By Lea Skene,
The Associated Press
In 2018, Angela Banks received bad news from her landlord: Baltimore officials were buying her family’s home of four decades, planning to demolish the three-story brick row house to make room for a beleaguered urban renewal project aimed at transforming a historically Black neighborhood. Banks and her children became homeless almost overnight. With nowhere else to go, they spent months sleeping in her aging Ford Explorer.
Roughly five years later, the house remains standing, and plans to redevelop west Baltimore’s Poppleton neighborhood have largely stalled, even after the city displaced Banks and many of her neighbors.
Banks filed a complaint Feb. 13 asking federal officials to investigate whether Baltimore’s redevelopment policies are perpetuating racial segregation and violating fair housing laws by disproportionately displacing Black and low-income residents. Her experience presents the latest example of Black Baltimoreans losing their homes to redevelopment after watching their neighborhoods suffer from growing disinvestment — while Whiter, more affluent communities flourish, Banks and her attorneys argue.
“I lost everything,” Banks told The Associated Press. “It’s like we had no voice. We could make noise, but nobody would hear us.”
Ordered to vacate quickly, her family ended up leaving behind many of their belongings.
During a recent visit to the neighborhood, Banks stepped cautiously through an unsecured back door and peered inside the house, wondering aloud whether squatters had moved in. Her eyes settled first on the marbled vinyl floor tiles she installed herself many years ago. She also encountered extensive water damage and rotting drywall, unfamiliar furniture, clothes and other personal items. Startled by her presence, two black cats scurried down the second-floor hallway and disappeared into a hiding spot.
“This was home,” she said, shaking her head.
Her landlord sold the house to the city voluntarily in 2018, but other Poppleton homeowners have been subjected to eminent domain, when the government seizes private property for public use.
Once relatively common in American cities, using the practice for revitalization and infrastructure projects has largely fallen out of favor. Some cities are currently working to provide reparations to Black residents, acknowledging the harm caused by urban renewal efforts and other discriminatory practices.
Banks reminisced about her children swimming in Poppleton’s public pool while she socialized with neighbors on their stoops. Since then, over 100 occupied homes have been seized, according to the complaint. The pool and nearby recreation center closed years ago, Banks said. Poppleton is about 93% Black, according to 2020 census data.
“Baltimore has long been a tale of two cities,” said Marceline White, executive director of Economic Action Maryland, which joined Banks in filing the complaint and organized a news conference Feb. 13 in Poppleton.
In 1910, Baltimore leaders enacted the country’s first residential segregation ordinance that restricted African American homeowners to certain blocks.
In addition to redlining, Poppleton residents experienced “slum clearance” starting in the 1930s with construction of Poe Homes, a public housing complex named after a nearby onetime residence of the famous poet Edgar Allan Poe. The number of displaced Black families was larger than the number of housing units created, according to the complaint.
Then came Baltimore’s so-called “Highway To Nowhere,” which was designed to connect the downtown business district to interstates surrounding the city. Officials used eminent domain to demolish nearly 1,000 homes in the 1960s and ’70s, cutting a swath through majority-Black west Baltimore and severing ties between Poppleton and other nearby communities.
Construction of the thoroughfare was never finished — partly because residents in more affluent neighborhoods successfully campaigned against it — and the endeavor became largely pointless.
“What’s happening now in Poppleton is a reflection of what has happened before, part of an unbroken chain of policies and practices,” said Lawrence Brown, a research scientist at Morgan State University. “There is a pattern.”
Plans for Poppleton’s urban renewal surfaced in the 1970s. By that time, Brown said, the neighborhood had already been experiencing mistreatment and disinvestment for decades.
In 2006, city officials signed an agreement with a New York-based company, La Cite Development. Construction has been completed on two mixed-use buildings with 262 rental units, but many other aspects of the $800 million project haven’t materialized. Initial plans identified over 500 properties the company would redevelop near a University of Maryland biomedical research park, just outside the downtown business district.
Company officials didn’t respond to a recent request for comment.
Baltimore leaders have said they’re committed to revitalizing an increasingly blighted community suffering from population loss, but Poppleton residents accuse them of catering to big developers at the expense of homeowners and renters.
In 2015, the city agreed to partially subsidize the Poppleton redevelopment project. That was after officials tried to terminate their agreement with the developer, citing a lack of progress, but the company sued and won.
Mayor Brandon Scott, who took office in 2020, pledged his commitment to “advancing fairness and equity in housing for all residents.” In a statement Feb. 16, he said his administration “has taken significant steps to address the housing inequities of the past through substantial investments in formerly redlined communities.”
The movement to save Poppleton’s existing homes galvanized around longtime resident Sonia Eaddy, who recently won a decades-long fight when Scott announced her row house would be removed from the redevelopment plan after negotiations with the developer. A nearby block of rainbow-colored historic row houses will be rehabbed by a local nonprofit that helps Black women achieve homeownership, officials also announced.
Eaddy said she celebrated the victory, but she’s not done fighting for reform.
“Eminent domain is an act of violence. It’s being used to perpetuate gentrification,” she said during Monday’s news conference.
Most displaced residents have been offered financial assistance. Banks said she didn’t initially qualify because her landlord sold the property voluntarily, but the city later gave her compensation she used to pay off debts.
Her complaint lists a series of potential remedies, including additional compensation and priority access to affordable housing for displaced residents. She filed the complaint with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which said it was unable to comment on pending investigations.
Banks’ former neighbor, Parcha McFadden, recently left the family home she inherited after losing her father, who invested in the property with future generations in mind. She and her daughter have been living in a rented apartment while their old house sits vacant.
“Homeownership is part of the American dream, but it can so easily be ripped away,” she said. “How is this American? How is this the American dream?”