By Taya Graham and Stephen Janis

On Wednesday, Nov. 8, a coalition of housing activists marched into the offices of the city’s finance department, where they presented petitions demanding that the city adopt a plan called 20/20 Vision for Baltimore, a proposal to establish two separate $20 million funds to bolster affordable housing and fight blight through community land trusts.  

Financed by city-backed bonds, the two pools of money would be administered in part by community groups, not just the mayor or city council. Activist Destiny Watford said the distinction was critical to address the dearth of affordable housing and the further encroachment of vacant homes in neighborhoods that have received little attention from City Hall.

“This tool will allow us to keep wealth in our neighborhood,” Watford said. “It would allow us to build the things that we need in our neighborhoods because no one else in Baltimore knows what we need more than the people that live there.”

Led by Workers United, a textile and gaming union under the umbrella group United Not Blighted, the housing activists made their case during a press conference just before entering City Hall. They argued that the existing process of funneling housing funds through the city council and the mayor has not worked.

“We need for our city leaders to be more than leaders at the podium,” said Terell Askew. “We need for them to join us and this great cause of building the city into a better place to live and building us all into better people to live in it.”

This argument seemed prescient just 24 hours later when the City Council held a briefing on the myriad tax breaks the city has granted developers to stimulate growth. During the hearing finance officials presented statistics that revealed just how costly this policy has been.

Baltimore Development Corporation President William Cole told the council that in 2017 the city lost $12 million in tax revenue annually as the result of payment in lieu in taxes (PILOTs), tax incentives that allow developers to forgo taxes for a prescribed length of time. During the same period the city collected just $2 million from projects where the PILOT had either ended or was winding down.  

Deputy Budget Director Steve Kraus also told the council the that the city’s tax increment finance deals (TIFs), which hand over future property tax revenues to developers to invest in infrastructure, has almost maxed out the city’s credit.

“With Port Covington, we will reach $1 billion,” Kraus said of the amount the TIFs have contributed to the city’s debt. That number has nearly quadrupled as a result of a roughly $600 million TIF to build out Port Covington, a development backed by Under Armor billionaire Kevin Plank.

“We don’t have much room left,” Kraus said.

The numbers didn’t seem to faze the council: A number of members heaped praise on the presenters even as they failed to give an in-depth accounting of just how much the tax breaks are costing the city in aggregate, or what terms the city has committed to going forward.

The moment that best encapsulated the concerns of the 20/20 supporters was a question from Councilman Kristerfer Burnett, who asked Kraus if there was a database or web site where residents could track the progress of the growing array of tax subsidies.

“We don’t have the resources for that,” Kraus replied.

This story appears in print in the Baltimore Beat.

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