Alethea never liked her apartment on the western edge of Baltimore — and for good reason. (We’re only using her first name for her safety and to protect her privacy.) Water leaked through the roof every time it rained. Mold grew across the bedroom wall. Her landlord took months to fix the leak, but he left the mold where it was. He just painted over it.
The 41-year-old mother of three spent a lot of time worrying about safety, especially for her 3-year-old son, Jeremiah. Baltimore’s homicide rate hit an all-time high last year, and the city has one of the highest rates of violent crime in the country.
“I was always coming down throughout the night checking out the house making sure nobody broke the glass to get in,” she says. “I would keep most of the lights on because I used to be scared to be in the house.”
So in October, Alethea packed up and left.
“I see women who lost kids. That’s why I want to get out of here,” Alethea says.
She signed up for a program that moves longtime residents out of the city’s poorest, most dangerous neighborhoods and gives them vouchers to settle in nearby, more affluent suburbs.
It’s called the Baltimore Housing Mobility Program (BRHP). It started in 2002, and has since moved more than 4,000 people out of the city. Some see it as a way to give low-income Baltimore residents new opportunities in neighborhoods that would otherwise be out of reach.
Barbara Samuels, the managing attorney for fair housing at the Maryland ACLU, helped file the lawsuit that led to this program. She remembers one woman who testified on its behalf, a client who had moved with her children from a public housing complex Baltimore to a suburb.
“She talked about her nephew who had lived in the same public housing development that she had lived in and who had been killed on his way to the grocery store,” Samuels says. The mother who moved felt that her sons had been spared. “She felt like it was life and death, that the program had saved lives.”
But others question whether money spent to move residents out of Baltimore ought to be invested in repairing the city’s core.
“They should not have to uproot their whole lives just for the opportunity to have a better house or even a better school,” says Bishop Douglas Miles, a longtime community organizer from Baltimore’s Koinonia Baptist Church.
Moving to opportunity
Baltimore gets a lot of attention for its problems. In addition to its crime rate, nearly a quarter of its residents live in poverty. Baltimore and its surrounding suburbs are starkly segregated by race and class — a pattern set in motion by policymakers in the early 20th century that continues to this day.
In 2005, a federal judge found the government liable for segregating public housing in Baltimore, in violation of federal civil rights law — and ordered the agency to fix it.
Samuels and her team negotiated with the federal government on a settlement, which included funding for the housing mobility program that moves longtime residents like Alethea out of Baltimore.
The vast majority of BRHP participants live in Baltimore, often in public housing, and always in neighborhoods with a great deal of poverty. Nearly all of them are black. They’re moving to “Opportunity Areas,” determined by the program through a mix of census data and other metrics. These areas have a lot more wealth, including job opportunities and resource-rich schools. Residents tend to be white.
Over the past few decades, research from economists like Raj Chetty has found that where children grow up is integral to their success as adults. BRHP’s administrators know this, too, and that’s why so many of the program’s participants are moms like Alethea, with young children like Jeremiah. Growing up in his new neighborhood, Jeremiah is much more likely to escape poverty as an adult.
That’s one of the reasons demand for this program is so high. It vastly exceeds what BRHP can provide: Nearly 15,000 people are on the waitlist, and BRHP decided to close its waitlist last year because administrators didn’t want to give Baltimoreans false hope that they’d eventually get a voucher.
Alethea started in the program last May.
BRHP includes a series of workshops, on goal-setting, banking and budgeting, dealing with landlords, and searching for an apartment on the private market. The workshops are led by a dynamic trainer named Alnita Sherrill. She guides participants through downloading credit reports, setting goals, finding an apartment, and reams of paperwork.
The program is restricted in some ways: No one with violent or drug-related criminal convictions in the past five years is allowed. There are also a lot of requirements. Participants are assigned to attend seven workshops, two hours each on weekdays, in the morning or afternoon. Clients can reschedule if necessary, but Alethea had to rearrange her schedule to be there.
Even so, she finished all of her workshops in two months. When she finally got her voucher, she told me, “I guess I was the happiest person in the class. I said, ‘Y’all don’t understand, I been waiting for this. This is a breakthrough for me.’”
She decided on a new place in Anne Arundel County. It’s only 20 minutes southeast of her old apartment in Baltimore, but there are a lot of differences.
I compared Alethea’s new neighborhood to her old one on the Opportunity Atlas, a mapping tool from the Census Bureau, Harvard University, and Brown University. It uses census data on class, race, employment, and other metrics, to find the neighborhoods that give children the best opportunities to escape poverty.
Alethea’s new neighborhood has people with higher incomes, a much lower poverty rate, and a lot more job growth, compared to her neighborhood in Baltimore.
Her new neighborhood is also much more mixed, racially. It’s about 50-50, white and nonwhite. Her old neighborhood was 95 percent nonwhite.
Alethea feels much safer in her new neighborhood. She doesn’t wake up in the middle of the night, worrying someone might break in. When we talked at her new apartment, she told me, “I just love to just sit here like I’m sitting here now; I love to just unwind, just relax. I am comfortable.”
“The neighbors come and introduce themselves, welcome you to the neighborhood,” Alethea says.
Stefanie DeLuca, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins University, has studied BRHP and its graduates. She found that most of the participants are really happy with the opportunities provided by their new neighborhoods, especially the quality schools. They also feel safer and much less stressed in their new homes. And the majority of participants have stayed in Opportunity Areas, even after the two years required by the program.
“One of the most dominant issues in the Baltimore region is race”
Still, the program has its detractors. Bishop Miles wanted the city to build affordable housing inside its limits with the settlement funds from the lawsuit against HUD. And he worries that the program doesn’t prepare participants enough for life outside the city.
“I do not think that many people who have been relocated out of Baltimore have been prepared to face the level of discrimination they receive,” Miles says. “One of the most dominant issues in the Baltimore region is race.”
BRHP’s administrators know this.
“We deal with discrimination in the neighborhoods, police officers that profile — you hear it all,” Sherrill, the workshop trainer, explains. “That’s why these workshops are really good because I get a chance to prepare them for it. To let them know, your children may be looked at differently at times.”
She mentioned one client in particular, a woman who had lived in the same suburban house for more than a decade.
“She said it wasn’t always easy, but it was worth it,” Sherrill says. Especially “when her children got to the age where they’re off to college.”
Alethea is happy with her decision to move. So far, she hasn’t encountered the racism that Miles’s congregants have seen in the suburbs. But the program can only provide so many vouchers. In the meantime, there are lots of families like Alethea’s, waiting for an opportunity.