11 September 2013, 19:52

America's Housing Nightmare: Urban Blight in Baltimore

Baltimore, Maryland.

Baltimore, Maryland.

Baltimore, Maryland.

By Justin Mitchell

WASHINGTON (VOR) - Today, VOR presents the first in our series on America's 21st century housing crisis.

We'll be telling the stories of ordinary people across the country struggling just to keep a roof over their head. To start out, VOR's Justin Mitchell went up to Baltimore to discover the new wave of 21st century urban blight. Click here to view VOR's photos of the housing crisis.

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On a bright Saturday morning in West Baltimore, Lois Johnson is showing me the street where she's lived all but three of her forty five years, a dead end block tucked just off Monroe Street in Baltimore's Midtown-Edmondson neighborhood.

When Johnson was a child, her father worked at a lumber company located at the end of the block, next to the tracks where Amtrak trains still speed by.

"Isn't that something? [He] didn't have to worry about gas!" Johnson said with a laugh.

These days, things have changed. The lumber company is now a church-run day care with battered plastic toys in the courtyard. People walk by the block, but very few make the turn.

Most people have moved on. Most of the houses on the block are now empty.

"Two on my side --two, four that's occupied, and two across the street that's occupied, she says.

Johnson's block is not special. A drive through West Baltimore is almost apocalyptic. It is emblematic of the post-industrial decline facing America's once-robust northern cities.

Blocks of row houses that would be worth millions in New York City lie abandoned, as do the corner stores that used to cater to them. This is a new urban blight for the 21st century, the under-covered counterpart to gentrification.

For people like Johnson, Baltimore is still home. But she would like something to be done about the vacants.

"I hope a change is one the way," she says. "Just one person can't do it, you know, we all have to help each other."

The city of Baltimore estimates about sixteen thousand vacant properties in the city. The U.S. Census says the number is around twenty three thousand. Housing activists put the number as high as thirty five thousand.

It seems mind-boggling that a major American city could get to this point.

Melvin Freeman is the Executive Director of the Citizens Planning and Housing Association. He says it's really not too difficult a phenomenon to understand.

"The density we have in the city right now was for over a million people, 50 years ago," Freeman said. "There's not a million people here anymore."

In 1950, Baltimore was one of the largest cities in the United States, with just under a million residents. By 2010, that number had decreased by thirty-five percent to a bit over six hundred thousand.

Arthur Nelson is a professor of City and Metropolitan Planning at the University of Utah. While he says every city is different, many former American industrial centers such as Detroit, Chicago, and Baltimore, have seen similar fates in recent decades.

"They're not growing," Nelson told VOR. "Those economies have stagnated, there's structural changes in the economy. Much of the manufacturing has either disappeared, gone overseas, or moved to other states, leaving an excess housing supply."

Freeman says the result is predictable.

"When those jobs left Baltimore, those people left as well. They didn't take their houses with them," he said. "That's the best joke in town -- you leave town, but you need to take your house with you. Otherwise, what are we going to do with it?"

The vacants are concentrated on the East and West sides of the city. These neighborhoods are home to mostly poor African Americans. They have slowly crumbled as nobody in the city seemed to care.

Carol Ott founded Baltimore Slumlord Watch, a blog that tracks vacants in Baltimore. Now, she is the Director of Housing Policy Watch, a project aimed at helping residents in troubled neighborhoods.

She took me on a walking tour of some of the hardest hit parts of West Baltimore. We were about twenty blocks from Lois Johnson's house.

Ott said the current state of West Baltimore is the culmination of a long process.

"Politicians and other people, they'd rather focus on downtown," Ott said. "When you only focus on one part of the city, the rest of it is going to decline."

Ott also stressed these were close knit communities, full of people saddened by what their home had become but still determined to make the best of it.

One group of ladies were sitting across the street from a house that had burned down less than two weeks before. They said it and many vacants like it were refuges for drug users.

One of the ladies, Renee Winder, still liked the neighborhood.

"It's an okay neighborhood, I liked it," Winder said. "It's better than the projects."

Back in Midtown-Edmondson, Johnson runs into Tyre Wright, a friend of hers since childhood. He now runs a neighborhood association. They both think Baltimore is a nice place to live.

"There's much love here in Baltimore," Johnson says.

"Yeah," Wright agrees, "the neighborhoods are family neighborhoods. You wouldn't believe it -- you've got cousins, uncles, all living in the same neighborhood, and looking out for each other."

Wright says Baltimore gets a raw deal in the media and on television programs like H.B.O.'s "The Wire."

"Don't believe what you hear and see on T.V. about Baltimore. It really is a nice city. It's portrayed wrong on T.V.," he said.

"It's entertainment, it was entertainment," Johnson added.

Johnson and Wright say the community has not gone anywhere -- they are just waiting for the city's leadership to give them the help they need.

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