Violence in Baltimore reveals a need for reformed U.S. housing policy

by Kathleen Goodwin

Baltimore homicidesThere have been 170 homicides in Baltimore thus far in 2015, putting the city on track for a record-setting year. 43 of these occurred in May in the aftermath of Freddie Gray's death, more than double the average number of homicides recorded in May between 2009-2014 and the most since 1971, when the city had approximately 300,000 more residents. The Baltimore Sun has created a homicide database that lists the age and race of the victims—as well as the date and address where each murder occurred, plotted on an accompanying map. In addition to the sheer volume, it's immediately striking that the 2015 homicides are particularly clustered west of Eutaw Place, including the neighborhood of Sandtown-Winchester where Freddie Gray grew up. Homicide locations are sprinkled across the eastern and western sections of the city, while there are glaring blank spaces in a swath extending south from the Johns Hopkins undergraduate campus, through the Inner Harbor tourist area, and extending east to the Hopkins medical campus. As has been often repeated, there are two Baltimores—or rather an educated white Baltimore sandwiched between the predominantly black and poor areas that were being shown in the national media coverage of the rioting this spring. Considering persuasive data that suggests that the neighborhood where you spend your formative years is correlated to your relative success and stability as an adult, Baltimore is a case study in the way segregation of neighborhoods has created a concentrated areas of poverty and violence, manifesting in antagonism with the police and dramatically reduced life expectancy.

In response to another recent period of racial turmoil, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development launched a randomized trial in the 1990s called “Moving to Opportunity” (MTO) which provided Section 8 rental assistance for low-income families who moved to neighborhoods with less than 10% poverty. Section 8, which was meant to be a solution to the problems rampant in subsidized housing projects, was launched under the Nixon administration in the 1970s. The idea was to provide vouchers to poor families that would help subsidize market rate rent in a neighborhood of the family's choosing, and was thus supposed to alleviate the centers of poverty, violence and drugs that housing projects had become in most large American cities. Unfortunately, Section 8 has simply perpetuated the existence of dense urban ghettos, and has even become a racial slur. As research by Eva Rosen in Baltimore shows, landlords have capitalized on housing vouchers as a way to charge more for apartments in impoverished neighborhoods and to ensnare families into tenuous situations. Rosen writes, “If the tenant tries to move while indebted to the landlord, she will lose her voucher, so some landlords strategically allow tenants to get behind on rent. As the debt accrues, it gets harder and harder for the tenant to consider a move without jeopardizing his or her subsidy.” The MTO initiative was meant to study whether or not it made a difference for families to live in wealthier neighborhoods with their Section 8 vouchers, and supplied families with counseling and support that ensured they weren't trapped in the Section 8 housing that landlords insiduously control in poor neighborhoods. Initial analysis of the program didn't show significant tangible outcomes for the Section 8 holders who moved to more resourced neighborhoods, as compared to those who remained in poor ones, however, more recent analysis, both of the MTO program and millions of other families who moved wealthier neighborhoods throughout the U.S. shows that as time has gone on there is actually a direct effect, where “the younger children were when they moved, the better they did. Children were less likely to become single parents when they grew up, were more likely to go to college and to earn more.”

In Baltimore there are countless nuanced factors at play that contribute to the extreme poverty, segregation, and the type of violence that resulted in Freddie Gray's death and the 169 other mostly young black men who have been killed this year. According to the “Upshot” column in the New York Times:

“Among the nation's 100 largest jurisdictions, the one where children face the worst odds of escaping poverty is the city of Baltimore, the study found. The city is especially harsh for boys: Low-income boys who grew up there in recent decades make roughly 25 percent less as adults than similar low-income boys who were born in the city and moved as small children to an average place.”

Currently there is a focus on the ways in which the police's relationship with Baltimoreans has created a toxic culture of zero tolerance policing and mutual disrespect between civil servants and civilians. While I do not mean to excuse the blatantly racist policing policies in Baltimore and other parts of the U.S., I think that the conversation could be more productive if Americans started focusing on the historical policies that created neighborhoods where antagonism with the police is a pillar of daily life, and trying to create rigorous ways to reform these places and the violent outcomes they foster. According to Richard Rothstein at the Economic Policy Institute:

“…it doesn't start with police departments. When you have a low-income population concentrated in the area, little hope, unemployment rates in places like inner city of Baltimore are two and three times the rate for whites, well, you get behavior in those kind of communities that reinforces police hostility. It becomes a cycle of misbehavior and police aggression, and it's attributable to the concentration of disadvantaged families in very crowded inner-city communities.”

Policy makers need to admit that the institutionalized racism of the pre Civil Rights Movement era created urban ghettos and a less obvious, but still pervasive, racism maintains them today. Until it's acknowledged that the conditions of 20th century America created the adverse circumstances that poor black families live in today, it will be impossible to find more than short-term, small scale solutions to the problems at hand. I find it discouraging that in response to the study on moving neighborhoods Julián Castro, the secretary of Housing and Urban Development, “said his department had been planning to reallocate funding, so that some people moving to more expensive neighborhoods would receive larger vouchers.” While some children will be be more successful if they move to “better” neighborhoods, the more comprehensive approach is to figure out how to make poor inner-city neighborhoods better. Instead of trying to find ways to help poor black children live in predominantly white neighborhoods, we should be working to create a more equal and desegregated America where children of any race have access to resourced schools, safe streets, and quality housing.