Park Heights, like so many neighborhoods across the country, reflects a legacy of years of housing policy that confined black residents to poor areas. After the Great Depression, federally-backed mortgages made it easy for whites to buy homes, but nearly impossible for blacks to do so. Banks refused to lend in predominantly black “redlined” neighborhoods, because the investment was deemed hazardous, and white neighborhood associations enacted restrictive covenants to keep blacks out. In the 60s, real-estate agents stoked fears of black incursion in Park Heights by flipping white-owned homes one at a time—a practice known as blockbusting. As whites fled in the subsequent decade, Park Heights transformed from 95 percent white and predominantly Jewish to 95 percent black.
In 1967, Otto Kerner, then the governor of Illinois, led a commission that looked into the causes of urban unrest in cities like Detroit, Newark, Los Angeles, and Chicago. The Kerner Commission’s final report revealed discrimination entrenched in federal housing policies ranging from how home loans were granted to where public housing was built. The commission warned of a nation “moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.” This prophecy only became more true as public housing stock aged and inner cities across the country declined. The reality today in cities such as Baltimore is not far off from this prophecy.
In the 1990s, facing levels of concentrated poverty never before seen, Henry Cisneros, the secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), proposed to “end public housing as we know it.” Nationwide, blighted high-rise towers were demolished, and vouchers were used to transfer much of the burden of sheltering the poor to the private market. Out of the five million households across the country that receive some form of federal housing assistance, over half now live in privately-owned properties. By making up the difference between what a needy household can afford and the cost of a unit in the private market, the voucher was supposed to create opportunities for people to move to safer neighborhoods with better schools and more jobs. By many accounts, it hasn’t.
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In Baltimore, where nearly all of the high-rise public housing was torn down in the 90s, one in five households lives under the federal poverty line and the voucher rate is one of the highest in the country. Landlords face high vacancy rates and have difficulty collecting rent from poverty-stricken tenants. Filling all of those vacancies requires that landlords play a complicated game of matching tenant characteristics—such as family size, race, voucher status, and financial risk—to property characteristics such as size, condition, and location.
As landlords manage their portfolio of properties across different types of neighborhoods, they cherry-pick the tenants they want and match them to the units they most need to fill. “The thing is, you don’t need a lot of help when it’s a good area. But in the bad area, that’s when it’s hard,” says Oscar Mayfield, a landlord who also works as a property manager. “The key is, you got to understand that everyone needs somewhere to live. There’s a tenant for every house. You’ve just got to find the right tenant.”