Efforts to understand the root causes of the recent civil unrest in Baltimore will continue for some time. Yet it would be a waste if we did not spend equivalent energy looking forward—seeking to learn from failures and build upon successes in addressing concentrated poverty and disadvantage.
This was the goal of our recent “Baltimore and Beyond” policy forum on place and opportunity. From leading practitioners, a few key precepts emerged.
First, neighborhoods must be connected to the market economy if they are to function as platforms for opportunity.
Bart Harvey related that the affordable homes that Enterprise Foundation and Habitat for Humanity helped construct in Baltimore’s Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood look better today than when they were built, and the homeowners are still there, employed, and paying back their loans.
But that physical redevelopment did not generate wider economic development in other parts of Sandtown-Winchester, nor did it succeed in linking residents to skills and jobs in the broader regional economy. As Harvey said, “you can see where Sandtown’s investments begin and end.”
This is why markets matter. Markets transcend neighborhood boundaries and, if leveraged well, can attract additional investment and more sustained opportunities for previously underserved communities.
Second, to get market traction, neighborhood strategies should match data intelligence with investments and capable nonprofits.
This is one of the core lessons from The Reinvestment Fund’s 30-year history of neighborhood projects, of which 10 involved investments and partnerships in East Baltimore (a neighborhood where “The Wire” was filmed). CEO Don Hinkle-Brown explained TRF’s unique approach to community development lending and real estate development. The fund applies neighborhood-level data to assess market conditions and guide and prioritize investments, a must in times of scarcity. It also partners with local organizations like BUILD, which, after collaborating on affordable housing with TRF, mobilized resources and support for a new grocery store and charter schools in the community.
As a result of that strategic investment and partnership, the “private sector is drafting on [TRF’s] wind,” Hinkle-Brown said. Where TRF’s investments initially generated the majority of building permits and home sales in Baltimore’s Oliver neighborhood, today they represent a minority of such transactions. Vacancy rates have dropped and household incomes have risen.
Third, anchor institutions—universities, medical centers, museums, and government agencies—can embrace multifaceted strategies for stimulating the market in surrounding distressed neighborhoods. The University of Chicago is tapping its expertise and market power as a purchaser, employer, educator, real estate developer, innovator, and renowned research institution to improve opportunities for nearby families and communities on the city’s South Side. Importantly, the university is working together with other anchors in the community on procurement to create a platform for more transformative local investment. And it has launched Urban Labs to apply the rigor of research to the core challenges—such as crime, health, and poverty—facing these neighborhoods.
Fourth, we can convert the justified anger and frustration among young people in these communities into self-efficacy and new aspirations. Joel Miranda of YouthBuild explained how his organization helps young people tap into their inner leadership to get a GED, succeed in postsecondary education, and learn tangible community service and work skills. These young adults build affordable housing (they are working in Ferguson now), serve as police liaisons, and mentor other incarcerated young people to prepare them for success when they return to the community. Michael Smith described how the interagency My Brother’s Keeper effort, launched by President Obama, not only supports programs like YouthBuild but has taken the lessons of its success to cities and counties around the country.
This forum featured promising, sustainable initiatives that are working to turn the tide of unequal opportunity and investment in our communities. Yet, as Baltimore and Ferguson reminded us, our collective work is far from done.
Derek Douglas, formerly of the White House and now at the University of Chicago, summed it up well: We need to do more doing, and less planning. We need to address uneven neighborhood capacity to eliminate pockets of despair. And we need more cross-sector partnerships with multiple investment streams since many cities, states, and even the federal government lack the resources or political will. These and other insights from innovators across the country must be heeded if we hope to avoid the mistakes of the past and create a more hopeful future in Baltimore and beyond.