A Short History of Private Property & The Right to Tenancy in Baltimore

A Short History of Private Property & The Right to Tenancy in Baltimore

The 1979 Baltimore Rent Control Campaign (BRCC) was the last big city-wide political campaign the city has seen. A referendum was presented to the citizens of the city, organized by BCRC.  The referendum called for limits in yearly rental increases, with no increases allowed if city property inspections revealed housing code violations.  Drawing more votes than any politician running for office, the referendum politicized the city in ways it has never since been, and (at least temporarily) created a powerful city wide coalition, diverse in class, race composition and leadership, which defeated the landlord lobby and political and corporate establishments which supported the primacy of private property interests.  



The BRCC was spearheaded both by the Baltimore City Tenants Association and concerned housing advocates. The BRCC waged a serious year-long grassroots organizing campaign.  It dominated the media, the agendas of countless civic, social, and religious institutions as they were asked to sign on as endorsers of the referendum and then to turn out the vote on election day.  The campaign was hard fought, with scare and smear tactics against the leadership of the BRCC and the citizens of Baltimore City. Under the leadership of the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors, the landlord lobby hired outside consultants with a track record of defeating rent control initiatives in other large American cities.


After the tremendously successful election outcome, the landlord lobby filed a law suit.  The courts found in favor of the landlords and overturned the people’s victory.   The court claimed that the referendum put a cap on rental property profit and this violated the rights of property owners, and such a change the charter violated state law.  This was despite the fact that prior to the election, the State’s Attorney Generals Office reviewed the referendum bill and found it perfectly acceptable. The legal decision by the courts erased years of hard work by people on the streets. The only avenue left open was for the BRCC to take the case to the Baltimore City Council, to seek rent control legislation in that arena.  After a painful year of behind-the-scenes politics, the drive for rent control and limiting profits from private property died a slow and painful death.  More tragic than this though, was the disappearance of the Baltimore City Tenants Association.  


Meanwhile, a squatting movement was spreading throughout Europe, as well as in the United States, in places such as Camden, New Jersey, representing a more active, even militant approach to securing the right to tenancy.


The People’s Homesteading Group (PHG), an organization that formed shortly after the demise of BRCC, recognized that many people needed decent housing and Baltimore had tens of thousands of vacant properties.Many of these houses could be fixed up, mostly with volunteer labor, some expert supervision, and reasonable material costs.  Thus the idea of homesteading developed. 


After many years of redeveloping housing in the City, an assessment was made of the existing housing stock. Today, the remainder of the housing stock remains in substantially poor condition. The PHG has created its own community based construction company, and it engages in planning, development, and organizing, all at once. Physical planning and development are not viewed as activities separate from the people for whom it is designed.  In fact, the whole focus of PHG is locality development; keep money and expertise and sweat equity in and circulating through the neighborhood.  The PHG has provided an exciting new alternative model for  neighborhoods, showing ways in which their housing stock can be renewed and redeveloped.    Baltimore has a long and sordid history of racial discrimination in its housing and real estate market.  Although Baltimore is a city with a strong  North/South historical heritage born out of the Civil War, many people are unaware of the extent of this discrimination, its pervasive effects on the entire real estate industry, and how it continues to shape the character and content of today’s neighborhoods.  It is one of the most highly segregated cities in the United States as measured in terms of the percentage of racial discrimination in housing tracts throughout the city.  Data from the ACLU, Baltimore Neighborhoods Inc., HUD, and the US Census housing tract data portray a city deeply mired in historic patterns of segregation, which have not changed significantly over the decades. 


During the last 50 to 60 years, the federal government has played an important part in perpetuating discriminatory practices in the design of neighborhood housing, rental markets and opportunities.  The government as the great purveyor of funding for construction of housing has played an active role in helping perpetuate old patterns of racial discrimination.  Money given to certain urban and suburban areas was conditional on whom the housing was built for.  Even the advertising in the Baltimore Sun paper, over the decades, blatantly displayed these prejudices and gross misbehaviors on the part of federal policy makers in concert with realty and development interests and the local political structures which supported these activities.  Urban renewal became for many a euphemism for urban removal.  Entire neighborhoods were destroyed or redeployed as black-only to maintain highly restrictive and prohibitive patterns of shelter and dwelling.  Last year in commemoration of the 1968 race riots, the ACLU put together an impressive history of patterns of racial segregation in Baltimore throughout the century.  


Thirty years after the creation of the BRCC, Baltimore has failed to recreate a serious tenant organizing institution. In its stead has grown a robust emergency shelter industry. While this is an important piece of charitable work for those without housing, this avenue of social policy and social change will never transform the city into a more just community. Any city seeking fundamental change from below will need to institutionalize tenant organizing as a first line of defense against profit at the expense of tenants, and work towards securing the right of tenancy.