Blues in West Baltimore, and shivers in Boston

I don’t think I will forget this street and those two girls.
Last Saturday afternoon, I was in West Baltimore crossing Pennsylvania Avenue where the recent Baltimore riots were centered. I was being driven around by someone who works for the non-profit development organization called Enterprise Homes that has built literally thousands of affordable home ownership and rental housing in West and East Baltimore. But the city is losing more than it is winning. There are 16,000 vacant houses in Baltimore. Yes, 16,000.

We drove down a short side street that had about 40 units of row housing, every one of them abandoned and boarded up. Yes, every one of them. In the middle of the block, two girls of about age 12 sat on the steps of one of the abandoned houses. They had no smiles as they sat on this dead street where the air seems to have no hope in it. Hope can die where there is physical devastation and abandoned housing along with the realities of a life of low wages in a neighborhood facing the daily dangers of drug-driven crime.

The famous blues singer from Baltimore, Billie Holiday, once performed in this neighborhood, and the blues are very much there.

In Boston in the 1970s we had many abandoned buildings in Roxbury, Dorchester, and parts of Mattapan. I remember one meeting we had in 1974 at the Holland School with Mayor Kevin White about 150 abandoned houses across the Meetinghouse Hill neighborhood, or what’s also called Bowdoin-Geneva now. I wonder if we have even 40 abandoned buildings in the whole city now; almost all of those would be sites of fires, yet still valuable and with plans in the works for their renovation.

I used to think that abandoned buildings were the worst disinvestment situations to try to change. It is tough and it takes years. And in cities like Baltimore or Detroit, it rarely gets much better.

We have the hot housing market/gentrification problem in every neighborhood of Boston today. If you own you own home, or if you live in public housing or subsidized housing, you have some security to be able to stay in your house. For others, unless they have a good middle class income, they have either been pushed out of Boston or they are going, going, going to be gone sooner or later.

Mayor Walsh recently said that if no one led the campaign against the legalization of marijuana, he would step up and lead it. Respectfully, we need his leadership against the displacement and gentrification in Boston that have pushed out of their homes tens of thousands and will push out additional tens of thousands unless drastic steps are taken.

Building and renovating affordable housing requires a great deal of government money to make the rents and home prices affordable. The city has policies to help raise that kind of money, like linkage and inclusionary zoning, but they need to be updated and strengthened so they can bring in more money. Another policy possibility is the proposed Community Preservation Act, which would slightly raise property taxes while exempting seniors with low-to-moderate income and use that money to help finance affordable housing. The mayor needs to move this legislation to the ballot and then campaign to get it passed.

I think we need to return to a form of rent regulation against large rent increases imposed on residents of absentee-owner buildings, but getting that passed by the Legislature and signed by Governor Baker is an unlikely proposition.

Unless we and Mayor Walsh really step up on this, many more people will be pushed out of Boston. The city will look nice and be an interesting place to visit, but it will have the silent stories of sorrow in its soul from those who were forced out.

We probably won’t ever have anything like those two sad girls on a dead street in Baltimore. Still, our city is dying in a different way that is just as sad. It sends shivers through me to see our city’s soul dying amidst what otherwise looks so vital.

Lewis Finfer is a Dorchester resident who has worked from Dorchester on community issues since 1970.