Vital Signs 16 Shows Beginnings of Change in Baltimore Neighborhoods, Especially in Housing

Vital Signs 16, a comprehensive statistical portrait of Baltimore and its neighborhoods, marks 16 years of continuous monitoring of community-based quality of life indicators. The latest edition of the report, published by the Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance-Jacob France Institute (BNIA-JFI), tracks more than 100 indicators that take the pulse of neighborhood health and vitality. The report, along with new indicators and several data visualization aides, is available now on BNIA-JFI’s updated website.

Vital Signs 16 is Baltimore’s best-known source for key data points about our city. Everyone who is working to improve the quality of life in every neighborhood can use Vital Signs as a benchmark for these efforts,” says Seema Iyer, associate director and research assistant professor for the University of Baltimore’s Jacob France Institute, home of BNIA-JFI. “Every year of our report, some things stand out for us. In 2018, it’s housing- both the bad and good sides. While rents remain high compared to other cities, we’re seeing a noticeable reduction in the number of houses in Baltimore that are are no longer uninhabitable.”

Based on more than a decade of research on Baltimore’s neighborhoods, BNIA-JFI has shown that to achieve a more equitable and just city overall, disparities among neighborhoods themselves must be addressed and eliminated by focusing on housing diversity and affordability; building occupancy and vacancy; and neighborhood accessibility and mobility.

To achieve this aim, Iyer says, city communities, elected officials, businesses and policy makers are encouraged to focus on seven key indicators out of the more than 100 that are available for all communities:

– Population change
– Percentage of housing units that are owner occupied
– Affordability index and the threshold of more than 30 percent of income going to rent
– Rate of public housing vouchers per 1,000 rental units
– Percentage of residential properties that are vacant and abandoned
– Percentage of residential properties that do not receive mail
– Percentage of employed population with commute times of 45 minutes or more

Vital Signs analyzes data provided at the Community Statistical Area level. CSAs are clusters of neighborhoods organized around census tract boundaries, which are consistent statistical boundaries. Neighborhood borders don’t always fall neatly into CSAs, but CSAs represent conditions occurring within the particular neighborhoods that comprise a CSA.

Consequences of Neighborhood Inequality

Income inequality between the wealthiest and poorest households in the United States has been growing since the 1970s. What is perhaps lesser known is that household “sorting” by income has actually contributed to an even faster-paced growth in neighborhood inequality in almost all metropolitan areas of the country. The Baltimore metropolitan region is no exception; between 1970 and 2008-2012, while household inequality grew by 13 percent, local neighborhood inequality grew by 24.8 percent.

The causes of neighborhood inequality are varied, but primarily involve the rapid depopulation from Baltimore City to the surrounding counties, the coupling of educational spending to local jurisdictional revenues, and the construction and spatial distribution of housing. A 2015 study by Harvard economists also found that long commuting times to work within neighborhoods contributed to neighborhood inequality, and in fact, was the single strongest factor affecting the odds of escaping poverty.

Differences by neighborhood are most dramatically evident in the ultimate quality of life indicator: life expectancy. To that end, racial disparities are a predictor for life expectancy. In 2016, there was a 5-year gap in life expectancy between white (76.6 years) and black (71.6 years) Baltimoreans. While race accounts for much of this difference, the spatial disparities among neighborhoods with similar racial make-up are even more apparent. For example, in two different neighborhoods with about the same percentage of white and black residents, there can be as much as a 10-year gap in life expectancy.

“It’s not just what race you are that could determine how long you’ll live,” Iyer says. “It’s what neighborhood you’re in.”

Baltimore’s Housing Market: Some Noticeable Changes

Regardless of the city’s apparent oversupply of building stock, many families struggle to find secure, stable housing in Baltimore. Part of this problem resides in decades of discriminatory housing policies, which led to the deferred maintenance of housing in many neighborhoods. Today, thousands of city properties are vacant, abandoned and uninhabitable. For the remaining housing stock, both the for-sale and rental housing markets present barriers to potential residents. On the one hand, Baltimore has the lowest for-sale housing prices in the metropolitan region; however, even though home prices in many neighborhoods are modest, access to capital is difficult as banks find it less profitable to lend in these markets.

One consistent finding is that city rents are some of the highest housing among comparable cities. For Baltimore’s nearly 50 percent of renter households, more than half are paying in excess of 30 percent of their income on rent.

“That’s a tipping-point issue for many families,” Iyer noted. “It’s the level beyond which you are likely to have trouble doing much more than living month to month, paycheck to paycheck. You’re unable to build toward a down payment on your own home. With no equity in real property, you will find many doors closed to you in terms of credit, investment, retirement planning, and so on. Homeownership is not the solution to all financial problems, but the inability to afford your own home is a sign that financial stability is not achievable.”

Vital Signs 16 provides some positive news about increases to the habitable supply of housing in Baltimore:

– Between 2015-16, the percentage of homes receiving a vacant-house notice in Baltimore City decreased from 8.2 to 8 percent. CSAs with the largest decreases in vacant and abandoned housing were Oldtown/Middle East (-8.5 percent) and Sandtown-Winchester/Harlem Park (-5.5 percent). The decrease in vacancy in Sandtown-Winchester/Harlem Park marks the first reduction for the community since Vital Signs began tracking this indicator in 2000.

