Should Baltimore provide $535 million in TIF funds for a new private development?

The CEO of Under Armour wants to develop roughly 260 acres of land in Baltimore but is asking for public funds. A large debate has ensued:

The problem is that Plank, despite being a self-made billionaire, wants a lot of help to make his vision for Port Covington a reality. To that end, his real estate firm, Sagamore, has asked the city of Baltimore for a record-breaking $535 million in so-called tax increment financing. TIFs, as these types of loans are known, are used to fund infrastructure by selling municipal bonds to private investors, and then property taxes generated by the new development are used to pay them back. Though beloved by titans of commercial real estate, TIFs tend to draw scrutiny because they divert so much money away from a city’s general fund. MuniCap, a consulting firm that Sagamore hired to analyze its TIF application, projects that Plank’s development would not yield property tax revenue for Baltimore’s coffers until about 2040, even as the site would require substantial city resources in the interim…

“[We are] outraged that, one year after the world bore witness to the decades of disinvestment in poor neighborhoods and communities of color, city leaders would respond by bending over backwards to back a $535 million playground for the rich,” Charly Carter, the executive director of Maryland Working Families, a progressive political advocacy group, says. “This is the new Jim Crow—black and brown families subsidizing wealthy developers while our own neighborhoods crumble.”…

The campaign to remake Port Covington has been aggressive and well-funded. Sagamore has already spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on marketing the development to the public, and its forceful slogan—“#WeWill build it”—suggests that the project is a fait accompli.

Which isn’t far off the mark. The Baltimore Development Corp., a public-private agency, approved Plank’s $535 million TIF request in March, and the city’s Board of Finance backed it in April. Now all it needs is the Baltimore City Council’s final approval, which could come as early as August. Activists have urged the council to postpone its vote to give the public more time to comb through the 545-page proposal. But according to Councilman Carl Stokes, who heads the body’s economic development committee, Sagamore wants the deal approved by the end of the summer.

This is often how such things are done: a wealthy business leader wants to make more money in real estate development and asks for a tax break from the city or state to help make it more profitable. (There’s nothing in this article to indicate that the Plank has threatened to move to another city.) The big city, often desperate for large projects that supposedly bring lots of jobs but also spruce up areas that few developers would be interested in, doesn’t want to hinder business. The approval is made, the money is diverted, the big development occurs, and the business leaders behind the scenes are the ones who profit the most. This is the essence of the growth machines model in urban sociology and it often involves tax breaks for developers.

What will be interesting to see is if such a project would be voted down or the money significantly cut. Again, most cities are not in the business of angering leaders of big business. But, it isn’t unheard of to negotiate for some changes to the development that might benefit more people or reduce the dependence on public funds.

Summarizing 25 years of researching the lives of 790 Baltimore kids

Three sociologists followed 790 Baltimore children over 25 years and published a book of their findings in 2014. Here is a quick summary of their results:

“The implication is where you start in life is where you end up in life,” Alexander said. “It’s very sobering to see how this all unfolds.”

Among the most striking findings:

  • Almost none of the children from low-income families made it through college. Of the children from low-income families, only 4 percent had a college degree at age 28, compared to 45 percent of the children from higher-income backgrounds. “That’s a shocking tenfold difference across social lines,” Alexander said.
  • Among those who did not attend college, white men from low-income backgrounds found the best-paying jobs. Although they had the lowest rate of college attendance and completion, white men from low-income backgrounds found high-paying jobs in what remained of Baltimore’s industrial economy. At age 28, 45 percent of them were working in construction trades and industrial crafts, compared with 15 percent of black men from similar backgrounds and virtually no women. In those trades, whites earned, on average, more than twice what blacks made. Those well-paying blue collar jobs are not as abundant as during the years after World War II, but they still exist, and a large issue today is who gets them: Among high school dropouts, at age 22, 89 percent of white dropouts were working compared with 40 percent of black dropouts.
  • White women from low-income backgrounds benefit financially from marriage and stable live-in partnerships. Though both white and black women who grew up in lower-income households earned less than white men, when you consider household income, white women reached parity with white men — because they were married to them. Black women not only had low earnings, they were less likely than whites to be in stable family unions and so were less likely to benefit from a spouse’s earnings. White and black women from low-income households also had similar teen birth rates, but white women more often had a spouse or partner, a relationship that helped mitigate the challenges. “It is access to good paying work that perpetuates the privilege of working class white men over working class black men,” Alexander said. “By partnering with these men, white working class women share in that privilege.”
  • Better-off white men were most likely to abuse drugs. Better-off white men had the highest self-reported rates of drug use, binge drinking, and chronic smoking, followed in each instance by white men of disadvantaged families; in addition, all these men reported high levels of arrest. At age 28, 41 percent of white men — and 49 percent of black men — from low-income backgrounds had a criminal conviction, but the white employment rate was much higher. The reason, Alexander says, is that blacks don’t have the social networks whites do to help them find jobs despite these roadblocks.

