Thursday, April 23, 2020

What a new study tells us about the trajectory of Baltimore Neighborhoods

Before the current topic of public health wiped every other topic off the radar screen, one of Baltimore's favorite subjects of discussion was how Baltimore's neighborhoods are doing. The five year anniversary of the Freddie Grey unrest is a good time to revisit the question.

Was there revival or gentrification or was there mostly a steady spread of decay? Depending on one's own daily experience, residents would attest to the one or the other.  One side would see flourishing neighborhoods with restaurants, bars, cafes and sprouting roof decks where a few years back only modest narrow formstone worker houses dominated the scene. The others pointed to once stately brownstones going to waste, surrounded by other vacant buildings, weeds, to corner stores selling liquor through plexiglass dividers.  Both impressions were part of the same reality that is Baltimore. From those close up views, it is hard to gain a larger perspective.
Revitalization and investment on Greenmount Ave (photo: Philipsen)

Now a study by Alan Mallach, senior fellow at the Center for Community Progress, released by the Abell Foundation this month, aims to shed light on what is going on, zip code by zip code, but set into the context of a citywide scale. The trends the report shows are based on a broad set of data collected between 2000- and 2017. From Abell's website:
This Abell Report mines data from 2000 to 2017 to better understand how the racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic composition of Baltimore's neighborhoods have changed.
Even though the pandemic will upend everything, a careful study of what happened in those seventeen years is in order to prepare for what is to come, especially now.
Middle neighborhoods in decline

One thing is clear: On balance, Baltimore has lost population between in those seventeen years, not as drastically as in the decade before, but significant losses of  over 27,000 residentsor 4% of its population, according to  census estimates, losses that have brought Baltimore already below the 600,000 mark, the smallest population in a century.

