The city shrinks

May 01, 2002

IF BALTIMORE keeps losing population at the current rate of nearly 16,000 people each year, this will be a ghost town by 2040.

Of course, that kind of apocalyptic scenario is absurd. But even if the latest U.S. Census Bureau projections were slightly off, this trend is undeniable: Maryland's other jurisdictions are growing, while Baltimore is still shrinking.

The continuing slide into oblivion should hit Mayor Martin O'Malley like a cold shower. He won election two years ago pledging the city's turnaround, and laying out plans to make that happen. He must now contend with the perception that his efforts haven't yet been successful -- and more important, with the diminishing federal aid that will accompany the city's population loss.

To be fair, Mayor O'Malley has effected some important, tangible improvements in the city's fortunes. Crime has decreased, opinion leaders are more optimistic. Hectic construction activity is going on.

Overall, though, declining population proves that Baltimore has not turned the corner.

This reality is easy to forget around the Inner Harbor or in the city's pricey northern crescent, where houses sell overnight for more than their asking prices. In those areas, long-depressed residential prices are reaching the levels of comparable houses in other big cities.

But outside those areas, many ordinary rowhouse neighborhoods are still on the skids. They have plenty of properties on the market -- and dim prospects for sale or revitalization.

Only part of Baltimore's population loss is due to the exodus to the suburbs. Influx from the South has also dried up. And even though record numbers of immigrants poured into the United States in the 1990s, few chose to come here. As a result, the throngs of new, lower-middle-class residents who once recycled the lower end of the housing market have disappeared.

The city has started addressing these problems. It is touting the advantages of Baltimore's affordable housing stock in the Washington area; it's trying to attract immigrants, particularly Hispanics. Specific programs promote the city's second-tier neighborhoods. Efforts are also under way to increase the number of job providers, including badly needed supermarkets, discount department stores and home improvement centers.

In many ways, the city is on the right track. But much more remains to be done.

For example, Baltimore has been unforgivably slow in building new housing outside the harbor's Gold Coast, even though that's what many existing residents and newcomers demand. This oversight is particularly puzzling because the supply of another growth sector, downtown rental apartments, is being constantly replenished.

Schools -- clearly a reason many young families leave Baltimore -- also need more attention. Despite massive reforms and measurable progress over the past five years, city schools' population is also continuing a steady downward trend.

The good news for Mayor O'Malley can be found in time: the more than two years he has left in his term. If he rededicates city efforts to giving Baltimore more appeal, to selling that appeal and to retaining those who move here, he could deliver on the results he promised two years ago.

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