My quick interpretation: race and class still matter. White children could access jobs through social networks (a point also made in Deidre Royster’s Race and the Invisible Hand study of vocational students in Baltimore) and could still get jobs even with deviant behavior. White women partner with these white men and do better as a result. Starting in families with higher incomes leads to a higher likelihood of going to college. That these two social factors continue to matter should not be surprising – look at the life outcomes and changes by race/ethnicity and income for all American adults – but their presence can get drowned out.

Study tracking Baltimore kids with hundreds of interviews over 20 years shows rising out of poverty is hard

A recently published long-term study of Baltimore kids shows that escaping poverty is a difficult task:

First, its impressive length and scope; Alexander and his colleague, Doris Entwisle, devoted their careers to the project, conducting interviews of 790 children and their relatives over more than two decades. Alexander retires this summer as chair of the Hopkins sociology department; Entwisle died last year of cancer. (Linda Olson, a Hopkins instructor and researcher in the School of Education, is the third author of the report, published this month by the Russell Sage Foundation as a book titled “The Long Shadow: Family Background, Disadvantaged Urban Youth, and the Transition to Adulthood.”)…

Only 4 percent of the children from low-income families ended up with a college degree by the time they were 28. Kids from a middle-class or affluent background did 10 times better than that, with 45 percent getting a diploma.

Nearly half of the 1982 first-graders ended up at the same socioeconomic level as their parents.

By the time they were young adults, only 33 children had moved from low-income families to the high-income bracket. That doesn’t mean they didn’t want to, Alexander told me. It means they faced too many obstacles.

Stories of rising from humble origins may be popular but they are not the common pattern. Indeed, such rags-to-riches examples tend to be based on anecdotes while a project like this highlights large-scale interview data.

Bad options: “grand McMansion” vs. “cookie cutter townhouse”

This description of a Season 87 House Hunters episode suggests the homebuyers have two less than stellar options:

Ryan and Stacey have $300,000 to buy their first home outside Baltimore, but they want very different things. He dreams of a grand McMansion, but she wants a cookie cutter townhouse with a uniform look. And since they’re both a bit stubborn, neither one is willing to give an inch. Can they find a place that they can agree on, or will this house hunt become a Battle in Baltimore?

This sounds like a typical House Hunters episode: the couple have different visions on what they want and perhaps they will compromise on a third option that gives them each a little of what they want. But, the choices set up here are interesting. McMansions are disliked by numerous critics. Does Ryan himself say he wants a McMansion or is this description using this as shorthand to describe a large suburban home? Then, is a “cookie cutter townhouse” a superior alternative? Critics of McMansions might note that at least townhouses are denser developments and tend to not be as large. Yet, townhouses aren’t usually known for their fine architecture and a uniform look doesn’t help anyone distinguish themselves. Both McMansion owners and critics tend to buy into the idea that a home is supposed to express yourself – though they disagree on what should be expressed and how – and a townhouse with this sort of description wouldn’t fit the bill.

Plans for real megalopolis in China

The idea of a megalopolis dates back to the middle 1900s when people started thinking that collections of large cities, such as the large American cities on the Eastern seaboard including Boston, Hartford, New York City, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington D.C., such be considered as a larger grouping. But even this good example has cities separated by decent distances.

China is planning its own version of a megapolis near Hong Kong. The plans including merging nine cities with a combined population of 42 million:

The “Turn The Pearl River Delta Into One” scheme will create a 16,000 sq mile urban area that is 26 times larger geographically than Greater London, or twice the size of Wales.

The new mega-city will cover a large part of China’s manufacturing heartland, stretching from Guangzhou to Shenzhen and including Foshan, Dongguan, Zhongshan, Zhuhai, Jiangmen, Huizhou and Zhaoqing. Together, they account for nearly a tenth of the Chinese economy.

Over the next six years, around 150 major infrastructure projects will mesh the transport, energy, water and telecommunications networks of the nine cities together, at a cost of some 2 trillion yuan (£190 billion). An express rail line will also connect the hub with nearby Hong Kong.

