Baltimore Housing Gets Some Southern Hospitality

by Emily Arnold
Charleston, South Carolina's mayor was recently in town to answer one of Baltimore's toughest questions: What must city officials do to improve conditions for current residents, while at the same time attracting new homeowners?
While recently named by Frommer's as one of 10 "up and coming summer destinations" for 2005 and with tourism slowly on the rise, Baltimore still cannot ignore the housing problems facing its residents. The median income of a Baltimore resident is $24,000, while the median monthly mortgage cost is $965. And almost a quarter of Baltimore residents are below the federal poverty level, almost double the national average.

But Baltimore is slowly emerging from years of rubble, and improving. Despite more recent complaints of over development, Baltimore only recently ended a 75-year down cycle in residential development. Now facing difficult residential development questions and controversies, the desire to improve is there. But where to begin? Where do we turn for guidance? Who can counsel us with time-tested methods that work?

Recently, the Baltimore Chapter of the American Institute of Architects turned to the south and Mayor Joseph Riley, Jr. for answers.

Understandably. After an unprecedented 30 years as Mayor of Charleston, South Carolina, Joe Riley knows a thing or two about urban design. The South Carolinian of the Year has initiated dozens of revitalization projects, ranging from the busy King Street in downtown Charleston to the Waterfront Park, which he calls the "birthright of the people of Charleston." Believing strongly in the relationship between public and private development financing and taking full advantage of both, Riley has expanded the city from 16.7 miles in 1975 to almost 90 square miles to date, an increase of over 400%.

With credentials such as the Thomas Jefferson Award for Public Architecture from the American Institute of Architects, and the Outstanding Mayor's Award from the National Association of Realtors, Mayor Riley has demonstrated thorough knowledge of and dedication to urban design, restoration and suitable development strategies.

His gospel does not end in Charleston. Riley has taken his experience and expertise on the road, helping over 250 Mayors nationwide to achieve these same urban design goals in their own cities. He also founded the Mayors' Institute for City Design (MICD), in which over 625 mayors participate. It now meets six times annually to discuss how best to improve the livability of American cities. After all, Riley says, "The more sensitive the mayor is to good urban design, to issues of livability, scale, diversity, etc., the more willing and able he or she will be to help develop higher quality."

Mayor Riley graciously accepted the invitation to Baltimore and last week, on the Marc Steiner Show, offered his personal and professional perspective on what is needed to create the great American city and answer one of Baltimore's toughest questions: What must city officials do to improve conditions for current residents, while at the same time attracting new homeowners?

After all, Mayor Riley told Steiner, "The American city is going to keep redeveloping. That is a wave that is not going to stop."

It is a realistic sentiment, and one that is not easy for many city residents to swallow. But such pills come in many shapes and sizes and, determining the best type of development for Baltimore is the responsibility of its city officials. Riley told Steiner, "In the American city, because we lost that sense of city building, we would allow something to be plopped down. That's not what you do. You start with the street and with the neighborhood."

Charleston, unlike Baltimore, is most notably recognized for its revolutionary affordable housing, for which Mayor Riley has considerably upped the ante. Affordable housing in Charleston is neither short on design or location, yet it remains affordable for such civil servants as teachers, and for residents who simply cannot afford anything better, like the elderly.

Why? "It is very important in the redevelopment of our cities that we keep housing affordable so that the worker is near where he or she works."

How? "You got to understand each part of the community where housing affordability is a challenge and try to craft programs to address them. The national government hasn't been putting the money into housing to the extent that is needed now."

What is the status of affordable housing in Baltimore? In their efforts to attract wealthy homebuyers from outside of the city, many argue that Baltimore has ignored the needs of its low to moderate-income residents. Many city workers, who are not necessarily moderate- to high-income, live outside the city, where more affordable housing exists. The revitalization efforts that do occur are highly localized to already-trendy areas like Canton, and tailored to the wealthier client.

Some could argue that this is the very core of all of Baltimore's problems, for despite the city's variance in race and economic circumstance, its neighborhoods tend to be highly segregated, and hence stigmatized as rich or poor. The latter fall into dilapidation, and buildings become vacant.

There is speculation that just the appearance of being a down-at-the-heels neighborhood will lead to indifference and even crime, which is the true epidemic of Baltimore. The Broken Window Theory suggests that evidence of disrepair, such as abandoned buildings, broken windows and trash, actually makes its witnesses feel more apathetic and less willing to stand up for public order or address signs of deterioration. Lack of community involvement leads to empty streets, which leads to an open venue for vandalism and crime.

Mayor Riley believes in affordable housing and knows that city image is everything. "The built environment of the city shapes the people every day," Riley told Steiner.

And he can prove it. Through Charleston's Office of the Ombudsman and Citizen Participation and Office of Neighborhood Services, over 70 strong and active community associations have been established, and they are encouraged to take more responsibility for their own improvement. Riley's office connects with each community, listening to and motivating the residents to best determine what needs to be accomplished to make the neighborhoods safe and beautiful for those who live, work and visit. He even holds a monthly Mayor's Night In, where citizens have the opportunity to actually meet with the Mayor in his office to discuss concerns.

In his lecture to over 300 Baltimoreans, including several City Council members, architects, and preservationists, he strongly emphasized the need for balance between the needs of increased tourism and the needs of city residents. He used technical jargon to explain how his city redesigned its waterfront park, and he cited specific materials for the way they created a new visitor center, all to increase tourism and benefit the city.

"Some people ... all they have is their city," said Mayor Riley of Charleston. "And when you see the modest-income local and the well-to-do local sharing the same thing... you know that is really great."

Just before the end of the lecture, Mayor Riley said that the core of a city is constituted of its citizens, each and every one. "Some people ... all they have is their city. And when you see the modest-income local and the well-to-do local sharing the same thing... you know that is really great."

Asked what he thought of Baltimore, and in conclusion of his presentation, Mayor Riley said, "I get inspired every time I come."

Isn't it time we Baltimoreans did the same?

Emily Arnold is a writer based in Baltimore whose work has appeared in the Baltimore Sun and the City Paper. She may be reached at ejarnold@gmail.com.

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This story was published on November 17, 2005.