show, Stokes transferred the land disposition agreement for the homes to North and Broadway Aequo LLC. Stokes registered North and Broadway Aequo LLC several months before in May 2022, according to state records.
The development company and Stokes’ 49% stake in it are listed on his 2022 financial disclosure form; the two properties are not.
Council members are required to report a broad range of properties and businesses in which they have stake. Failing to do so may result in a fine from the Ethics Board, which has gone after members of the council for violations in the past. However, the ethics board typically allows public servants to update their financial disclosures before issuing fines.
Stokes did not answer questions about the homes or his vision for the Oliver neighborhood, except to say he settled on the two homes in February of this year.
Stokes was elected to represent Baltimore’s 12th District in 2016. He served as a legislative assistant to his predecessor, Carl Stokes. The two are not related. He has also served on the Maryland Democratic State Central Committee.
Serving as a council member is technically a part-time job. Stokes is not unique in having a side gig; other city lawmakers including Zeke Cohen, Phylicia Porter and Eric Costello have supplemented their City Hall salaries during their current term as council members.
Council members must file an annual financial disclosure form to Baltimore’s ethics board listing any additional sources of income, any properties they have a stake in and gifts they may have received. If they have a spouse, they are required to report how their spouse earns money. Stokes earned about $76,000 as a councilman in fiscal year 2022.
The two properties are in Oliver, Stokes’ longtime neighborhood. The East Baltimore councilman rents a home nearby.
In a land disposition agreement made with Baltimore, the councilman agreed to develop the two properties into single-family homes for sale. Stokes paid $18,000 for the pair of homes, which were appraised at $32,000. The homes were part of a city program to offload vacant properties, which often sells real estate for less than the appraised value.
Jeffrey Hochstetler, the director of the city ethics board at the time of purchase, concluded that the sale to Stokes did not represent a conflict of interest.
Ernst Valery, who runs the Aequo Fund, an investment fund that provides capital and development expertise to Black and women developers, said Stokes is developing the properties through his company, which has a joint venture with the councilman through the LLC.
In 2022, the city’s spending board greenlighted a $2 million ARPA grant to the Aequo Foundation, an arm of Valery’s investment fund, to redevelop vacant properties into affordable housing. Mayor Brandon Scott holds control over the majority of seats on the board; Stokes does not have any oversight of the Board of Estimates.
“He had a vision and he wanted to revitalize a part of his neighborhood,” Valery said. “We see him as a community member, not as a council member on this one.”
He said that less than 2% of all development capital goes to women and minorities in Baltimore. “And we’re in a city that’s over 70% black and women, combined,” he said. “Even after the #MeToo movement, even after the Black Lives Matter movement, the powers that be don’t want diverse developers.”
When the Banner visited the Tyvek HomeWrap-covered properties last week, contractors carried debris and tools from a yellow pickup truck into the backyards as hammering and the steady hum of a generator emanated from the homes.
The Aequo Fund is developing projects with about eight to 10 other Black, people of color, or women residents in Baltimore, Valery said.
“We are trying to disrupt the status quo” of most city developers being white men, he said. “We want to help people revitalize their communities, and we recognize that you can’t just give someone money or put them in a basic program and they will instantly know how to develop a property into the vision they’ve laid out.”
Valery has broad ties throughout Baltimore.
He converted the former St. Michael’s Roman Catholic Church in Upper Fells Point to the Ministry of Brewing and Ministry Lofts apartments, and also developed the Bath House Square Apartments in Pigtown and the Nelson Kohl Apartments near Penn Station.
In 2016, Valery acquired the Sellers Mansion, a vacant and dilapidated West Baltimore historic mansion on the National Register of Historic Places. Though Valery said he intended to convert the mansion into senior housing, the building was demolished last year after a three-alarm fire. The developer said at the time he did not move forward with his plans because the Maryland Historical Trust said that, in order to receive a historic preservation tax credit, the project could only have six units, not the 15 Valery had pitched.