A New Normal for Baltimore... and Beyond

For those of us who live in Baltimore and love Baltimore, the last several weeks have brought us from the depths of despair and isolation to the heights of solidarity and hope for rebirth. As the light continues to shine on us, we have an opportunity to transform the character of the city by seriously welcoming, and making visible, two populations of people who can be key to our physical and moral recovery: college students and citizens with criminal records.

Baltimore is just as much a college town as Boston is, but we need to aggressively invite our thousands of graduating college students to stay in Baltimore and help us rebuild. These students can be the key to solving the problem of more than 16,000 boarded-up abandoned houses if we sell them houses for $1 in return for their commitment to renovate and invest in the city's future. We need their energy and imagination to restore Baltimore's greatness as an exciting and vibrant city.

Similarly, the phenomenon of mass incarceration has left many young men and women in our communities with criminal records that make them hard to hire or unemployable. But we need their imagination and hard work too. We are in the process of designing criminal justice reform policies that allow them to get back into the work force, but now we need new businesses and projects to employ these people and rebuild the boarded-up properties and revitalize our communities.

Repairing Neighborhoods and Uplifting Lives: Toward a Solution Set

Baltimore has many great universities, colleges and other institutions of higher learning that graduate thousands of students each year. Why do we allow these wonderfully bright and talented young people to move away in such large numbers? Imagine what Baltimore would be like if the graduating students stayed here the way they stay in Boston.

Let us set up a program with the University of Maryland, Johns Hopkins, Morgan State, Loyola, Goucher and all the rest to promote a long-term Baltimore commitment in their graduates.

Let's create "New Normal" neighborhoods anchored in the college campuses. Can you visualize the exciting growth of the Morgan-Johns Hopkins- Loyola Community, the Coppin-University of Maryland Community and the Maryland Institute College of the Arts-University of Baltimore community in areas where we presently have blocks of sad and scary boarded-up houses?

Working through the eminent domain process, the city can sell to these "urban pioneer" graduates a boarded-up house for $1 and require them, in return, to pay around $2,000 year to the city in taxes, which then puts those properties back on the tax rolls. The agreement with these "New Normal" home owners is the city will not assess their properties for ten years while they renovate those homes and live in them. The city would enter into partnerships with banks, the state and federal governments and with other public/private partnerships to provide low interest loans, grants and other incentives to help renovate, creating a demand for new construction labor. The same kind of tax breaks and tax incentive financing we provide for development of downtown spaces, like the beautiful Inner Harbor, can be activated for these "New Normal" communities. Some of this we already do.

Not only are we then reducing the volume of boarded-up homes in our city, but we are also building wealth through home ownership for those graduates who take advantage of this urban renaissance. I started my first business with the equity I had built up in my home. This process can lead to an infusion of new ideas, new energy and new people in the city. Here is where the pendulum begins to swing.

One Step Further

This effort could yield as many as 1,500-3,000 houses a year that would require serious renovation, reconstruction, painting, plumbing and so on. The General Assembly just passed a bill I wrote asking the state to create a demonstration project for people leaving our penal institutions to teach them how to start their own small businesses.

I wrote this bill based on an experience I had while campaigning. I stopped by a business and asked a gentleman if I could put a campaign sign up at his auto repair shop. He asked me if I remembered him and I replied no. He said, "you were my graduation speaker." At this point, I was trying to figure out whether it was a high school or college graduation. He said, "You were my graduation speaker in prison. I never forgot what you said. 'Congratulations guys, this is a big day for you having earned your GED. You have a hard road ahead of you, but let me suggest if you have skills and the capacity to operate a business, start one and give good customer service, because what people really care about is the quality of your service not your background." He went on to say proudly: "that was me five years ago, and this is my business today, and when you finish go across town and put your sign on my other business." He also pointed out to me that the people he was training were also ex-offenders.

This step forward with our newly graduated students will create thousands of homes, per year, to be renovated. If we merge their commitment with the renovation needs of these new communities, it gives Baltimore another opportunity to create jobs and business opportunities for so many good people in our city who were caught up in the criminal justice system and are looking for a way back to a New Normal.

We need training programs that can lead to real jobs and business opportunities in construction, plumbing, remodeling, landscaping, renovation and demolition for many individuals in this community that have the capacity to do this work. In communities like Sandtown-Winchester, we should establish side-by-side an expungement center, a GED program, Jobs Training and Business Creation Center so that we show a real commitment to turning the community around. We must also remember that there are other families living in Sandtown-Winchester who are not poor, have brought homes and have lived in this neighborhood for decades, only to witness the lack of investment tear their neighborhoods apart.

The socio-economic challenges we face may seem daunting. That's why we have to recommit ourselves to new ways of thinking, where innovative ideas and practical hope can lead to the transformation of broken neighborhoods and the uplift of broken people. By harnessing the talents of our graduating college seniors and providing housing for them, while jump-starting a building and renovation boom with the labor of ex-offenders, we can create a New Normal for Baltimore that could serve as a model for how other cities affected by deindustrialization, disinvestment and the War on Drugs can turn around and then soar again.