Tearing down vacants and building up Baltimore

In early January, Gov. Larry Hogan and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake announced Project C.O.R.E.—a $700 million initiative that would use $100 million to demolish vacant buildings in Baltimore City and $600 million in financing incentives to encourage developers to redesign the community with new homes and green areas.

Project C.O.R.E. (Creating Opportunity for Renewal and Enterprise) is an initiative that promises much needed urban renewal and economic investment in deeply disinvested, redlined Black neighborhoods in Baltimore. But can the $700 million for the existing communities be put to better use? Might there be other investment projects that would yield greater dividends for the health and well-being of communities and the city itself?

We may need to look to the crises in other urban areas for a broader understanding of what is at risk. Specifically, consider the case of lead in Flint, Michigan. Flint is a stark illustration of the result of disinvestment and short-term thinking. Its lead poison crisis and the resultant devastation to families and communities has brought it to national attention. This does not need to be Baltimore. Why might that be the case?

Baltimore, like Flint, is a post-industrial, hypersegregated, majority African-American city that relies on the state for major support. Hyper-segregated cities, such as Flint and Baltimore, are characterized by a high degree of spatially concentrated disadvantage, according to sociologists Douglas Massey and Jonathan Tannen. This means that many of Baltimore's neighborhoods—like Freddie Gray's Sandtown-Winchester or Lucille Gorham's Middle East—have been deeply disadvantaged by 105 years of segregation and forced displacement policies including: racial zoning, racially restrictive covenants, redlining, expulsive zoning, discriminatory lending and suburban subsidization, and highway construction that undermined community viability.

In large part due to the race/place-based policies mentioned, along with limited oversight of some rental properties and attendant lead control enforcement, many of Baltimore's disinvested Black neighborhoods are host to lead-ridden homes, both vacant and occupied.

Science is clear on the impact of lead; there is no safe level of lead exposure. Lead poisons and damages brains (especially developing brains) and has a long-term neurological impact—children are less capable of learning and more prone to violence and criminal behavior. The individual effect on children and families and the collective impact on communities and the city – our school systems, health systems, and criminal justice systems—are significant.

Freddie Gray was lead poisoned. How many more Freddie Grays are out there? While the Baltimore City Health Department is taking steps to mitigate lead exposure, the money for lead abatement—to correct the problem—is limited. With so much of our housing stock contaminated by lead, residents and especially our children will continue to be affected for years. Why not maximize prevention opportunities? Why not be more proactive?

Project C.O.R.E. may be the opportunity to do something, and make it substantial. Making Baltimore lead-free and making redevelopment community-centered should be the orienting frame for Project C.O.R.E.

Authentic community participation and a commitment to development without displacement can be a viable strategy to help revitalize Baltimore's disinvested neighborhoods. Here's how: The government can provide vouchers for families that may need to be temporarily moved while lead remediation or demolition takes place. Once new developments are built, residents can return with mandatory inclusionary zoning and housing subsidies. This approach would also feature strong enforcement of and attention to existing anti-discrimination policies, such as the 1968 Fair Housing Act, the 1974 Equal Credit Opportunity Act, and the 1977 Community Reinvestment Act.

But because of the complexity of redevelopment projects, community interests should be protected through a legally-binding community benefits agreement where residents are safeguarded from displacement, possess decision-making power throughout the redevelopment process, and can return to new or remodeled homes.

Why is this important?

The effects of "root shock"—from forced displacement—have yet to be fully captured but research suggests that the consequences are enduring and deleterious. Redevelopment projects in Baltimore have destabilized African American communities and families in the past resulting in large-scale displacement. From the "Highway to Nowhere" which forced out 960 families and split West Baltimore neighborhoods in half to the displacement of roughly 25,000 Baltimoreans by the Baltimore Urban Renewal and Housing Agency from the 1950s to the 1970s (including the downtown Charles Center Project) to the two Johns Hopkins projects that displaced a combined 1,500 plus Black families (with the Broadway Redevelopment Project and EBDI), the city's record here is poor. But making sure displaced residents can come back in their same neighborhoods after lead is removed could reduce the harmful cascading effects of community displacement.

Along with lead abatement, Project C.O.R.E. could prioritize the health of surrounding communities in the course of demolition. Environmental protection measures and health precautions should be employed at every juncture. Wet netting (the process of using water to prevent dust disbursement) should be used to help minimize the spread of lead dust and brownfield rehabilitation should be conducted at every location where lead-ridden homes have been demolished. Ruth Ann Norton, CEO for the Green and Healthy Homes Initiative, has urged the City Council to proceed carefully when demolishing buildings; the last thing Baltimore needs is more lead dust in the air or tracked into homes near demolition sites, she insisted at a hearing last month.

This is an opportunity for government to act in a more deliberative and broad-based way. The lead issue is serious and should not be minimized. Hundreds of children each year are exposed to lead paint; we have taken slow action to eliminate this threat when it is in our power to do so. Project C.O.R.E. provides opportunity to be responsive to this ecological and neurotoxic threat.

#BmoreLEADfree was created to raise awareness about lead and to promote action for the public's health. We call on the State of Maryland and the City of Baltimore to make #BmoreLEADfree a reality, not just a slogan. Both the government and its citizens should take a moment to consider the best options for a better future.

Kim Dobson Sydnor is the Dean of the School of Community Health and Policy at Morgan State University and her father is the late Rev. Vernon Dobson, a community and civil rights activist. Lawrence T. Brown is a professor at Morgan State University and an advocate for public health.

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