Effort Begins to Create Regional Partnership

by Alice Cherbonnier
       On Sunday, April 30, over 250 persons gathered for a conference called “The Regional Connection: Making Regional Decisions Work for Your Community.” The event, a project of the Campaign for Regional Solutions, was held at the Church of the Redeemer on North Charles Street. Spearheaded by Citizens Planning and Housing Association (CPHA), it had 64 other sponsors, ranging from The Abell Foundation and the Baltimore Urban League to Friends of Harford [County], the Valleys Planning Council, the Transit Riders League of Metropolitan Baltimore, and the Howard County Conservancy.

       The highlight of the afternoon’s events was an address by John A. Powell, a professor of law at the University of Minnesota Law School and executive director of the Institute on Race & Poverty.

       “The issues we have [in the Baltimore region] are occurring all over the United States, and all over the world,” said Powell. “So there’s ‘something in the water’--it’s a systemic problem. And regionalism is an approach to address the problem.”

       He traced the roots of U.S. urban woes to the 1950’s, when, he charged, “The federal government paid white people to leave [the cities].” According to Powell, the Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board of Education decision that brought about school desegregation was unpopular with the white public. In response to their distress, U.S. lawmakers used the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) federally-guaranteed mortgage loan program, with loans at 0% to 3% down, and the FHA promoted home-buying as cheaper than rent. “But these loans were only for white people,” said Powell, “and only went for new housing.”

       At the same time, he charged, the FHA created a code system for loans that effectively red-lined older communities and declined to insure loans in integrated neighborhoods. During this period it was difficult for African-Americans to obtain mortgages at all, let alone home improvement loans.

       “The federal government’s role has been profound,” said Powell. “In the 1950’s there were actually more integrated neighborhoods in the U.S. than there are today. The Jim Crow laws back then regulated interaction between the races, but people lived closer together because they needed proximity [to jobs and shopping].”

       Offering generous mortgage terms wasn’t the only thing the federal government did to make it easy for white people to leave the cities, Powell said. At the same time, the government embarked on a massive highway building program that made commuting easier.

       Then came the first federal Urban Renewal programs, “tearing down black communities and building public housing. All the public housing built in Baltimore since 1954 was for African-Americans. The federal government stipulated what race the buildings were for.”

       He noted that “whites have the perception that when blacks move in, property values drop. And that’s true, but not because blacks move in. It’s because whites move out. We’re focusing on consequences, not the cause.”

       By the 1970s, he said, “the federal Fair Housing bill finally gave blacks the same opportunities whites got--and as a result, middle class blacks left the cities, and concentrated poverty occurred. And this group can’t raise taxes, can’t pay for services, and can’t support businesses because they have no buying power.

       “I don’t care who the Mayor is--as long as you have all the problems in one place, you have an infrastructure deficit. Then you have what we have in Detroit now--governing by crisis management.”

       Now that urban problems are seeping into the close-in suburbs, Powell says regional approaches to problem-solving are not only needed, they are essential. “The real problem is not growth or sprawl,” he said, “it’s fragmentation--the walls we build, the economic segregation between the rich and the poor. This is the biggest danger we have to democracy.”

       He pointed out that the fastest-growing incidence of “poverty schools” is in Baltimore County, not Baltimore City, “at a ratio of three to one.”

       A big challenge is to link people with opportunity. “Most jobs are outside the areas where they’re needed most,” he said.

       To solve these problems, he said, “We have to go where the power, money and resources are. We have a global economy--do you really think you can solve problems at the community level?”

       He pointed out that self-interest can be a powerful tool for bringing about change. “When a region is fragmented, it can’t compete with better-structured regions elsewhere,” he noted.

       Responding to Powell was Patrick Kane, vice president and general manager of Coldwell Banker Grempler Realty, Inc. and president of the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors (GBBR). He pledged his organization’s support of regionalism. “GBBR will do whatever it takes to help CPHA,” he said to applause. “We have a strong PAC [political action committee] and we have the power to influence elections.”

       State Delegate Liz Bobo mused that it did not seem right that Howard County works hard to attract new jobs and then has to bus in employees from other jurisdictions. “Why not add jobs where they’re needed?” she asked. “The bidding war [between jurisdictions] is ill-advised. Baltimore City can’t begin to attract businesses the way Howard County can. Other counties might want to direct jobs to the city, too.” But she pointed out that the public has to pressure politicians to do this.

       Father Richard Lawrence, pastor of St. Vincent de Paul Church, praised Powell for putting housing in the forefront. “It’s been sort of taboo--we’ve sort of told each other ‘don’t talk about housing--it’ll scare everybody off’.”

       TV investigative reporter Jayne Miller, who moderated the event, relayed questions from the audience. Powell was asked if regionalism wouldn’t weaken black political influence. “You have a choice,” he responded. “The early response from regionalists, and these were largely environmentalists, was basically this: ’You can control a black political base and a black cultural base, but you don’t have any money. And so you either have the choice of you can control space but no resources, or you can try to get resources but then you have to give up your voice.’ And that was the response by early regionalists to the black community. And I said, ’That's not an appropriate response. You can’t tell people who have died in the street to vote (even though we don't vote as often as we should) that you have to give up your political voice in order to have a job. It’s not an appropriate choice. So I have advocated what I call ‘federated regionalism,’ which looks at this issue--and I’m working with some places like Louisville, Kentucky, where they’re talking about consolidating the city and the county, and how do we do that in such a way that you make sure that black people and other people continue to have a voice. You have to start with where people are, ask their concerns. Then move to regionalism. We’ve got to try to ensure that all people have a voice.”

       To get everyone on the bandwagon, he said, “We can’t depend solely on benevolence. Don’t ask people to give up something--create economic incentives like building housing near transportation hubs--pay people to build it, and give people [financial] incentives to move there.”

       Following the presentations, audience members were encouraged to sign up to join study groups on regional issues. The results of their work will be presented at another regional conference to be held on October 18, which will be attended by elected officials from the region.

        For information or to join a study group, call CPHA at 539-1369.

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This story was published on May 15, 2000.