The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. led the American people to victory on equal voting rights. He died, however, still fighting for economic equality. In Baltimore, we need an organized and coherent focus on improving the economic well-being and quality of life in black and brown neighborhoods.
We need a comprehensive set of policies designed to build local wealth, diversify the economy, create jobs, and build the tax base in black and brown neighborhoods, for the benefit of the families who live there. We must especially embrace those making less than 40% of the area median income.
It helps everyone to bring economic development to black and brown neighborhoods in a way that is happening for them, not just to them.
Not having focused policies around black economic development hurts every race, color, and class. Baltimore’s narrative is controlled by the tragic and unrelenting loss of life and devastation in its black and brown neighborhoods.
Residents in more established neighborhoods may be able to avoid driving through these communities, but the insurance rates, interest rates, employee pools, and customer bases in the established neighborhoods are all responsive to what is happening in the black and brown communities.
Build up these black and brown communities according to the vision and plans that the residents have for them and we all win.
It is time for a third model of economic development in Baltimore.
Currently, there are two templates for economic development in predominantly black and brown neighborhoods.
When investment is ready to enter that neighborhood, one approach has been to move low-income people of color (40% AMI and below) out. This cuts off any opportunity for intergenerational wealth building and actually widens the wealth disparity between white families and families of color.
A second approach has been to flood communities with programs, services, and affordable housing. Programs and services such as adult literacy, affordable and supportive housing, and substance abuse counseling are by all means needed, but they must be balanced with traditional businesses entering the neighborhood at the same time.
When the programs and services and affordable housing are not balanced, the effect over-time is to either freeze or further slow the market. When market value is not created for the people who live in that community, they can become locked in poverty and not elevated at all.
Here’s what we need to make it work for everyone.
I propose that traditional business and retail be in the first wave of development in the hardest hit communities. Loans are a difficult non-starter. Property values cannot support debt service in the hardest-hit neighborhoods.
Slashed property taxes, guarantees, and city and state leases to help advance strategies that create market value are what we need to build up these communities according to the visions their residents hold.
To be clear, any city and state leases should not be for services that are primarily for low-income or vulnerable residents. Concentrating government services for low-income residents in low-income communities is patently not working to build wealth for low-income communities. That approach is freezing families in poverty.
Impoverished neighborhoods need businesses such as grocery, restaurants, banks and hardware stores to help create market value. Let’s offer businesses full grants for build-outs and zero-cost leases for up to five years as incentives to open and expand where we need them most. Too many communities receive only social services, which on their own can suppress markets.
Let’s agree on a vision for creating growth in impoverished neighborhoods. It starts with valuing families making less than 40% of the area median income. It continues with discarding policies that ensure these families won’t add value to the economy. Economic development must be for them first, for all to win bigger than we ever have.
- Action Item 1: Create a vision for growth in impoverished neighborhoods.
- Action Item 2: Slash property taxes to $0.86 per $100.00. This helps working moms and families and small businesses. And it helps end corruption. Stephen Walters said it best here in the Baltimore Sun.
- Action Item 3: Commit to $1 billion over seven years in guarantees and city and state leases in impoverished communities.
- Action Item 4: Increase grant funding through State Revitalization Programs and Neighborhood Business Works. This includes providing 100% grants for the build-out of businesses and zero-cost leases for up to five years in impoverished neighborhoods for businesses such as grocery, restaurants, banks and hardware stores.
- Action Item 5: Use state and federal resources to provide better connections from low-income communities to regional and local amenities. For example, Druid Hill Park should not be encircled by a high-speed freeway. Meaningfully connect the park to the many neighborhoods that surround it so that can add value to those homes.
- Action Item 6: Raising the minimum wage solves for economic inequality too. Take a look at the results of this study in the New York Times. Maryland increased the minimum wage to $15.00 over a six-year period, but the annual rate still needs to be pegged to inflation. Otherwise, we haven’t made meaningful progress. And raise the minimum wage in Baltimore City to $15.00 before the state increase takes effect in 2026.