But contrary to popular believe, the matter isn't simply one of people packing up and leaving to greener pastures, usually in the surrounding suburbs. The reality is that people also move to Baltimore. While, on balance more people move out than in, the taxes that Baltimore collected have gone up in recent years.  This means that the ones moving in were more affluent than those moving out. This wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing, given the city's high poverty rate and below state  median income rate. But as almost everything in Baltimore, the in and out migration is also a matter mired in race. Or as the Abell Report put it:
Population gains and losses (red is loss, blue is gain)
Since 2000, black neighborhoods have been much more likely to decline economically, and white neighborhoods have been more likely to rise.[..] The greatest loss of black population in Baltimore is coming from predominately black low- and moderate-income neighborhoods (median income below citywide median, or below $47,000 in 2017). Since 2000, these neighborhoods have lost over 45,000 people, or roughly 20% of their total population. [..]
Baltimore has seen solid economic growth since 2000. The city has added nearly 20,000 jobs. Household incomes in Baltimore have grown at a rate nearly 50% greater than the national rate over that period; as a result, Baltimore’s median household income has risen from 72% to 81% of the national median. Income growth, however, has been concentrated among white households, whose incomes have grown at more than double the rate of black households 
 The common narrative reflecting these trends is that affluent white people are displacing poor black people. The word used in this context: gentrification. But the reality is, once again, more complicated. Gentrification does not occur uniformly in neighborhoods across the city, in fact, it rarely occurs in poor black neighborhoods at all. As a result, displacement in the gentrifying communities in Baltimore (Defined as: (1) increase in household incomes; (2) increase
in sales prices; and (3) increase in educational attainment) occurs predominantly on the backs of poor white residents. Again the Abell Report:
Thriving Remington. Stable old houses and new
development (Photo Philipsen)
For every loss of a black household in a gentrifying area, there was a net loss of more than five low-income white households, whether as a result of households moving elsewhere, mortality, or other reasons.
Baltimore's loss of population in Middle Neighborhoods is a troubling sign of the slow degradation of the American middle class that is going on across the nation. There is nationawide a stronger and stronger bifurcation of society with very many poor people at the bottom and fewer and fewer people in the middle, with a few super rich at the top.  The report says about this problem:
Foremost, in our opinion, is the challenge of reversing the decline of the city’s struggling largely black moderate- and middle-income neighborhoods. This is both a physical and an economic problem. [...]This calls for a determined effort to improve the quality of life in these neighborhoods—a term that encompasses physical environment, public safety, quality education, and more. This means not only making them better places for everyone whatever their income and education, but also turning them into places where people who have the means to choose among neighborhoods, and can afford to move either to other parts of the city or its suburbs, will choose to stay or move into them.
Continued abandonment in West Baltimore
(Photo Philipsen)
The good news is, that Planning Director Chris Ryer has his eyes firmly set on those "middle neighborhoods" and the aim to improve quality of life there. In a 2019 interview with the American Planning Association he said in response to the question what the  the Planning Department’s approach to community development is:
It’s what we would call a “middle neighborhood strategy”: neighborhoods that are not wealthy, not in good shape, but not highly distressed. Fifty percent of Baltimore’s population live in these middle neighborhoods —  not highly distressed, but not highly successful. They could go either way. This is where the community development world plays now, because they don't typically have the resources for the distressed neighborhoods. We know in middle neighborhoods, our target areas, there are certain corridors that matter a lot: Greenmount Avenue in Waverly or Pennsylvania Avenue or any arterial in middle neighborhoods. They’re typically a mixture of residential and commercial, one of which is not really functioning in the market. (Chris Ryer, Planning Director)
The "middle neighborhoods" Ryer notes may not be the same Mallach describes as "struggling largely black moderate- and middle-income neighborhoods."  Baltimore's neighborhood policies have long oscillated from need based strategies (Mayor Schmoke targeting Sandtown in the 1990s) to "working from strength" (Mayor O'Malley). The cities latest targeted investment zones try a middle ground by working from anchor institutions and an equity perspective. Mallach's report may provide fuel for the strength versus need debate once again.
The Abell analysis also looked at home prices and real estate values. Not surprisingly, these, too are deeply reflective of race and the history of institutional racism such as redlining. As has been discussed in this space before, the effects of redlining continue to this day. About 30% of all City census tracts fall into deeply segregated and mostly previously redlined neighborhoods. In the words of the report:
Moving up mostly in white neighborhoods
Price trends are strongly driven by the racial composition of the neighborhood. Three out of five largely white census tracts saw house prices increase by more than 50% in constant dollars, compared to two out of five racially mixed, and only one out of 10 largely black tracts. Conversely, house prices declined by 20% or more in nearly half of all predominately black tracts, compared to less than one out of 12 predominately white tracts. The median house in predominately black moderate-income neighborhoods lost nearly one-third of its value in constant dollars between 2000 and 2017.
Clearly, neighborhoods with depressed home values are not gentrifying, to the contrary, those are the communities with the biggest population losses. 60,000 residents left deeply distressed areas. About half of them found a home in some middle neighborhoods in Baltimore, especially in the northeast area of the city. The future of the low and moderate income black communities is very uncertain. As Mallach writes:
The upshot is that almost all of Baltimore’s largely black moderate-income neighborhoods, many of which were relatively healthy in 2000, are losing ground, and many are in crisis. Families continue to leave, and household incomes are in sharp decline, while the housing market is on the edge of market failure. While the median house value in these neighborhoods in 2000 was over 80% of the citywide median, it is now below 50%. The number of new buyers is far too low to absorb the supply of housing, the share of investor buyers is far above the citywide average, and vacant housing is becoming endemic in some areas. The future of these neighborhoods is one of the most difficult challenges faced by the city of Baltimore. (Mallach)
It is remarkable that successful revitalization is more prevalent on the east side than on the west side. This probably has to do with how anchor institutions are engaged, how suitable the housing stock is for middle or lower incomes, how much access to transit an area has and how much coordination there is between various non-profits and community organizations. The success of Barclay and Greenmount West is a reflection of all of that.
All slipping black zip codes (light blue) are on the west side.
Yellow is stable, dark blue moving up. Predominantly black
moderate-income neighborhoods account for roughly  75%
of the total loss in black HH in Balto.

