Support radically independent journalism.
As Trump unloads a racist attack on Baltimore, we speak with author Lawrence Lanahan, who charts the history of segregation from redlining to the civil rights movement
JAISAL NOOR Welcome to The Real News. I’m Jaisal Noor in Baltimore.
A raucous crowd packed the July meeting of the commission overseeing Baltimore’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund. The fund— the result of nearly a decade of successful community organizing— mandates authorities subsidize affordable housing in a city that’s faced a huge shortage for decades. Local resident and activist, Destiny Watford, the winner of the 2016 Goldman Prize, one of the most prestigious international environmental awards, said the community is prepared to continue the fight for housing that’s affordable to working people.
DESTINY WATFORD, ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE ORGANIZER I just want to remind the commissioners that as [inaudible], we fought for two years canvassing in the blazing hot sun during summer to not only create the fund, but to make sure that the money goes into the fund. We know how to fight and I just want to remind you guys of that. That if the money, for whatever reason it seems like it’s not going to go where it needs to go— to permanently affordable housing— we will fight you. Not physically. [audience laughs and cheers]
JAISAL NOOR For generations, housing policy has been used as a weapon against Baltimore’s poor black residents. Redlined government maps from the 1930s serve as stark predictors for today’s disparities in violence, lead poisoning, and even life expectancy. But what often gets less attention are the stories of those who have not only been directly impacted by those policies, but are on the forefront of fighting back against them. Well, a new book offers what can be described as a people’s history of the fight for fair housing in the entire region. It’s called The Lines Between Us: Two Families and a Quest to Cross Baltimore’s Racial Divide. It’s by author and journalist Lawrence Lanahan, who’s joining us now in the studio.
LAWRENCE LANAHAN Thank you so much, Jaisal. I really appreciate you bringing me in.
JAISAL NOOR So let’s start with this news. You know, we have for years now community groups fighting and winning demands for affordable housing in Baltimore City, the city that pioneered racial segregation. What’s the significance of these recent victories and this ongoing activism to ensure that the promise that, you know, the voters approved on the ballot box to create this fund actually does what it’s intended to do?
LAWRENCE LANAHAN Well, I guess I could illustrate it with a story. In the book, I talk about a meeting. It feels like ancient history, but it was in the year 2000. They wanted to put ten—They wanted to renovate ten houses for use as public housing in northeast Baltimore. And probably 800-900 people showed up to this school auditorium and—No, that’s how many got in. Like 1,200 people showed up, lots of people in the auditorium waving signs like “No Section 8,” you know, “We don’t want public housing.” And outside there are a couple hundred people going, “let us in, let us in,” to keep affordable housing out. Sixteen years later, I was outside the War Memorial Building when there was a city council hearing on the application by Sagamore Development. That’s part of the real estate group co-founded by the owner of Under Armour.
They wanted to do all this development in South Baltimore on the waterfront and they wanted a tax increment financing package. And the community said we want a community benefits agreement, and so there was a city council hearing. Well, I would say there were 6-700 or 800 people there and they closed the door because they couldn’t fit everybody. And you had all these people— not just white people this time— people of all backgrounds saying, “let us in, let us in,” because they wanted to make sure that if there was going to be a new neighborhood, that it would be accessible to everybody. That there would be affordable housing and that they would reserve a certain percentage of the housing for certain income levels. So I see just the people showing up to that as a victory. You can quibble about what they got out of it. There was a $100 million community benefits agreement, which did a lot in, you know, gives a lot to black communities.
But in what’s probably going to be a mostly white community at Port Covington, they have loopholes where they don’t really have to build any affordable housing at all. They can put money into affordable housing elsewhere. So I feel like you had this string— and I try to follow this narrative throughout the book— of the initial organizing for region-wide fair housing through the Thompson v. HUD suit in the 90s and 2000s up to Port Covington and up to just the other night in Curtis Bay this meeting about the Affordable Housing Trust Fund. So when lots of people show up from the community, and they know what’s going on in City Hall and they know what the policies can do, when you go from the bottom and you start tugging on the top, you do start to see some victories. There’s a long way to go housing-wise in this region, but I don’t know. I wasn’t able to make it to that meeting, but I suspect it must have been pretty inspiring to see the people fighting for permanent— not just give us a little bit now, but permanent— institutionalized, you know, affordable housing.
JAISAL NOOR Yeah. It’s really—The land trusts are really a new vision and they’ve been successful in many places and successful in Baltimore as well. But it’s a new vision of what you can do when housing isn’t commodified. It becomes the right, sort of, in the commons where it’s collective ownership. And so, I wanted to really get into your book, but start off by why you chose the title, The Lines Between Us, and what you’re trying to tell us there.
LAWRENCE LANAHAN That’s sort of a trick because once I say “us,” anybody who hears me say it is implicated, right? That’s—Any us includes me if we’re in this conversation. So I wanted it to be—I wanted people to see Baltimore not as like a city with city problems, but as an entire region that is connected and is beset by harmful policies and personal prejudices that get institutionalized into policy. So The Lines Between Us, it says there is an us. We’re together in this region, you know. And then the lines, you know, tell you that something is wrong. So we are being pushed apart. Even the most well-meaning person if they just kind of sit back, you know, and let our economy and government go on autopilot, it will always generate inequality and segregation.
