June 29, 2015

Baltimore’s Regional Approach to Create Opportunity

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Photo: Outside view of Baltimore housing development.

Chances are that anything you’ve heard in the news about Baltimore recently has been connected to the civil unrest and the stark economic disparities that have plagued its communities for decades.  These challenges are significant, and overcoming them will require bold action and investment.  The good news is that important work is already happening to expand economic opportunities for the residents of Baltimore.

Earlier this month, I was honored to join the leadership of Baltimore’s Opportunity Collaborative (Opportunity Collaborative) consortium, which just released their Regional Plan for Sustainable Development.  The plan was funded with a $3.5 million regional planning grant from HUD’s Sustainable Communities Initiative, one of the largest awarded through this program.  This effort represents the culmination of three years of research, public engagement, demonstration projects, and peer-learning to create a roadmap to a stronger, healthier, and more equitable Baltimore. The issues of inequality and access to opportunity are among the most important that the Regional Plan aims to address.

The Baltimore region has the fourth highest median income and some of the highest levels of educational attainment in the country. It is home to world-class universities and hospitals, Fortune 1000 companies, the National Security Agency, and the Social Security Administration. In 2012, the Baltimore region had the 12th lowest poverty rate among the nation’s 100 largest metros. How does one reconcile those formidable assets with the long-term disinvestment and hopelessness felt by many of the city’s residents?

Members of the Opportunity Collaborative wisely recognized that neither set of statistics captured the complex reality of Baltimore. This region, just like metropolitan areas across the country, is a product of constantly shifting dynamics: global economic forces, past discriminatory practices such as redlining, racial zoning and restrictive covenants, growing racial and ethnic diversity, and pockets of both great opportunity and concentrated poverty.

The result of these challenges is untapped potential, a shortage of a skilled and mobile workforce, and the high social costs of trying to bridge a large wealth and achievement gap.  Achieving a substantially better set of outcomes requires the coordinated efforts of all municipalities to address problems that are truly shared.

The Opportunity Collaborative developed an impressive blueprint to guide housing, transportation, and workforce development investments in a way that lessens these disparities and connects residents to the abundance of resources that do exist throughout the region.

The plan sets ambitious but tangible goals based on a data mapping process and exemplary research on regional career pathways. The Collaborative built support on the ground through demonstration projects – a smart way to deliver short-term wins while advancing long-term systemic solutions. They are working to solve the “last mile” problem for commuters trying to reach jobs outside the reach of regional transit, expand job-readiness training and support programs to the west side of Baltimore City, and tackle the negative perceptions that some hold about Housing Choice voucher holders through a public education campaign.

This work has already had a substantial local impact. The Maryland General Assembly, recognizing the pivotal intersection of issues addressed in the plan, amended the charter of the Baltimore Metropolitan Council to include both housing and workforce development responsibilities – a move that will allow them to accelerate implementation of the plan recommendations.

Additionally, one of the Opportunity Collaborative demonstration grants funded a market study of the West Baltimore MARC Station that has led to a U.S. Department of Transportation Ladders of Opportunity Transportation Empowerment Pilot, which will spur neighborhood revitalization in the station area.

In addition, Baltimore City Public Schools will use the Collaborative’s Regional Talent Development Pipeline Study to provide opportunities for job training and employment in the technology field.

The Regional Plan builds on a legacy of collaboration in Baltimore. Prior to the establishment of the Opportunity Collaborative, grantees ofof HUD’s Office of Community Planning and Development (CPD) formed the Baltimore Regional Fair Housing Workgroup to collectively address fair housing issues at the regional level. This group also conducted a regional analysis of the impediments individuals may face when seeking to live in the communities of their choice, and have recognized the need to address these challenges.

The Opportunity Collaborative is challenging regional institutions to fulfill the promise of these recommendations, which would attract living wage jobs, support a skilled workforce, and help address the inequities that overshadow the vitality of Charm City.

Harriet Tregoning is the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary, Office of Community Planning and Development.

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