The sheer scale of continued disinvestment sets Baltimore apart from cities where gentrification is a much bigger issue. There has been no sign whatsoever that traditionally black neighborhoods would have an influx of affluent buyers who displace existing residents. After the pandemic, it is likely that the divisions and pathologies of Baltimore neighborhoods will be further exacerbated unless the usual market mechanisms can be redirected beyond the fairly small interventions of the past that rarely showed systemic change.

Predictably, almost all the communities that the report describes as gentrifying are entirely located in what has become known as the White L (the spine of the Charles Street corridor and the leg of the waterfront). There is a slight drift towards the west, where Hampden and Remington gentrified from previously working class low and mid income (mostly white) neighborhoods. The report states:
Gentrification in Baltimore is dominated by a single demographic group—young, largely white millennials with college degrees. While they are not the only people moving into the city’s gentrifying tracts, they are the principal driving force of change. Gentrifying tracts have seen their share of college graduates more than triple, while 36% of their residents are aged 25 to 34—double the percentage in the rest of the city. [...]18, or two-thirds, of the 27 gentrifying tracts were predominately white in 2000, five were mixed, and four were predominately black. 
The shrinking black population of Baltimore
The report highlights one bright spot, the transformation of a distressed and disinvested predominantly black community into a healthier and better off community with far less vacant buildings and barely any displacement: Greenmount West and Barclay. The community saw a strong influx of whites, Hispanics and Asians with only a slight reduction in blacks. The secret is that many vacant buildings where rehabbed and filled and many new apartments were built that guaranteed affordability. The resulting diverse community promises to withstand economic downturns in a much more resilient way than a fully segregated community. (see also my past blog article about this area)

I asked Seema Iyer of the Neighborhood Indicators Alliance at the University of Baltimore about the study. After all, drilling down into neighborhoods via data is her everyday business.
She says: " to me it's a real clarion call that we need to focus on the needs of homeowners in those western neighborhood in particular". She draws the following conclusions from the Abell study:
income disparities are defined by race
1) all of the Black neighborhoods that moved downward are on the west side of town. The ones on the east all remained stable.
2) the northeast quadrant seems like a model for what other parts of town can learn from
3) and the gentrifying neighborhoods are all in the center and along the water. It's not just because they are attracting white population, but because they represent the best of urban amenities that the city has to offer. certainly one begets the other, but they are walkable, with lots of cultural amenities, connected to transit as well as highways, have lots of capital investment, etc. (Seema Iyer, Director of the Jacob France Institute and Research Assistant Professor)
A mixed race community on the uptick: Pigtown
Allan Mallach, the author of the Abell study concludes his report with these words:
I recognize the magnitude of the city’s task in addressing its neighborhood challenges. Although the city and its partners have accomplished a great deal in recent years, far more needs to be done. I hope that this analysis, which I believe is the first detailed, factually grounded analysis of the city’s neighborhood conditions and trends, will be a valuable resource in that effort
Baltimore was struggling long after the financial crisis and was the only east coast city that continued to loose population even during the last 12 years of economic recovery. The blow of the pandemic promises to be even stronger. Yet, it also presents an opportunity to calibrate and coordinate the many efforts better. The author may not be entirely right about his study being the first and only detailed factually grounded neighborhood study, but he would certainly be right that city policies to date have not been sufficiently grounded in data. Not that data wouldn't have been collected (they were ever since CitiStat), but they have never been culled and interpreted to devise a comprehensive focused strategy. It is precisely such a strategy that the new mayor needs to develop to pull all his departments and resources in the same direction. In a time of depleted resources that will be even more urgent.

The mayoral election can be a benchmark and begin of a much more evidence based and focused approach in Baltimore than was dominant between 2000 and 2017. Mallach's study provides plenty of food for such a strategy.

Klaus Philipsen. FAIA

all graphis from the Abell report unless otherwise noted
Citywide trends
Baltimore's gentrifying neighborhoods: What do people look for?

No comments:

Post a Comment