So the lines are—There are some real clinical lines, you know, that are like if you do a data map of where there’s more opportunity and less opportunity, you can see clinical lines. And you can have some policy that tries to create more racial equity and that’s great, but there are also lines that personally many of us tend not to cross. And once you do cross them, I wanted people to feel that. What are your obligations? What happens with the dynamics when people try to cross these lines? So it’s, I mean, it’s about policy and data maps and stuff, but it’s also about— this might sound corny— but souls. I mean, what happens when you cross these lines and you are bound to a soul that a policy is trying to keep you away from?
JAISAL NOOR Yeah. And I think you do a masterful job tying in the history and the policy with the stories. So I wanted you to talk a little bit about Nicole Smith and she plays a central role in this book. Talk about who she is, and how these policies affected her, and what she did to try to escape essentially.
LAWRENCE LANAHAN Yeah. She’s the first person you see on the first page of the book, and the last person you see on the last page of the book, and I really wanted to center her. I mean, it’s about us, but these policies play out in black Baltimore. So she is a black mom who grew up all over West Baltimore. Her mom bought a house when she was in eighth grade in Penn North, which we all know what happened in 2015 in Penn North. That’s when everything came down from Mondawmin. That was ground zero for all the unrest in April 2015. So. But she’s there 20 years earlier, right? And it’s just—It is her life and when she has her son, their life. And you see her grow up in West Baltimore, and then you see her cross paths with a federal public housing desegregation lawsuit, Thompson v. HUD.
And because Nicole had lived in Murphy Homes for a little while, a high-rise public housing project when she was younger, she qualified for a special housing voucher that came out of the remedy for that lawsuit. It was a Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher. You could only use it in areas that were less than 26% minority population and a poverty rate of no more than 10%. All the places that had traditionally fought assisted or public or, you know, low-income housing, this lawsuit created thousands of opportunities for people like Nicole to move out there. So she eventually moves with her son to Columbia, a planned community, planned for diversity and inclusion. And she, you know, by the end of the book, you’re just out in Columbia with her and you see how her life and her son’s life change as a result of individual decisions and preferences, but also shaped by policy and the history of the region.
JAISAL NOOR And you also have Mark and Betty Lange who also play significant roles and, sort of, in their trajectories go in an opposite direction than Nicole’s. Talk a little bit about them, and why you decided to include these two white figures in the story, and their significance.
LAWRENCE LANAHAN Well, to the degree that we live in separate worlds and there are lines between us, that’s who the lines are between. Not because anybody is opposed to anybody in particular; that is how the region places us. And so, I wanted to write about a white family too. And Mark and Betty I thought were really interesting because— I guess I’ll just give this away— they live in Bel Air, which is where I grew up. Like, a very white, at that point, middle to upper-income suburb, exurb out in Harford County. It can be a 40 minutes outside of Baltimore— living out there, living the American dream. But they were very religious and they had friends who had started a multiracial church in Sandtown. They had moved from Howard County to Sandtown to start this church and do community development and started this Habitat for Humanity office down there. And eventually, they kind of feel compelled to do the same thing.
They leave their life in Bel Air behind and they move to Sandtown in 2005 to live in solidarity with the black poor. I thought that was a pretty unusual story for this region. And what I didn’t want to do is just like try to find the perfect black family to represent everything I wanted to explore, and the perfect white family to represent everything I wanted to explore. There’s no way I was going to land on that. I was not going to find that. I picked Nicole because I had already reported on her. I picked Mark because I had already reported on him. What I discovered after that reporting is I had sort of found a real sort of central tension that could serve a story about our region, which is when it comes to policymaking, when we bother to deal with residential segregation, racial inequality, deconcentrating poverty, there are kind of two ways we typically go about it.
One, which has gone on for a long time, is community development. Or if they pour like hundreds of millions of dollars in, you know, they call them Comprehensive Community Initiatives-Neighborhood Transformation. They did that in Sandtown in the 90s. Jim Rouse who had built Columbia teamed up with Mayor Kurt Schmoke and— what does “BUILD” stand for— Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development. They were like, we’re going to change every aspect of life in Sandtown. We’re going to pour in all this money. We’re going to empower people who live here. And they spent anywhere from $60 to $130 million, depending on who you ask, in the 90s and the early 2000s to transform Sandtown. So that’s one way of doing it, right? Take the place where there’s not opportunity, and try to bring the opportunity there.
And then I chronicled the growing movement of housing mobility, which says fair housing law compels us to create choices all throughout the region for people of any racial background, disability, family size, and, you know, socioeconomic status tracks so closely with that. So like, let’s get people out of those neighborhoods, out to where the opportunity already is. So instead of bringing the opportunity to where the people poor people are, you take the poor people out to where there’s opportunity— which is the places that have always resisted low-income housing. And I realize that you have this white family moving from Bel Air to Sandtown crossing the lines. You have this black family moving from Penn North to Columbia crossing the lines.
I thought the lines would come out in very sharp relief if you saw the stories of them crossing those lines. And it would illustrate, like through Mark and Betty’s story, you’d see what happened in Sandtown with the massive community development. With Nicole, you’d see housing mobility. And it’s not like you have to pick one or the other. Sometimes when there are limited resources, people pit those huge strategies against one another. But, you know, that is a lot of what we do, is try to build up these neighborhoods and try to provide people opportunities in places where they’ve been resisted.