Baltimore: 'Social Justice' Through Real Estate Development

Baltimore: 'Social Justice' Through Real Estate Development

Baltimore has 42,481 vacant units--the fourthhighest ratio of vacant units to occupied units in the country. This is outrageous when there are 3,000 homeless in Charm City. The Indypendent Reader attended the 4th National Public Housing Residents’ Summit to gain insight on the city’s largest program to provide affordable housing. Michael Kelly the Executive Director of the Housing Authority of the District of Columbia gave a presentation on how Washington has used Hope VI, a federal grant program begun in 1999. The program provided funds to redevelop aging assets in the Housing Authority’s portfolio to change the shape of public housing in his district. Much of his discussion focused on the way in which the architectural style predominantly used in Hope VI redevelopments disguises public housing by creating neighborhoods that look as if they are composed of middle-class home owners. Many of the homes are row houses or similar-density structures that resemble suburban homes. This is accomplished by having pitched roofs, individual lawns, and front entrances that do not reveal that the building is a shared apartment space. It is believed that this architecture will create a “defensible space” where residents police and manage themselves because the housing style makes them feel like private homeowners with material property and a local identity worth defending. In Baltimore, we can see the example of the development after the Lafayette Court highrise was demolished along Martin Luther King Boulevard and replaced with Heritage Crossing. Kelly noted that public housing residents cannot get a cab driver to come to their homes because the drivers recognize the address as a publichousing project. “And how do you change that?

Having a lawyer living next door to a school teacher, a fireman living next door to a welfare recipient. So, when that phone rings, that cab driver doesn’t know if it’s a congressman or a welfare recipient. It’s economic integration. At the end of the day, you can’t tell who’s who or what’s what.” Kelly explained how the management of these developments has changed “from a situation controlled by and dependent on federal bureaucracy, to independence and entrepreneurial spirit / from a resident dependency, to resident self-sufficiency.”
Kelly defined the measurement of the “health” of an area of the city in terms of vacancy, housing price at sale, and the income of the residents in that area. He noted, “we look at vacancies as the prime determinant of distress.” In these terms Baltimore, with its huge numbers of vacant units, is a sick body. However, it is important to realize that, as private developers are brought into the game of building public housing, the same vectors that create the disease of ghettoized spaces are the ones that profit from curing it.
The bulk of the vacant units in the city are owned either by the city or by institutional investors, who employ a tactic called “land banking.” The strategy of land banking is to buy up property as it becomes available, and then withhold any investments from the site while buying up any nearby property that also comes up for sale. As the presence of vacancies and of derelict buildings causes property values to drop, people tend to move out while they can still get a decent market price for their homes. Thus, an institution can buy up an entire area for relatively low sums, and then demolish and redevelop an area for a large-scale project. At another presentation at the summit, a city official joked that “the city of Baltimore is the largest slum landlord in the city of Baltimore.” We might also note the practices of Johns Hopkins University on the eastside. Under Hope VI, Baltimore has demolished large-scale high-rises, such as Lafeyette Courts,comprising better than 800 apartment units,to make room for low-rise, mixed-income communities, such as Heritage Crossing. Although it contains 260 units, only 75 of them are earmarked for use by public housing residents.
Rather than disguising public housing projects as middle class developments, housing authorities are working with private developers to produce middle class developments within the city. Under pressure to move out, many former residents accept subsidy under section 8 vouchers and move to the county, rather than sitting on a waiting list to try and get a unit in a new mixed-income development. With the looming presence of the housing authority’s power to oversee eviction and application processes, residents are obliged not to attempt to fight or to organize against relocation and redevelopment.
In many cases the bulk of residents are kept unaware of long-term development plans and are only brought into the process at the latest possible, legally-required date. In the Sumerset Homes east of I-83, a facility that, according to Baltimore’s housing website, has been open for less than ten years, residents are currently being relocated after having received no planning information or involvement, as the city claims that the facility poses an imminent health risk.
Despite these statements about the benefits of private subsidy and the inadequacies of highrise projects, Kelly framed a contradictory view when interviewed after his presentation. We asked him to define what specific problems occured in the modernist architecture, that was favored in public housing in the 1950’s and 60’s high-rise projects such as the Cabrini-Green development in Chicago. Kelly stated that the move to the Hope VI style of creating “defensible” architecture to fight high-rise sprawl and crime was motivated by a platform of governmental mismanagement. “There’s nothing inherently wrong with the architecture,” Kelly said. “It was an effort to concentrate low income folks ... not provide the requisite services for those folks, and the maladies around drug addiction, when crack cocaine kicked in, etc. without having the programming to respond to these sort of social crises.” He noted that during the Reagan years, there was, “no money for modernization, and it’s incredible blight, physical blight, that occurred from deferred maintenance.”
Asked if the shift to private development could be seen as an attempt to use “defensible space” as a control mechanism because of a lack of federal involvement, Kelly agreed. He continued “the failures of that movement to have the whole thing contingent on the whims of the political party in power - but when you have the private sector market forces and the private sector investment having an investment in the upkeep of the property - it’s a pretty good chance you’re hedging the bet that there will not be the same level of deterioration because there will be the private sector motivation to keep these places up, where in the 60’s and 70’s there wasn’t that motivation - there was just the opposite - it was sort of demolition by neglect.” Counter to this, he summed his practice as “social justice through real estate development.”
However, if this process involves the relocation of many residents outside of public housing programs without any real change in their socio-economic condition, then the city’s current practice of urban renaissance is really neglect through real estate gentrification.