An international city

Our view: Immigrants could provide the impetus for reclaiming Baltimore's vacant housing stock

officials need to do much more to reach out to them

February 20, 2011

The Census Bureau reported recently what many people have long suspected: Over the last decade, the growth of Maryland's population has largely been driven by Hispanics, who increasingly are settling in suburban areas of the state. The data don't say how many of them are immigrants, but it's a good bet that many are. At the same time, the report noted, the population of Baltimore City, which has been declining for decades, fell by another 30,000 residents since 2001 — more than half again as much as city officials had expected. The only reason the city's population didn't drop even faster was the surge in its Latino population, which doubled over the past decade.

By coincidence, the Census story and a report about Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's efforts to revitalize neighborhoods by reclaiming vacant and abandoned houses in the city ran on the same page of The Sun that week. Which raised an intriguing question: If the city has a surfeit of vacant housing it would like to see rehabilitated and occupied, and if the influx of immigrants has been the state's largest source of population growth, what are city officials doing to bring the two trends together? Shouldn't Baltimore be making more of an effort to reach out to the thousands of Latinos coming to Maryland?

Historically, cities have been the first destination for immigrants arriving in this country. That's where the jobs were and also communities made up of people of similar backgrounds. Today, the Washington area's job market is the primary magnet for the growing Hispanic population in Maryland, which is centered in Montgomery and Prince George's counties. But as rents and home prices in the capital area rise under the pressure of development and increased demand, Baltimore is likely to become an ever more attractive entry point for new arrivals.

It's a role for which there is ample historical precedent. For much of the 19th and 20th centuries, Baltimore was famous as a patchwork of immigrant neighborhoods that served as springboards into the larger society for people from Ireland, Greece, Poland, Italy, Germany, Lithuania, Russia and other European countries. The diversity, vitality and energy of those old immigrant communities helped make Baltimore a truly international city.

Yet, despite the growth of Hispanic residents in Baltimore since 2000, Latinos officially make up just 4.2 percent of the city's population. That's up from 1.7 percent in 2000 but still less than Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties and far less than Prince George's and Montgomery counties, where Hispanics now make up 15 percent and 17 percent of the population, respectively.

Mayor Rawlings-Blake's efforts to reduce crime and support the reforms that have led to better schools are aimed at making Baltimore's neighborhoods more attractive to everyone, be they newly arrived immigrants or fifth-generation Baltimoreans. And she's certainly right to say that nobody will want to move here if the city doesn't focus on those things.

But with the city's still relatively low rents and housing prices compared to Washington, and its abundant supply of vacant houses waiting to be reclaimed, Baltimore could be missing an opportunity to turn around the long-term decline in its population by not marketing itself more aggressively among immigrants. Printing housing materials in Spanish, as Baltimore does now, is important but hardly sufficient. If current trends continue, Hispanic immigration will represent the biggest single factor in the growth of Maryland's population over the coming decades. For the sake of its own future, Baltimore City ought to be making every effort to be among the first to welcome them.

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