Oct 3, 2015 by


Vast numbers of Baltimore’s buildings are uninhabited. Could a new model of ownership put them in the hands of communities?
Michelle Chen THE NATIONbaltimore_vacant_houses_ap_img


A man walks past a boarded-up row of houses in Baltimore, April 22, 2012. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

In April, just hours after mourners gathered to pay their last respects to the body of Freddie Gray at Baltimore’s New Shiloh Baptist Church, the streets of his city went up in flames. The outrage at Gray’s death at the hands of police gave way on the day of his funeral to smoldering street scenes that seemed ripped from a past generation’s headlines. Now that the ashes and broken glass have been swept away, some locals are starting to think beyond just “cleaning up” the streets; they’re imagining a reclaimed urban landscape.

Across town from Gray’s impoverished neighborhood of Sandtown-Winchester, another low-income community, McElderry Park, has been turning sites of urban neglect into spaces of sanctuary. At the back of the Amazing Grace Lutheran Church lies a refuge known as the Amazing Port Street project. The project is a green “sacred commons” reclaimed from a blighted stretch of demolished properties and redeveloped into community garden beds that cultivate vegetables for local food aid, spaces for public gatherings, and a tranquil spot Pastor Gary Dittman calls a “prayer labyrinth for centering meditation.” The centerpiece is “half a block of green-space for play, one of the only open green spaces in McElderry Park.”

The vibrant parcel may seem anomalous, but many hope to replicate it through the special type of development scheme that makes this space possible, a Community Land Trust (CLT).

The basic concept is both intuitive and novel in a city flooded with so-called “abandoned” and “neglected” property. A land trust starts with the idea that land has inherent value. Plots are collectively owned, developed and governed by community members; individual residents apply to build or lease on the land under the community’s oversight. The nonprofit joint ownership structure encourages cost-controlled and inclusive urban planning.

While rent controls and public housing are common policy instruments for keeping housing markets affordable, CLTs enable residents to make communal decisions on land use according to local needs. Though CLT’s are often geared toward supporting homeownership, to deal with Baltimore’s chronic urban crisis, activists hope publicly supported CLTs can provide a democratic platform for connecting the poorest residents directly with the land, so they too have a say in how housing is distributed.

“We are wanting to transform the community tragedy of foreclosure into a moment of promise.” —Pastor Gary Dittman

Amazing Grace’s commons are run by the Charm City Land Trusts, a local organization run by a board of community members. Other community gardens have cropped up based on the land trust model, several of which have been developed from formerly blighted plots, purchased and rehabilitated by the nonprofit Baltimore Green Space. The Charm City Land Trusts is now hoping to venture into residential housing development for local families, who have long suffered from both unaffordable rents and dilapidated neighborhoods.

Dittman knows it’s a stretch—especially in an area that has been bled for generations by intergenerational poverty and draconian “broken windows” policing.

The church is a rare safe space, he tells The Nation via e-mail, but “we live in a community that deals daily with the challenges of deep poverty, violence, overly aggressive policing, and trauma…. the rhythm of life is often interrupted.” Could the “sacred commons” ethos of place-based recovery be built into a rehabilitated house, designed specifically for, say, families who lost homes in the recession? The Charm City Land Trusts is preparing to close on their first residential property—a fixer-upper donated by a bank for rehabilitation. “We are wanting to transform the community tragedy of foreclosure into a moment of promise,” he says.

A Collective Ownership Society

Balancing public and private spheres, the CLT offers a collective alternative to the neoliberal “ownership society,” in which a public, democratically controlled entity finances and manages a property, in theory, for the public good. Though groups like Amazing Grace have revamped the idea to build green space, under the traditional homeownership-based CLT model, an individual home is privately purchased or sold, while land is leased from the trust. Property ownership is transferred at a modest “non-speculative” rate set by the Board, in order to keep the housing stock permanently affordable.

As a political and economic institution, publicly held land might help balance a landscape pockmarked with both empty houses and homeless people. About 30,000 people in Baltimore cycle through homelessness over the course of a year, while about one in every 495 houses had undergone a foreclosure as of mid-2015—the second-highest rate in the country. Community organizations are pushing the Baltimore City Council to incorporate the land trust model into affordable housing plans—paralleling similar initiatives in Washington, DC, and Philadelphia. There are no concrete policy proposals yet, but residents are wondering why, with thousands of vacancies dotting Baltimore’s poorest neighborhoods, so many people have nowhere to live. To resolve that paradox of unaffordability and underdevelopment, labor and community organizations have explored the land trust model as a bridge between Amazing Grace’s garden path and the boarded-up eyesores strafing surrounding blocks.

One potential resource is Maryland’s Affordable Housing Land Trust Act, which provides state support for land trusts devoted to staving off gentrification and preserving affordable housing. While the model is used in other areas of the state, there hasn’t been a political or social infrastructure for launching full-scale residential land trusts in Baltimore. But some grassroots campaigns are integrating the land trust concept into what they call a human rights-based development agenda.

Peter Sabonis of the advocacy group National Economic and Social Rights Initiative, points out that with targeted social supports, CLTs have shown higher success rates in shepherding residents to home ownership than other home-buyer programs, like one-off tax credits. The challenge in Baltimore is connecting the housing crisis and the homelessness crisis, and addressing jobs, transportation, and schools simultaneously.
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“We are forging in Baltimore essentially a coalition of what’s never been done before.… Trying to connect homeowners with renters with homeless folks,” Sabonis says. Ideally, a land trust starts with a community board that is “diverse, in terms of race and class.” That’s far different than business as usual, Sabonis says, in which typically “land use and planning is really determined by a number of powerful individuals in a city, and often times based on structural racism or implicit racism.”

