Opinion | Instead of Dollar Homes, a reparation zone in Baltimore

Rivai H Tukimen
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Michael Snidal is principal of Snidal Real Estate, a Baltimore-based construction and property management firm.

Baltimore City Council President Nick Mosby’s “Dollar Homes” program has made national news. But it is unlikely to become local legislation.

That’s good news for Baltimore. At best, the proposal would result in 300 scattered rehabs providing little opportunity for wealth-building in a city with more than 15,000 vacant homes that is hemorrhaging Black residents.

Dollar Homes, a program in which residents lease houses from the city for $1 a year, repair them and then are granted the home, is flawed for reasons well articulated by housing experts: A $50,000 grant is insufficient to rehab a home; there is no guaranteed construction loan fund; and city-owned housing is dispersed and often on streets with more than 50 percent vacancy.

But Baltimore can do much better — not only to reduce vacancy but also to reverse the course of neighborhood decline. Vacants to Value, the city’s vacancy reduction program, hasn’t made a dent in filling empty homes. Proposals to help the city take titles of vacant property are well-intentioned. But they are also minor league ball.

That’s because turning around just a single segregated neighborhood would require hundreds of millions of dollars. It depends on a durable investment strategy that goes beyond sweat equity.

Look at Baltimore’s most ambitious neighborhood redevelopment: When complete, Harbor Point will cost more than $1 billion. It isn’t a story of boots-on-the-ground bedroom construction. It’s a tale of deep public subsidy and private investment that includes hotels, office space, restaurants and a Whole Foods grocery store.

Mosby has the wrong program but the right idea: Stimulus from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make a commitment to reverse racialized disinvestment. So how about Baltimore officials grab on to that idea and propose an alternate program that is highly capitalized and highly concentrated? How about they introduce a revitalization program based on 21st-century ideas of capital and development, not buck-a-shuck mythology of the past?

What am I proposing? Instead of taking $100 million and wasting it thinly across Baltimore’s most downtrodden streets and focusing only on residential vacancy, officials should take even more money and establish the nation’s first reparations zone: a model to redevelop historically redlined communities as reparations for historically redlined residents and businesses.

The basic idea is in the name: reparations by place-based investment. Inject a cluster of neighborhoods with massive seed capital to leverage private and philanthropic commitments. Create guardrails to ensure the beneficiaries are residents and businesses that have been historically redlined, racially segregated and denied the wealth-building opportunity of the American Dream.

I’ll leave the details to a committee of experts. But here is a sketch:

Baltimore City sets up a Reparations Zone (RZ) application for ARPA-eligible communities to respond to a request to receive funding for homeownership and business development. An RZ committee of community development experts prioritizes areas with institutional proximity and partners, infrastructure projects, childhood education and employment training — the support structures necessary for neighborhood transformation. RZ areas must be very small to ensure resources are deeply targeted.

ARPA dollars would leverage a special-purpose, billion-dollar trust — that includes additional commitments from the state of Maryland and a philanthropic partner — to purchase properties and provide funding for housing restoration and business seed capital in the zone. Loans could come with a basis that would decrease by 10 percent every year and expire entirely after 10 years.

Here is the kicker: Only residents who reside in (or have resided in) any historically redlined or racially segregated area would be eligible for funding.

Then throw in the kitchen sink: Deregulate land use. Ensure the State Enterprise Zone program overlaps. Align money for Safe Streets. Offer a loan-guarantee pool and refundable tax credits to invest and hire within the zone. Etc., etc.

Baltimore’s RZ won’t solve all of the city’s woes. Rather, it would be a demonstration project for how, with deeply concentrated resources, the federal government might reverse urban decline and atone for lost Black equity from past urban renewal initiatives. It could be the model for a future federal program — much like the Harlem Children’s Zone was for the Obama administration.

Critics will say Baltimore has tried this type of investment. But Sandtown never had institutional anchors to rebound, and Baltimore’s Empowerment Zone overemphasized social services. As with Dollar Homes, local leaders didn’t understand how much capital and business development is necessary to transform a community.

Naysayers might argue that the federal government would never scale such a program. Actually, the bones of an RZ program can be found in the 2020 presidential campaign proposals of Vice President Harris and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg.

The Baltimore administration has committed $100 million in ARPA stimulus to housing with $185 million left in the bag. Dollar Homes makes for a good headline. Using federal stimulus more creatively could make Baltimore the model for a national policy to reverse urban decline.


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