No Plan for Sandtown

We’ve got to understand why there isn’t one before we can make one.

I want to believe that what M.J. “Jay” Brodie calls for in the Business Journal can actually happen. Brodie, past long-time head of the Baltimore Development Corporation, says that “2016 is going to be the first year — with many more to come — of more action than articles” for Sandtown-Winchester, and the beginning of a new revitalization effort.

But 2015 should have been the year for this — when everyone wanted to help, when the injustices of Sandtown-Winchester became front page news worldwide — and it wasn’t. There was no better response to our summer of bloodshed last year than convening a “full engagement with residents, faith institutions, neighborhood organizations, nonprofits and businesses is a necessity” to address the challenges of Sandtown-Winchester, as Mr. Brodie so rightly calls for. And yet we didn’t do it. This wasn’t just a failure of leadership. It was an implicit acknowledgement of the overwhelming abandonment of this neighborhood and neighborhoods like it.

Like standing on one side of the Grand Canyon and imagining for one moment jumping to the other, when confronted with the huge gulf between where Sandtown is and where it should be we did nothing. And we were without the tools to even make a start, not because of benign or invidious neglect, but because of our choices. Smart people who have spent a lot of time thinking about the people who live in Sandtown have made policy choices — in good faith — that assume a revitalization of Sandtown-Winchester can’t work. We cannot expect to undo that in a 90-day planning effort.

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Shortly after the events of last April I attended a meeting at the D.C. office of the Department of Housing and Urban Development and it became very clear to me that a room full of very caring and well-intentioned people at a very powerful federal agency had no tools at their disposal to immediately intervene on behalf of Sandtown-Winchester. There were no ready-to-deploy strategies, no plan or even the sketch of a plan awaiting a crisis like Baltimore’s for someone to take it down off the shelf.

In fact, good progress that HUD had been making elsewhere became an uncomfortable policy “win” in the wake of April, because of its focus on the surrounding counties, not the places where Baltimore’s poor people live. Right at the time of the riots HUD promulgated a new rule designed to affirmatively further fair housing in wealthier suburbs, pushing them to do more to provide housing choices to poor people in high-opportunity neighborhoods, close to jobs and good schools.

The policy assumptions at work in the new rule are the same as those in the settlement of Thompson v. HUD, a major case was brought by black public housing residents in Baltimore City seeking redress for the segregation of public housing in distressed, racially isolated neighborhoods. The partial settlement of that case created portable housing vouchers for tenants that could be used across the region, not just the city, and only in neighborhoods that were not poor and not segregated. The new HUD rule, meanwhile, was designed to increase the number of housing units in exactly those kinds of neighborhoods.

The implicit premise of both the HUD rule and the Thompson settlement is that the best thing for residents of Sandtown-Winchester is to get the hell out of Sandtown-Winchester. To move to Howard, Anne Arundel, or Baltimore Counties. These are approaches that move people to opportunity rather than bring opportunity to them or their neighborhoods. The data shows why doing the former is easier than doing the latter.

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We’ve got to acknowledge that the call to revitalize our most famous challenged neighborhood runs completely contrary to the best — or least the prevailing — thinking of the day, thinking that favors mobility and regional choice over “place-based” investments. It reflects a federal government chastened by the debacle of high-rise public housing decades ago, and the controversial, expensive attempts to undo it; a government that has long since gotten out of the business of massive direct investment in neighborhoods like Sandtown-Winchester.

Meanwhile lots of policy-makers and advocates don’t think these investments can work, having been burned over and over again by failed attempts in the past. The lesson of these failures is that housing isn’t the problem in Sandtown. The problem is housing and education and transportation access and crime policy. The only way a housing-only intervention can work is in neighborhoods where all the other dimensions are stable. Policy makers are focused on moving families to those neighborhoods and solving the affordability problem for them with a voucher, as in Thompson.

An expensive policy choice that did not work.

HUD takes a multi-dimensional approach through something called the Choice Neighborhoods program — a tremendous opportunity for neighborhoods west of Bolton Hill and for those surrounding Perkins Homes, north of Little Italy — but the underlying assumptions are the same. HUD will fund revitalization investments under this program in neighborhoods where a nascent housing market exists, and where functioning local institutions exist to help anchor the investment.

Westside Choice Neighborhoods mock-up.

The Choice Neighborhoods proposal for the west side builds off the stability of Bolton Hill to revitalize the blocks to the west, around the Pedestal Gardens public housing complex. But the plan stops at Pennsylvania Avenue because the needs are too great on the other side — where Sandtown-Winchester is. That’s a place where local institutions are deeply challenged and where virtually no housing market demand exists at all. Ironically the more extreme the need the less likely federal spend will be.

The fact that Governor Hogan’s $700 million investment proposal swims upstream policy-wise isn’t a reason not to move forward, but since policy-makers have stopped thinking about investments like this we’re without a paddle. We can knock some buildings down but that’s not the same thing as a plan. That takes time and expertise. Who for example has studied why Hogan’s $700 million will succeed where the Schmoke/Rouse $120 million in the 1990s did not? The City’s Planning Department can’t make up for the years of no-thought about all of this all on its own.

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The absence of a plan for the people of Sandtown speaks to the fundamental abandonment, which lies not in good-faith policy decisions that favor moving people out of that neighborhood, but in the refusal to admit that these policy decisions have been made.

People in this neighborhood and neighborhoods like it intuitively know this. They are not stupid. They have an analysis. They know they’ve been abandoned by our failure to make hard choices and tell the truth. In fact, it is this knowledge that lead some of them to the street last April, exposing the the difference between April 2015 and April 1968. People in ’68 hit the streets because they had hope and it was taken from them. They had reason to think their abandonment behind decades of legalized exclusion might come to an end after fifteen years of civil rights agitation. And then the killing of Martin Luther King, Jr. slammed the door shut on those expectations. But people hit the streets last April because they had no hope whatsoever. Because by that point — and while we had no King we did have a Black President — no one had been paying any attention to Sandtown or its people for a long time. It was only after April that we realized there was no plan for Sandtown and that we better get one. The people told us to.

Direct investments to “save” this neighborhood will have no credibility with the people who there unless we figure out why we’ve done the opposite for the past couple decades. If it turns out that our recent policy approach has been the right thing to do then we need to stop hiding it, and we need leadership that makes hard choices. But if we’ve been wrong all this time, then this $700 million is just a downpayment, and we need leadership to push for a complete reversal of our policy strategies, starting at the very top.

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