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Report from Baltimorean's Forum on Responsible Development

Some observations from the 7/29 panel at the UNITE-HERE! building, featuring Scot Spencer (Annie E. Casey Foundation), Greg LeRoy (Good Jobs First), Worker X (anonymous hotel worker), Darlene Harrison, Union Committee Leader, and Mike Mitchell, Chesapeake Habitat for Humanity.
Tonight's panel was a very interesting event and at times contentious affair- besides the panelists, the audience included city council members Edward Reisinger and Bill Henry, AFL-CIO leaders Fred Mason and Ernie Grecco, a broad swath of union organizers, community activists, and residents of neighborhoods facing down the barrel of city-sponsored irresponsible development, and even a consultant hired by developer Patrick Turner to appease the Westport community he's getting ready to gentrify out of their homes.

The basic theme of the evening was that the city of Baltimore historically, and to the current day, has largely tried to crawl its way out of the financial crisis brought on by deindustrialization by offering subsidies and deals with no strings attached to developers looking to build in the tourism and hospitality sectors (and recently in the biotech sector). Apparently, Baltimore is also lagging behind in a national trend where large cities are learning how to play things a little smarter, and extract concessions from developers aimed at "community benefits" in exchange for subsidies, tax cuts, and other forms of corporate welfare. A highlight of the evening for me was Greg LeRoy of Good Jobs First, who really clarified a lot of what's at stake in terms of the mechanisms of public financing of private development projects, highlighting two common devices used in Baltimore and elsewhere - the first being property tax abatements (or PILOTS, payments in lieu of taxes), where developers basically get to not pay the property taxes that fund the city infrastructure on which their profit-making depends, and the second being TIF's, tax increment financing, where property taxes are paid but go directly into things benefiting the developer's project and not the general fund for the city. There's an excellent historical overview of Baltimore public-private development, prepared by Good Jobs First, and titled " Subsidizing the Low Road: Economic Development in Baltimore," which was made available at the meeting at can be read online at:

The role the union (UNITE-HERE) wants to play here is clear and admirable - public money shouldn't be used to create low-paying jobs like it has at hotels across the city and at places like the stadium at Camden Yards. It's exciting to see UNITE-HERE taking an active role not just in fighting alongside the workers at existing hotels like the Baltimore City Sheraton, but also fighting for workers at jobs which are going to be created in the future, and more generally thinking about how city planning can be an effective terrain for a fight for social justice.

Other parts of the meeting were not so encouraging - there was a lot of Westport and Cherry Hill residents at the meeting, angry and uncertain about what's going on in their neighborhood and whether it's going to realistically be their neighborhood for much longer. Like the displacement that happened in the wake of the JHU biotech land grab, much of what's happening seems to be going on without the participation or consent of the communities it impacts. It's unclear exactly how much input even the City Council has on the project - a 2007 "Inclusionary Housing" law passed requiring money shunted out of the normal flow of property taxes to be used for guaranteeing at least a small commitment to "affordable" housing has been hamstrung by a lack of follow-through on the part of the city, such that this very large new development in Westport won't be automatically held to this standard. (Or at least without a concerted, uncompromising political effort on the part of the community and their supporters!)

One of the things that struck me personally about the event was an unwillingness on the part of a lot of the participants to question the basic assumptions of private economic development. If a neighborhood gets the kind of condo-driven demographic makeover that these publicly-subsidized development projects inflict on less affluent neighborhoods, it seems that a lot of what's being proposed is a package of measures to lessen the blow. So called mixed-income housing, where condos for the rich are built alongside token amounts of "affordable" housing (and there was a lot of doubts as to whether everyone is on the same page as to what constitutes affordable), isn't necessarily a progressive improvement - it's likely that a full right of return for everyone in the affected neighborhood is never on the table. This dynamic of displacement is aggravated by the speculative logic of development in a kind of collateral damage, where the city-funded project, where at least some leverage can be exercised in the name of the community, is designed to drive up prices in the surrounding neighborhood, with speculators buying out houses from desperate residents who don't have the capital to ride out waves of landbanked decay and "miraculous" renaissances. While there was a lot of talk about educating homeowners not to sell, to hold on to their homes, there wasn't much discussion about questioning the logic of private development in the first place. Hasn't trickle-down speculation proved in the last decade to be a spectacularly poor way of achieving a more just (and stable!) redistribution of economic resources? What about a commitment to providing public goods directly, rather than through market mechanisms? To me, the approach where you have to make deals with developers, where, in exchange for financing their projects with public money, they have to make some nominal concessions towards public utility still operates within a logic of "accumulation by dispossession" (as David Harvey calls it in his Brief History of Neoliberalism). In a town which can spend hundreds of millions on subsidizing hotels, stadiums, arenas, and new cities-within-the-city for the rich, but refuses to fund things costing several orders of magnitude less like the P2P initiative for meaningful youth jobs in the education sector, which would have a direct and immediate effect in providing a benefit to the community, it seems to me that a more fundamental reevaluation of priorities is in order. While I think that the direction of the forum took tonight is encouraging, and I look forward to further developments in UNITE-HERE's new foray into the urban planning arena, I had the suspicion that the reforms on the table don't go far enough. We have a right to the city, not just to sugar-coated gentrification and further concentration of our own communities' wealth in private hands!

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