– Between 2015-16, the percentage of residential properties with rehabilitation permits in excess of $5,000 in Baltimore increased from 2.9 to 3.2 percent. CSAs that experienced the largest increases in the rate of rehabilitation permits were Highlandtown (+2.1 percent) and Forest Park/Walbrook (+2 percent).

Neighborhood-Focused Economic Development

In 2016, newly-elected Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh identified workforce development and business expansion as one of five key focus areas for her administration. Neighborhood employment data from the Vital Signs report served as a catalyst for Mayor Pugh’s initiative to create the Baltimore Mobile Job units, which travel to communities with high rates of unemployment and offer assistance to residents seeking work. Early indications exist of the effectiveness of this neighborhood-focused effort as unemployment rate in Baltimore City dropped from 7 percent in January 2016 to 5.8 percent in December 2016.

The total number of jobs in Baltimore City increased from 344,588 to 350,797 between 2014-15 (the latest year available). In 2015, those communities with the highest number of jobs were Downtown/Seton Hill (78,158), Oldtown/Middle East (27,354), and Orangeville/East Highlandtown (15,235).

Tracking Violence Reduction Using Open Data

As in other cities around the country that experienced significant civil unrest in protest to concerns over police misconduct in communities, a U.S. Department of Justice investigation concluded in August 2016 that Baltimore City had violated federal anti-discrimination laws as well as multiple Constitutional amendments by conducting unlawful searches, arrests, unreasonable force, and racial targeting. A consent decree was issued for Baltimore City, laying out reforms for city police, ending zero-tolerance policing strategies in favor of a more community-oriented approach with greater accountability and oversight.

Violent crime in the city remains a pressing problem:

– Baltimore City experienced 318 homicides in 2016, a decrease from the 342 reported in 2015. In 2016, over 86 percent of the deaths were a result of a shooting. In 2016, there were 1,916 calls for shootings in Baltimore City for a rate of 1.9 reports per 1,000 residents. This is a decrease from 3.2 per 1,000 in 2015.

– The overall Part I crime rate in Baltimore City decreased between 2015-16, from 65.1 offenses per 1,000 residents to 63 offenses per 1,000 residents.

A New Sustainability Plan for Baltimore

Baltimore launched a process to update the city’s Sustainability Plan between 2016-18, which will broaden the definition of what sustainability means by focusing greater attention on issues of equity and inclusion.

Baltimore’s new plan acknowledges that “We all benefit from robust neighborhoods and thriving societies. The more equitable our city, the more sustainable we all are.” At the center of all aspects of sustainability lies the various mobility choices that exist in the city; easy access is a cornerstone to a strong, flexible economy and thus a sustainable urban center. Although Baltimore has made great strides in expanding mobility choices, e.g., the Charm City Circulator and car- and bike-sharing opportunities, according to the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance, the region received a grade of D in the latest Transportation Report Card. One reason for the low grade is the number of neighborhoods with long commutes for residents.

“It’s not hard to connect neighborhood instability with long hours spent in a car or a bus,” Iyer says. “When block after block is virtually empty during work times, problems take root.”

The 2012-16 American Community Survey shows that a significant percentage of Baltimore commuters use alternative modes of transportation to get to work; however, travel times to work have increased between 2006-10 and 2012-16.

– Based on the 2012-16 American Community Survey, 18.4 percent of city residents used public transportation to commute to work, 6.7 percent of city residents walk to work, and 59.8 percent of these residents drive to work by themselves.

– From 2006-10 to 2012-16, the percentage of city residents commuting to work with a commute longer than 45 minutes increased slightly, from 19.0 to 20.5 percent. During 2012-16, the percentage of residents with a commute greater than 45 minutes ranged from a high of 33.9 percent in Sandtown-Winchester/Harlem Park to a low of 11.3 percent in Inner Harbor/Federal Hill.

“These long commute times are not acceptable,” Iyer says. “We have to work harder to build in efficiencies for commuters, and provide them with more options as well. A healthy neighborhood is not one that empties out at all hours of the day and night, because people are struggling to get to their job. It is personally exhausting, and from the perspective of the entire city, a sign of real struggle.”


BNIA-JFI also hosts an annual workshop, Baltimore Data Day, in which community leaders, nonprofit organizations, governmental entities and civic-minded “hackers” come together to analyze the latest trends in community-based data, technology and tools, and learn how other groups are using data to support and advance constructive change. This year’s workshop will take place on July 13 on the University of Baltimore campus. Details will be announced shortly.

BNIA-JFI began in 1998 as a partnership between the Annie E. Casey Foundation and the Association of Baltimore Area Grantmakers. In 2006, BNIA joined with the University of Baltimore’s Jacob France Institute in an expansion of its capabilities. BNIA-JFI has strengthened the Vital Signs report and provided additional services and resources for those who seek data, information, and analysis about the city.

The complete Vital Signs reports, along with a separate executive summary, data, maps and other research by BNIA-JFI, are available here.

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The University of Baltimore is a member of the University System of Maryland and comprises the College of Public Affairs, the Merrick School of Business, the UB School of Law and the Yale Gordon College of Arts and Sciences.