Have-nots, have-littles vie for neighborhoods

City Diary

October 02, 2002|By Peter Duvall

I RECENTLY participated in a focus group of community leaders regarding problems, solutions and priorities for Baltimore's neighborhoods.

I was surprised by how concerned several neighborhood leaders are with the impact of gentrification.

Most Baltimoreans are aware that Federal Hill changed from a working-class neighborhood to a yuppie neighborhood more than a decade ago. Canton made similar changes in far less time.

In both cases, long-term residents were hit by higher taxes and with a change in lifestyle as new residents with different tastes moved in.

Certainly, many of us can sympathize with the increasingly isolated old-timers as their neighborhoods changed.

That said, I question whether the gentrification process can be duplicated in much of the rest of the city.

Fortunately for the community leaders so worried about the possible devastating effects of gentrification, Federal Hill and Canton became markedly more prosperous because they are situated in exceptional locations, not because of government initiatives.

Both neighborhoods have the harbor on one side and neighborhoods with low-to-moderate crime on the other. Most of the rest of the inner city lacks their unusual geography.

Successful inner-city communities away from the harbor -- Butchers Hill, Bolton Hill and Charles Village -- attract residents based on a completely different set of factors. They offer very fine houses at reasonable prices along with central locations and communities of other middle-class people.

Driving through these neighborhoods, one might be deceived into thinking that the residents are quite well-off.

For example, the median household income in central Charles Village was below $25,000 in 2000, lower than in Hampden, Govans and other neighborhoods not traditionally thought of as prosperous.

While people living in these areas are not poor, they are not as prosperous as the average Baltimore area resident. So you don't have to be wealthy or even average to be gentry in inner-city Baltimore!

That's why gentrification in Baltimore is fundamentally different from gentrification in cities with higher incomes. Baltimore's poor neighborhoods likely will be put under gentrification pressure by people with below-average incomes, certainly people earning less than teachers and firefighters -- salaries that most people think of as barely middle class.

This battle will be between the have-nots and the have-littles.

In fact, most of Baltimore's inner city is "upside-down" -- that is, the replacement cost of the house is substantially higher than the house's actual value. Land values are negative in large parts of Baltimore, even though tax assessments indicate otherwise.

This is crucial to the gentrification argument, because it costs a developer substantially more to build a new rowhouse similar in size to the houses in a given neighborhood than the prevailing value of houses in that same neighborhood. This is true even if the developer is working with free land. Only those who are gentrifying can afford to finance a new or substantially rehabbed house without a subsidy.

Why won't the well-off move to extremely poor inner-city neighborhoods?

Because if people with above-average incomes can afford the best houses in Bolton Hill, Butchers Hill or Charles Village, what is the incentive to speculate on a less-established neighborhood?

Are efforts to keep the non-poor out of poor neighborhoods really justified, considering Baltimore's weak tax base? A city with only poor people is not sustainable in the long term.

Even if neighborhood leaders find stopping gentrification desirable, middle-income taxpayers are an essential part of providing government services. They pay for them.

Today's writer

Peter Duvall, who lives in Charles Village, rehabs houses and works part time on housing code enforcement issues for the Charles Village Community Benefits District.

City Diary provides a forum for examining issues and events in Baltimore's neighborhoods and welcomes contributions from readers.

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