Housing Policy Is Key to Freddie Gray’s Baltimore—and the City’s Future

Alan Jenkins

with Diego Iniguez-Lopez

“What happens to a dream deferred?” asked Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes. “Maybe it just sags like a heavy load,” he opined. “Or does it explode?”

We saw the answer in late April, when the deferred dream of equal justice and opportunity exploded in Baltimore.

The eruption was sparked by the death of Freddie Gray a week after he suffered a spinal cord injury while in police custody. The Maryland State’s Attorney has since announced criminal charges against six police officers involved in Gray’s arrest and detention and Baltimore mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has called for the Department of Justice to investigate the city for patterns of civil rights abuses.

The protests around Gray’s death not only demand answers, but highlight a deep divide between police and communities and African Americans’ longstanding civil rights concerns. Unjust police practices have fanned the flames of indignation in Baltimore, to be sure. But the roots of injustice and isolation run far deeper, and implicate decades of decisions by the region’s policymakers.

The lack of opportunity in Gray’s neighborhood of Sandtown-Winchester and others like it is not the natural order of things, but rather the result of policies that perpetuate segregation, concentrated poverty, and inequality. In 2005, one year before the city was sued for the pattern and practice of arresting people without probable cause (the city eventually settled), federal judge Marvin J. Garbis wrote: “Baltimore City should not be viewed as an island reservation for use as a container for all of the poor of a contiguous region” in his Thompson v. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) decision. In Thompson, African Americans argued that, for decades, HUD and successive city administrations discriminated against the community and concentrated African Americans in public housing that was segregated and excluded from opportunities in other prosperous and integrated neighborhoods.

Living in high-opportunity and inclusive communities is critical because it improves the lives of families, and particularly children’s prospects, by giving them access to high-quality schools, youth programs, more positive peer-group influences, reduced violence, and—due to reduced stress and greater employment—more effective parenting. It also expands access to job opportunities for adults that are otherwise not available. It can also reduce families’ proximity to hazardous and radioactive materials, childhood asthma, lead and pesticide poisoning, and other health risks. Inclusive communities benefit families, neighborhoods, and our nation as a whole. Unfortunately, Baltimore knows the inverse.

Judge Garbis agreed that HUD engaged in a pattern or practice of discriminating against African Americans and that it failed to ameliorate the effects of past racial discrimination, as required by the Fair Housing Act of 1968. His decision also found that Baltimore’s slum clearance and urban renewal policies failed to racially integrate the city while its wealthier neighborhoods successfully resisted family public housing and integration. These patterns add to a long list of policies in modern Baltimorean history that includes legal segregation, racially restrictive covenants, redlining, and subprime loans, all of which strip entire communities of mobility, wealth and life opportunities.

That legacy is still with us. We see it in segregated neighborhoods such as Sandtown-Winchester, where, compared with other parts of the city, children have the highest rates of dangerous levels of lead in their blood, 51 percent of children live in poverty, and the unemployment rate is 21 percent for residents 16 years of age and older. These were all causes of outrage—and housing policy helped to create the conditions.

Baltimore is hardly alone. Past and present housing and land-use decisions have segregated low-income people of color and isolated communities from opportunity in many parts of the country, including the St. Louis metropolitan area where the U.S. Department of Justice also found a pattern of police abuse after declining to prosecute the Ferguson, Mo. officer who fatally shot Michael Brown.

It doesn’t have to be this way. The settlement in Thompson created the Baltimore Housing Mobility Program, a voucher program that has helped more than 2,000 families move from high-poverty, highly segregated neighborhoods to low-poverty and racially diverse communities in the Baltimore metropolitan region since 2003. As a result of improved housing options, these families can take advantage of increased opportunities in education, employment, transportation, health and sustainability. The program is small relative to the history and needs of Baltimore, but it has a lasting impact on the lives of the families that it touches.

The Opportunity Agenda has identified this type of voucher program as one of many policy solutions to address the urgent needs in Baltimore City and high-poverty communities across the nation. There are also programs that increase opportunities within low-income communities, such as inclusionary zoning policies that create affordable housing and measures that prevent the displacement of residents in neighborhoods undergoing gentrification.

These policies not only expand housing and other opportunities, but are steps that states and municipalities, including Baltimore, can take to come into compliance with the Fair Housing Act. The Act requires recipients of federal funds to take proactive steps to address and overcome residential segregation, poverty concentrated along racial and ethnic lines, and inequality in access to education, employment, transportation, health and sustainability. Unfortunately, the federal government has never consistently implemented or enforced this requirement before now.

“If we are serious about solving this problem,” as President Obama stated in his remarks about Baltimore, then we must look at what happened in late April as being beyond a law-and-order issue that will be solved solely by reforms to police practices and the criminal justice system. That’s definitely part of it. But if we are to address the roots of hopelessness and unequal opportunity as well as human rights violations in Baltimore and places like it, then we need deeper, structural change―and we need it urgently.

One way that the Obama administration should act is by releasing a final regulation from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) on affirmatively furthering fair housing. This would clarify and strengthen the legal obligation of states and municipalities that receive federal funds, compelling them to take proactive steps to address the underlying conditions that have caused such outrage in Baltimore. HUD should also commit to stronger enforcement of fair housing laws and regulations, regardless of the upcoming Supreme Court decision in Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. Inclusive Communities Project. This would have a nationwide impact in expanding housing and other opportunities for all of us, but especially in communities like the one in which Freddie Gray was killed. We need this before the next police killing, and before the next eruption of community outrage.


Diego Iniguez-Lopez is the Robert L. Carter Fellow at The Opportunity Agenda, where he conducts legal and policy research on the issues of fair housing, due process and human rights standards in immigration policies, and compliance with federal civil rights law.

Alan Jenkins is the executive director and cofounder of The Opportunity Agenda. He previously served as assistant to the solicitor general at the U.S. Department of Justice and associate counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc., where he argued civil rights cases at the Supreme Court.