Is Baltimore ‘the Worst in the USA’? That Depends on Where You Live

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President Donald Trump‘s recent disparaging remarks about Baltimore, home of one of his most vocal critics, Rep. Elijah Cummings, set off a war of words among critics and defenders of both the president and the Maryland city that’s just 40 miles from the nation’s capital.

So is there any truth to Trump’s accusation that Baltimore is “a disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess” that is also “filthy & dangerous”? As it happens, the president’s own son-in-law and adviser, Jared Kushner, owns 13 apartment complexes in Baltimore County that racked up more than 200 code violations in 2017, including rodent infestations. (Baltimore County surrounds, but does not include, the city of Baltimore.)

Cove Village, one of several apartment complexes in the Baltimore area owned by Jared Kushner’s real estate company

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

But Baltimore’s housing market tells a more complicated story—one of two radically different cities.

The first is made up of luxury towers going up and trendy new restaurants opening by the harbor, attracting wealthy, typically white residents to the south side of town. There are also middle- and upper-class residences way north of the downtown. The other Baltimore is a collection of poor, high-crime neighborhoods whose overgrown yards conceal decrepit, long-abandoned homes on the east and west sides. The communities are predominantly black as a result of racial segregation that goes back more than a century.

“Some of what [President Trump] said had some validity. But he threw the entire city under the bus in one fell swoop,” says Alan Ingraham, CEO of the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors. “We have a significant number of neighborhoods that have deteriorated, as has the housing stock. Those pockets tend to be where we have the highest rates of violent crime. The rest of the city is chugging along, and some areas are very vibrant.”

Average home prices in the more well-off communities can be more than 10 times more expensive than in the struggling ones. This is a city, after all, where it’s not uncommon for a property to be listed for less than $2,000 in the poorest sections. That’s dragged Baltimore’s median home list price down to $181,550—roughly 41% lower than the national median of $310,000 as of April 1, according to® data.

Miller’s Court, a retrofitted factory filled with apartment and office spaces in the Remington-Charles Village neighborhood

Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images

What’s behind Baltimore’s troubles

Like many once-prosperous industrial cities, Baltimore suffered greatly around the second half of the 20th century as mills and plants closed and tens of thousands of good-paying, blue-collar jobs evaporated. Many people left the city to find work elsewhere or moved to the suburbs, leaving scores of abandoned homes throughout the city. The foreclosure crisis that began unfolding in 2008 added even more empty homes to the toll.

Today, Baltimore has about 17,000 vacant homes, a figure that is virtually unchanged since the depths of the Great Recession in 2010, according to city housing data provided to the Baltimore Sun. Some of those homes met the wrecking ball; others still sit, vacant and decayed, marking the poorest neighborhoods.

“There are large parts of the housing stock that have been empty for more than a generation,” says local real estate agent Wayne Curtis of Re/Max Advantage Realty.

The city’s misfortunes have dragged down its median household income to just $46,641 from 2013 through 2017, according to Census data. That’s 31.6% less than the national median of $61,372 for a family of two adults and two children (although well above the poverty line, which stands at $25,750).

The legacy of racial segregation in Baltimore

But the city’s troubles, and its racial divide, run deep and far back. Black residents make up nearly two-thirds of the city’s population, at 62.8%. While many are successful homeowners living in wealthier communities, the poorer neighborhoods remain primarily black.

That’s because Baltimore is purported to be the first U.S. city to adopt a residential segregation law, in 1911. It allowed white communities to prohibit black people from moving in. Even though the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the law a few years later, housing discrimination persisted, confining minorities to less desirable neighborhoods with lower home appreciation and less private and government investment.

“Some of the laws are still impacting the communities today. They look the same way they did 50 years ago—or worse,” says Lorece Edwards, a public health professor at Morgan State University. She grew up and lives in West Baltimore and works in East Baltimore, historically disadvantaged communities.

It’s difficult for many homeowners in the city’s poorest communities to get bank loans to fix up their properties, as repairs can cost more than the homes are worth. Sometimes costly renovations are necessary to make a home inhabitable, such as remediating lead paint or asbestos.

“If you can’t get a loan to fix your property, then your property falls down,” says Edwards. Instead of helping homeowners build wealth, this might cost them even more—and drag down neighboring property values, as well.

The median home price in the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood, where Freddie Gray was arrested in April 2015, was just $25,263 in 2017, according to the residential multiple listing service data on Live Baltimore’s website. The death of Gray, a young black man, in police custody sparked angry protests for weeks.

There were 41 homes listed in the community on as of Tuesday, starting as low as $3,000. The most expensive listing is a renovated, three-bedroom, two-bathroom row house, going for $123,900.

The low prices aren’t surprising given the poor housing stock and high crime. Last year, there were 47 homicides in the ZIP code that encompasses the neighborhood, according to the Baltimore Sun. (Citywide, more than 300 people were murdered in Baltimore last year, a rate of 51 homicides for 100,000 residents.)

“Neighborhood conditions in Baltimore are the result of racism,” Nneka N’namdi, the founder and head of Fight Blight Bmore, a group fighting blight in the city through information and documentation.

In the poorer, minority communities of East and West Baltimore, she says, there are a “disproportionate number of liquor stories, concentrations of lead paint poisoning cases, lack of banks.”

A mural depicting the uprisings following the death of Freddie Gray in Sandtown-Winchester

Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Gentrification and discontent

The Harbor East and Inner Harbor neighborhoods of the city, where fancy, high-rise condo and apartment buildings are going up near the water, could be worlds away from Sandtown-Winchester. Nice hotels and pricey shops dot the area, and a Whole Foods store is slated to open early next year. Studios can rent for around $2,000 a month, while three-bedroom penthouses can top $5,000 a month. Condos can cost millions of dollars.

The average sale price in the Inner Harbor neighborhood, which includes Harbor East, was $907,902 in 2017, according to a Live Baltimore City Council Briefing paper. It fell to $586,433 in 2018, likely because some of the higher-priced units had been bought the previous year.

“The harbor areas tend to be more affluent and predominantly white,” says Richard Clinch, director of the Jacob France Institute at the University of Baltimore, which studies the regional economy. He has also consulted on some of the larger real estate projects in the city. “The housing looks completely different than East or West Baltimore, [where] the poverty is really concentrated.”

The harbor communities are attracting white-collar millennials and Washington, DC, commuters looking for lower-priced housing and light-rail links, and retirees who want to enjoy the cultural resources of city life. These folks can afford the neighborhood’s higher price tag, which is still a bargain compared with many parts of the nation’s capital.

In the southern part of Baltimore, a real estate firm owned by Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank has spearheaded plans to redevelop the predominantly empty, industrial waterfront. Ground was broken on the first phase of the 235-acre, $5.5 billion project in May. The Port Covington area is to be remade with new apartment and office buildings, as well as shops, going up over the next two years.

Development in Port Covington

Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Meanwhile, Johns Hopkins University’s East Baltimore Development Initiative is tearing down blighted and abandoned homes in East Baltimore and replacing them with office and lab space; 1,700 affordable and market-rate housing units; a new school; 5-acre park; hotel; and retail space.

Clinch, who has consulted on the project, emphasizes that the housing is for the community as well as Johns Hopkins employees.

“The goal is to try and bring people back into the city,” he says.

But some residents see it as gentrification that doesn’t necessarily benefit those who have spent their lives in those communities.

“In the areas that have been through gentrification, there are not many black and brown people. There may be zero,” says Morgan State University’s Edwards. “You have this one section [of the neighborhood] where everything is beautiful. Then you have, two blocks away, an area that’s the same as it’s been since redlining.”

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Source: Housing Trends Feed