Baltimore’s overall population has been declining for decades, but with its immigrant population on the rise, local agencies see the city’s abundance of dilapidated row homes as a potential solution to an immigrant housing shortage.
According to the mayor’s office, the 2020 census indicated that between 2010 and 2019 the number of Baltimore’s foreign-born residents increased 13.8 percent; and the city’s Latino population increased more than 40 percent. And in the past year, more than 500 Afghans fleeing the Taliban resettled in Baltimore.
Affordable housing is a major need for recent arrivals who often bring little or nothing with them, along with getting a job and securing food.
With upwards of 15,000 vacant properties as reported by the mayor, the hope of reclaiming at least some of them for a new generation of American immigrants in Baltimore is palpable for some local agency leaders.
Seeding abandoned city neighborhoods with enough immigrant households to build real communities is just an idea now. But it is under serious consideration.
“The gradual receding population in Baltimore is a sad situation,” said Pat Jones, executive director of the Immigration Outreach Service Center. “I think that it is one that could be greatly helped by opening up some of these vacant (properties), rehabilitating them, and making them available, either for purchase or rent, to some of our immigrants coming in to the city. It might create communities that would spur more growth in the city. I’d like to see that.”
Jones said that multiple organizations are looking into tapping vacant properties to address the city’s affordable housing dilemma. The hope is that they can be used to help fill a need of all marginalized Baltimore populations, including immigrants.
Baltimore was built on the vitality of immigrant neighborhoods. The possibility of reseeding neglected
urban areas to create new growth for ethnic communities is one that has precedent too.
“Baltimore was Little Italy and Little Poland,” Jones said. “There were groups all over the city.”
She noted neighborhoods have been transformed by immigration even in her own lifetime. The southern part of Wolfe Street and Broadway, once deteriorating, was transformed by Latino newcomers.
“A lot of Hispanic, Latinx and various immigrants came into that area and started opening shops, really bringing people back to that part of the city,” she recalled. “They really created something very special down there. I think the same thing is possible in a lot of the areas of the city.”
Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president of Lutheran Immigration and Relief Service, has the same dream for Baltimore. The Lutheran organization has a presence around the country, but about half of the thousands of clients it’s served this year are in the Baltimore-Washington region. The organization is working toward making affordable immigrant housing a reality. The agency is hoping to replicate a successful program it has at its Albuquerque, New Mexico branch, where it partnered with Habitat for Humanity to create family homes for immigrants.
“We’re not in the development or renovation business,” she said. “Our hope is that we can find a partner who is. With so many dilapidated row homes in Baltimore, population decline and the affordable housing challenge that our clients experience, we think that it’s a huge win-win opportunity if we can encourage our clients to find homes and create new communities in Baltimore,”
While the Lutheran agency moves towards collaboration, the outreach service center recently acquired a former convent at 5405 Loch Raven Boulevard as their new offices, and is converting the second and third floor of the building to immigrant housing too. The building is expected to provide housing for 13 women and children. The agency already spent $75,000 for smoke and carbon monoxide alarms, as well as water damage remediation.
“We’ve done a lot and I think we’re almost there.,” Jones said. “We’re going to have an inspector come and look at it, but I need to get the furniture out first. There’s some old furniture that is just taking up space. We’re hoping to get that out in the next week or two.”
Their clients, the immigrants who come to Baltimore, include refugees and asylum seekers. There is an important distinction between the later categories regarding their status. Refugees leave their home country and apply for United Nations guaranteed refugee status. When they get that status they are funded to come to the United States and to get several months of assistance here.
Asylum seekers leave their country and come on their own to the United States. Within a year of arriving they ask for asylum.
“Refugees come with money,” Jones explained. “Asylum seekers have to spend their own money Refugees have to pay it back eventually, but asylum seekers have to come pretty well funded, or with family here already, or they can’t survive because they can’t get work papers.”
Newcomers bring their life story to Baltimore with them. Sometimes that includes a recent history of trauma and hardship.
“For the Ukrainian children, particularly the ones who fled early on, they were oftentimes fleeing with just their mother because their father had to stay behind and fight,” Vignarajah said. “So that obviously causes stress of whether they would ever see their father again.
“With the Afghan children we’ve served in the last year we’ve seen mental health challenges related to a very uncertain trip to the U.S. – just the trauma of the evacuation, everything that happened at the Kabul airport. For some they were separated from their parents as they were traveling to the U.S. For others they traveled alone because their parents were so desperate to get them out of the country,”
The city is offering a mosaic of programs to provide help. On October 12, Mayor Brandon Scott and the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs announced the creation of the Baltimore New American Access Coalition. The coalition is a partnership between the city, Catholic Charities Esperanza Center, The International Rescue Committee, CASA, and Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service.
It plans to train several benefit navigators to help immigrants maneuver through applications and paperwork, and acquire help from local services. It is funded by $4 million from the city’s American Rescue Plan Act funds.
There are many programs to navigate. The 2,000 immigrants the immigrant outreach center helped last year have access to the organization’s legal consultation, language services, financial literacy, computer literacy, and tutoring services. There are also some built in bonuses for participants.
“In our computer literacy course we actually offer people a Chromebook so they can practice at home,” Jones said. “If they come to 90 percent of the classes, and do all the homework assignments, they can keep the Chromebook.”
The organization also distributes a combined monthly total of about $500 in food gift cards to their most food insecure clients, Jones said.
Among its efforts, the Lutheran organization provides help with mental health assistance for immigrants, and it just completed a clothing drive to provide outfits for clients on job interviews. And they are moving forward with even more ambitious outreach.
The agency has formed New American Community Lending. The Community Development Financial Institution offers clients a step towards their American dreams.
“We know that helping people establish credit and secure a loan for things like a first car is vital to financial independence,” Krishna said. “We’re really excited to launch that for clients in Baltimore.”
Although funding is always an issue for these agencies, their leadership remains confident that they can build a better Baltimore with persistence, cooperation and ingenuity. Their network of existing programming suggests turning vacant row home landscapes into thriving ethnic neighborhoods may only be a matter of hard work and time.
“Our view is that immigration in our area is a win-win,” Vignarajah said. “We’ve seen how a growing immigrant population has transformed cities like Detroit and Utica. We think they bring a similar potential to Baltimore.”