Scholars and researchers who study urban history, housing, and public policy have studied the history of vacancy and population loss in Baltimore and similar legacy cities. Their research and writing points to three big reasons for the city’s large number of vacant buildings:
- Job and population loss
- Suburban growth
- Racial segregation and discrimination
Job and population loss
Over the past six decades, Baltimore City has lost population. In 1950, 950,000 people lived in the city. Sixty years later, the population had dropped by 325,000 people. In the decades after World War II, the city lost thousands of factory jobs to suburban industrial parks, to increased automation, and to Southern states with anti-union policies. This pattern of declining investment in downtown Baltimore, a shrinking number of well-paying industrial jobs, and growing financial insecurity for Baltimore residents forced thousands of Baltimore residents to move away and, in some cases, leave abandoned homes behind.
As Baltimore City lost residents, the surrounding counties gained both population and jobs. New homes in the suburbs attracted residents who might otherwise live in existing homes in Baltimore City. The movement of new factories and shopping malls brought employment opportunities to the suburbs but limited access to employment for city residents. The state and federal government subsidized suburban growth in Baltimore by paying for new highway construction, like I-695, and mortgage aid from the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) and Veterans Administration (VA). Racist policies in the planning and administration of these programs, however, limited the benefits to white residents. As the suburbs grew, existing patterns of segregation and inequality became even more deeply entrenched.
Racial segregation and discrimination
Vacant buildings today are the legacy of segregated housing and racial discrimination in the past. Notorious practices like “redlining” in the 1930s and “block-busting” in the 1950s and 1960s are not relics of the past. Even in the present, African American residents in the Baltimore region are unable to access home loans, employment opportunities, and transportation to the same extent as white residents.
As a result of these policies, many vacant buildings are located in historically segregated African American neighborhoods in east and west Baltimore. This is illustrated by looking beyond Baltimore’s average vacancy rate of 7.67% (2013) to consider the disparate impact of vacant buildings on Black and white residents. An analysis based on data from the Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance (BNIA) Vital Signs 2014 report finds that in neighborhoods where less than 50% of residents are Black, the vacancy rate is 2.54%. In neighborhoods where more than 80% of residents are Black, the vacancy rate is 13.54%.
|Community Statistical Areas (2010)||Average vacancy rate (2013)||Percent of total vacant properties (2013)|
|Areas with <50% black residents||2.54%||34.60%|
|Areas with >50% black residents||10.37%||65.46%|
|Areas with >80% black residents||13.54%||42.90%|
Data courtesy Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance. Analysis available in this Google Sheet.