Hundreds of residents gathered to watch Mayor Brandon Scott and former Mayor Sheila Dixon discuss housing policy at a Tuesday night panel. The event was likely the last time the two Democrats made their cases to the same audience before the May 14 primary.

The two did not quite debate each other and did not share the stage. Instead, they took turns getting up from a standing-room-only audience to sit on a panel with organizers at BUILD, an interfaith group representing Baltimore neighborhoods.

Though BUILD is nonpartisan and does not endorse candidates, the group is no stranger to city politics. In 2023, the group sponsored a report developed by the urban planning firm czb that found fixing Baltimore’s housing crisis will cost a whopping $7.5 billion, and issued calls for $2.5 billion in public funding to tackle the problem from a combination of sources, including funding from state, federal, city levels.

The organization issued a series of recommendations that both candidates pointed to in their remarks. Scott said his administration was working to implement strategies designed with BUILD and the Greater Baltimore Committee, while Dixon said her housing plan aligned with the organization’s plan.

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Dixon and Scott received the questions in advance. For the most part, they stuck to policy and avoided taking shots at each other.

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Bob Wallace, a businessman who is also competing in the primary, did not speak on the panel. BUILD required that candidates receive at least 10% of support from likely Democratic voters in recent polls to participate in the event. Wallace received 3% support in a recent survey conducted by the Baltimore Banner and the Goucher College Poll.

Meanwhile, 40% said they would back Scott and 32% said they supported Dixon. Another 10% tapped Thiru Vignarajah, who dropped out of the race last week and endorsed Dixon.

Utilizing the “whole blocks” approach

BUILD leadership asked the candidates how they would use a “whole blocks approach” — that is, transforming an entire block for a community’s use instead of just one vacant house on that block — to curb vacancy.

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Scott touted his ongoing relationship with BUILD, saying he meets with the organization weekly and implemented their recommended strategies to reduce vacant buildings by 14% throughout his tenure.

“The entire vacancy strategy that we laid out is based on a whole block approach, working in geographical areas like our impact investment areas,” he said. The mayor pledged his administration would continue to bring comprehensive neighborhood services to such areas “to revitalize entire communities.”

Dixon said she would ensure that staff positions at the city Department of Housing and Community Development were filled.

Special purpose entities

Candidates were asked how they would use a special purpose entity to address vacancy throughout Baltimore.

Dixon said she wants to create a neighborhood authority to streamline the process of acquiring blighted or neglected properties and putting them into responsible hands. “A land bank will be a part of that process,” she said.

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A land bank is an administrative entity that acquires vacant properties, clears their debts and title issues and then sells them to responsible developers, often by pricing them at below market value.

She said she supports higher taxes for owners of blighted buildings “that are sitting there as people sit on that property, waiting for that area to be developed. They need to be paying into this,” she said to applause.

Scott said he would reactivate Baltimore’s Industrial Development Authority, which was created in the 1980s to help finance waterfront redevelopment. “My predecessors only used it for downtown. We’re going to use it for uptown and around town,” he said.

What voters said

Several voters in attendance said the discussion solidified their choice in candidates, while others said the Democrats felt too similar to each other and left undecided.

Steven E. Snyder of Lauraville voted for Scott in 2020, and proudly wore his 2024 “I Voted” sticker to the panel. “There were only two people who are going to be the next mayor, and I know I prefer Scott,” the retiree said. “He’s thoughtful. He’s energetic. And he knows Baltimore.”

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Hydra Namnooth said she was thrilled that Scott remembered her from a previous event he attended where she worked as a security guard and plans to vote for him. “He recognized me, and he’s an actual, genuine person with real empathy,” she said. “Every time I look him up, he’s doing the work, putting words into action.”

Sharee West of Northwest Baltimore hadn’t yet cast her ballot for Dixon, but felt energized to do so after the panel. “I love when she mentioned getting things in order in households and families first, because that’s where things bad and good start,” she said.

West runs group homes for victims of sex trafficking and connects her residents to jobs and training. “I appreciate that she believes outside organizations like mine could actually add value to the communities,” she said.

Nick, a city educator who declined to provide his full name due to his job, left uncertain about who he’d vote for. The lifelong resident of Northeast Baltimore has plans to vote on Thursday, the last day of early voting.

“My biggest thing is quality-of-life crimes. Who’s going to make Baltimore feel the safest?” he asked. “I need to do more research before I decide whose name I write down.”

Emily Sullivan covers Baltimore City Hall. She joined the Banner after three years at WYPR, where she won multiple awards for her radio stories on city politics and culture. She previously reported for NPR’s national airwaves, focusing on business news and breaking news.

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