“The idea is that when the cities are integrated, the residents can travel around freely and use the health care and other facilities in the different areas,” said Ma Xiangming, the chief planner at the Guangdong Rural and Urban Planning Institute and a senior consultant on the project.

This sounds like a sizable project. The article suggests that this is being done for several reasons: to achieve economy of scale in certain things (like medical services) and the ability to create unified policies for the region (including transportation and pollution initiatives). And this grouping of cities could conceivably grow even larger if Hong Kong was ever added to this mix.

The article calls this a “mega city” but I think it would fit the definition of a megalopolis perfectly. In fact, compared to most examples of a megalopolis, this one would be much better suited to the idea: the cities are relatively close and will be highly connected. Additionally, the cities are laid out more in a circle pattern rather than a line, allowing a variety of connections between urban centers.

I wonder how many planners around the world would approve of such a project. Combining certain infrastructure has its appeal as planning can be done on a broader scale and without cities constructing competing systems.

Interestingly, there are no plans to give the region a new name: “It will not be like Greater London or Greater Tokyo because there is no one city at the heart of this megalopolis.” Will future residents identify themselves as residents of the region or their specific city?

“The Wire” creator defends depiction of Baltimore

In response to comments from the Baltimore Police Commissioner that the television show The Wire is going to harm  the city, creator David Simon defended the show:

Others might reasonably argue, however that it is not sixty hours of The Wire that will require decades for our city to overcome, as the commissioner claims. A more lingering problem might be two decades of bad performance by a police agency more obsessed with statistics than substance, with appeasing political leadership rather than seriously addressing the roots of city violence, with shifting blame rather than taking responsibility.  That is the police department we depicted in The Wire, give or take our depiction of some conscientious officers and supervisors. And that is an accurate depiction of the Baltimore department for much of the last twenty years, from the late 1980s, when cocaine hit and the drug corners blossomed, until recently, when Mr. O’Malley became governor and the pressure to clear those corners without regard to legality and to make crime disappear on paper finally gave way to some normalcy and, perhaps, some police work.  Commissioner Bealefeld, who was present for much of that history, knows it as well as anyone associated with The Wire.
We made things up, true.  We have never claimed otherwise.  But respectfully, with regard to our critique, we have slandered no one.  And to the extent you can stand behind a fictional tale, we stand by ours – and more importantly, our purpose in telling that tale.

It would be interesting to consider whether television shows and movies and other fictional works can have a significant impact on what people think about locations (and even further, whether it influences people’s decisions to move to certain places). The Wire was a critically acclaimed show but one with relatively low rating and even with more widespread DVD availability, it is still not a mainstream show.

There certainly is some link. Depictions of the inner city have impacted decades of suburban residents. I’m reminded of the Japanese businessmen who my father worked with when I was younger who knew two things about Chicago: it was the home of Michael Jordan and it was home to gangsters immortalized in film.

Now whether these depictions should reflect reality or some idealized or stereotyped view is another question. Simon defends The Wire on the grounds that the show was intended to showcase a different set of priorities:

But publicly, let me state that The Wire owes no apologies — at least not for its depiction of those portions of Baltimore where we set our story, for its address of economic and political priorities and urban poverty, for its discussion of the drug war and the damage done from that misguided prohibition, or for its attention to the cover-your-ass institutional dynamic that leads, say, big-city police commissioners to perceive a fictional narrative, rather than actual, complex urban problems as a cause for righteous concern. As citizens using a fictional narrative as a means of arguing different priorities or policies, those who created and worked on The Wire have dissented.

And this is a perspective or story that is rarely discussed in much depth.

I would be curious to hear how Simon would want people to view Baltimore after watching the show. Should they identify with the residents? Should they dislike the institutions? And ultimately, what should or could the viewers do to help change the situation?

Another consequence of financial crunch: public housing repairs

The New York Times reports that public housing repairs have fallen even more behind due to the financial crunch affecting many governmental bodies: “Public housing is falling apart around the country, as federal money has been unable to keep up with the repair needs of buildings more than half a century old.”

While the story goes on to address particular cases in Baltimore and New York City, it’s hard to know from the story about how much of an issue this is. How much worse is the issue compared to five years ago? The only figure cited about a national figure for repairs was derived from a 1998 study. In Chicago over the last few decades, public housing repairs were frequently behind and more funding was requested even when economic times were good.