Wealth inequality has dramatically increased in this current economic cycle, shutting the windows of opportunities for the bottom 90% of Americans. In inner cities, this growing inequality has manifested into gentrification and concentrated poverty in communities of color.
Baltimore has more than 30,000 abandoned homes according to the Housing Authority of Baltimore City. These vacancies are primarily located in neighborhoods with low incomes and high proportions of households of color.
Baltimore's population has been in freefall for decades, and the increasing number of vacant buildings serves as a forward leading indicator that it is headed for trouble. Since the peak in the late 1950s, the population has dropped by a third from 950,000 down to 611,000 in 2017. The mass exodus can be attributed in large part to the deindustrialization of the Port of Baltimore.
Baltimore’s vacant buildings stand as a reminder, the city is rapidly shrinking. As illustrated in the map below, the areas with the highest concentration of homicides correspond precisely with the city’s vacancies.
For more color on the racial wealth divide in Baltimore, the AP interviewed LaShelle Rollins, a resident in West Baltimore.
Her rental home is sandwiched between a line of abandoned rowhomes with streets overrun by gangs and opioid addicts.
“It’s like we’re a forgotten population,” said Rollins, a Baltimore native who is studying for a community college degree that she hopes can lift her family out of poverty.
Maryland’s largest city is not alone in dealing with vacant homes, homicides, and a declining population. Nationwide, places like Detroit, Newark, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and St. Louis have struggled with similar problems.
Michael Braverman, the director of Baltimore’s Department of Housing and Community Development since 2017, is confident that after seven decades of decay the city is nearing a turning point. Braverman says the city government is laser-focused on stabilizing and revitalizing neighborhoods that have collapsed.
Low-income areas are expected to see a new wave of federal and state investments, called “opportunity zones,” funded by Mayor Catherine Pugh. Other grants and funds aim to boost affordable housing and foster what Pugh promotes as an inclusive “new era of neighborhood investment.”
Entire neighborhoods are expected to be demolished through Project CORE, a $75 million initiative to demolish the tens of thousands of vacant homes. Gov. Larry Hogan unveiled Project CORE in 2016, eight months after the 2015 Baltimore Riots.
“Whether Baltimore is on the right track to inclusive economic growth, I am not sure. I know the city’s leadership is focused on these issues. They’re battling a decades-long legacy of racial and economic segregation, industrial change, and transformed consumer preferences,” said Alan Berube, an expert on inner city economies at the Brookings Institution.
Many residents living in collapsed neighborhoods remain skeptical of Pugh's plan to revitalize local economies. They have seen numerous government plans to counter the rot come and go. Some fear success could cause gentrification, which is harmful to the low-income folk.
But in West Baltimore, Rollins is among those watching the urban deterioration all around them with disgust. She wants to see real change but understands that is not likely.
“People around here want real changes, real opportunities,” she said, watching her little girl play in the yard of her public school.
“I say a prayer every day we walk out the door and face those empty houses: God, please keep us safe.”
In a last ditch effort to save crumbling Baltimore city, officials are accumulating more debt, at the expense of the taxpayer, to demolish tens of thousands of vacant homes. While the population has crashed to 100-year lows, officials will have a difficult time attracting millennials to an area that is overrun by gangs and opioids.