The Board’s main responsibility would be to steward and rehabilitate spaces, including abandoned and vacant buildings, to provide “building blocks to a culture that sees land as a public good, that sees housing as a public good, that sees education, healthcare, work as essentially public goods.”

The land trust model was founded on such communal principles; the first projects fostered plots for black farmers in rural Georgia besieged by brutal discrimination. Today the model is being revisited as a potential bulwark against gentrification in fast-growing communities. In disadvantaged urban landscapes like Baltimore, community land trusts, community gardens and other programs for restoring common space are giving teeth to the “right to the city” and “new urbanism” movements.

About 30,000 people in Baltimore cycle through homelessness over the course of a year.

But at a recent Baltimore city council hearing, community members talked not about the ideology behind land trusts and more about basic rights.

Christine Brown, with the labor group United Workers, talked about her struggle to stay housed, stumbling from an overpriced homebuying market into homelessness over the course of several years. She once sought to rehabilitate a vacant property. After that turned out to be impossibly expensive, she slid into deeper insecurity: “Between rent, gas and electric, and water—I simply cannot afford housing. I am forced to be homeless because my income is not enough. I have to sleep from couch to couch, and ask friends for places to stay.…. Even when everyday individuals and communities want to make a positive change, we are forced with impossible barriers to do so.”

Freddie Gray’s own short life was profoundly impacted by Baltimore’s decaying housing stock. Before his body went limp in the police van, it was ravaged by lead paint flaking off the walls of his childhood apartment. As The Washington Post recounts, according to a 2008 lawsuit, Gray was one of some 93,000 victims of childhood lead poisoning across Maryland. Public health authorities have linked lead poisoning to an epidemic of behavioral and developmental issues. Though it’s impossible to know the exact effects of this damage on Gray’s development, the history of lead damage shows how the built environment’s dangers intersect with a neighborhood’s so-called broken windows.

The region’s experiments in affordable housing have often ended just as painfully. Gray’s neighborhood, Sandtown-Winchester, was actually once a neoliberal laboratory for a “self-renewal” program around the time Gray was was born. But as Salon’s Joan Walsh reported, the philanthropy-fueled initiative, known as Community Building in Partnership Inc., pumped massive funds into construction and social service projects, but ultimately failed to deal with structural poverty, political disenfranchisement and mass incarceration. The recession choked off the vestiges of the botched rebirth, just a few years before Gray’s fatal encounter.

Since Sandtown-Winchester’s implosion, activists have been rethinking urban development schemes. In 2010, United Workers led protests at a tourist center in the Inner Harbor neighborhood, charging the city with sinking public funds into development of a commercial zone that had brought primarily poverty-wage service jobs. Declaring the area an economic “Human Rights Zone,” the group demanded “fair development” and more democratic community control of development projects.

The call for fair development was echoed at the City Council hearing, when Emanuel McCray testified about being unable to secure decent rental housing while watching “development” funds pass his neighborhood by. “All we want is to have neighborhoods which we can be proud about,” McCray said. “And it starts with our public resources…. We find money for the harbor and to subsidize corporate elite developers all the time, while neighborhoods are left out.”
Development and Healing

Maybe a housing human rights zone could be cultivated from communally held land. But to start a land trust, you also need some basis of capital, and that’s been a development bottleneck that no one appears to have cracked yet in Baltimore. According to the Citizens Planning and Housing Association (CPHA), some 70,000 households spend more than half their income on housing, and the majority of those are poor, earning under 30 percent of the city’s median income (about $26,000 for a family of four).

Tens of thousands of Baltimoreans languish on waiting lists for rental subsidies, yet they’re surrounded by some 16,000 vacancies citywide—the absurd product of a housing market that desperately needs permanent stabilization.

Steve Holt, CPHA’s Director of Community Engagement, says some version of the land trust structure can be an engine for economic rehabilitation and social sustainability. Even without much local start-up capital, the CLT framework provides an infrastructure for equity building as well as for collaborative governance, as the board democratically determines how land should be used and distributed. Since the Board ensures units “remain affordable even as new reinvestment comes in,” Holt explains, there’s a self-regulating mechanism for “establishing…more mixed income and mixed race communities, instead of the incredible level of racial and economic segregation that we have in the region.”

“All we want is to have neighborhoods which we can be proud about.” —Baltimore resident Emanuel McCray

Place-based development comes with intrinsic limits. According to Jim Kelly, a legal scholar specializing in community development, and co-founder of the Charm City Land Trusts years ago, the neighborhoods suffering from massive vacancy might not necessarily be the most viable environments for housing development, if they lack good schools and job opportunities. Still, Kelly says, the CLT model can seed other forms of development, as it has at Amazing Grace: “Land trusts have a commitment as a movement to democratic governance…so they can do that with gardens and vacant lots, community parks…things that respond to food deserts, different businesses that may need below market rent or some type of support to make sure there’s a diversity in the economic life of a neighborhood.”

That vision seems impossibly far from the despair that engulfed Sandtown-Winchester earlier this year, but April’s uprising briefly exposed the pain festering in the city’s social musculature: anger and frustration building up in toxic spaces. Community stewardship of “abandoned” land can channel that energy into space that might have little conventional “market value” but still possess a more intangible form of equity.

That’s the proposition of Amazing Grace. “There is something powerful about people setting the course for the land we share,” Dittman says, “and determining what use will be most beneficial to our community, especially here in Baltimore where we are in deep need for healing.”

Not every abandoned building is a rational investment opportunity, but nothing’s less rational than thousands of homeless people locked out of their own city. As they overlook their scarred streets, maybe Baltimoreans can find a radical road home, leaving the “ownership society” behind and entering a space that finally belongs to all.



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