Save Middle East Action Committee (SMEAC) was created in 2001 by community stakeholders and representatives in Baltimore after the local newspaper announced that they would be forcibly dislocated from their homes for construction of a biotech park and new housing. The city government intended to use its power of eminent domain, which gives it the right to take an individual’s land for the betterment of the community. The redevelopment project targeted more than 20 blocks (about 90 acres) of homeowner, rental and business property in the Middle East neighborhood of East Baltimore, affecting more than 800 households.
A membership-based organization, SMEAC is governed by the low-income residents affected by this project. Its mission is to engage residents to participate in all aspects of decision making related to the redevelopment. The group’s strategy has been to organize residents, churches and businesses to assure communication about the relocation timeline, negotiate a fair benefits package and enable the community to speak with one voice. The result is that, by 2004, SMEAC had fundamentally changed the relocation policy that was initially presented to residents three years earlier.
Spreading the Word
Though Middle East is a historic area of the city, the neighborhood and its citizens have long been disinvested by the city government and neighboring private and nonprofit organizations. Among them is Johns Hopkins University, which has led or collaborated with the city government in various haphazard and unsuccessful redevelopment projects in the area since the early 1900s. The neighborhood maintains one of the highest rates of crime, illegal dumping, rat infestation, houses with lead paint and liquor stores per square mile in the city. More than half the structures are vacant, abandoned or boarded.
Communities like this are also poor in social capital – the norms and networks that enable people to act collectively for their best interest. These networks include relationships between residents, government and private interests. Such poverty of social capital, in the midst of massive redevelopment efforts, leaves unorganized residents with little means to assure a real community participation process and a fair outcome.
SMEAC’s door-knocking/listening project has been a vehicle to ensure resident participation in decision making related to the redevelopment project. Residents learn of their rights under eminent domain, and SMEAC offers to advocate for them if they are treated unfairly during the relocation process. Meet-and-greets are then organized to bring interested residents to meet SMEAC’s resident leaders, learn ways to become actively involved and develop their own leadership skills.
Using a questionnaire to initiate conversation about the redevelopment, SMEAC was able to gather substantial information about the community. The group learned that 66 percent of households wanted to move back into the redeveloped area and participate in the area’s redesign. This information was used to organize residents to advocate for more low-income housing in the plan and change the locations and dates of the design meetings.
The door-knocking project also served as an ongoing evaluation of how the East Baltimore Development, Inc. (EBDI), the quasi-government/nonprofit directing the redevelopment project, was carrying out its plan of fair relocation of residents. SMEAC learned that 84 percent of households had received information regarding the upcoming relocation, but at that point the majority of residents were behind EBDI’s relocation schedule. Less than half the residents were attending EBDI’s meetings and only half of those who did attend found the information helpful.
Through this process, SMEAC became a resource for residents who were unsure of their legal rights of homeownership or rental benefits. The group learned that the contractor hired by EBDI to do housing appraisals used shoddy procedures, such as reporting information on people’s homes without ever entering them, disrespecting residents and making appointments with residents and then canceling. After SMEAC informed the city government of its findings, the city decided to change to a different contractor.
Other elements of SMEAC’s organizing effort include its monthly membership meetings and the block captain, media and ally-building committees. The membership meetings bring together residents affected by the redevelopment to keep them informed about the process. The block captains report on increases in the number of rats or other pests, illegal trash dumping or water leakage during construction of new pipes, all of which are a common result of abandonment and demolition of houses during redevelopment. They also assure that city services continue to address these problems to minimize the stress experienced by residents who have yet to be relocated. The media committee has run workshops on effective communication strategies and completed a video documentary about the Middle East redevelopment. The committee also coordinated several Citizens’ Writing Campaigns, sending more than 500 letters to city council members to ask them to assure fair outcomes in the urban renewal process. The ally-building committee has built strong collaborations with other neighborhoods undergoing redevelopment in and outside Baltimore, as well as with churches, CDCs in various cities, local colleges and universities and public health organizations. Each collaboration helps to support organizing efforts in Middle East with technical and other assistance.
As a result of SMEAC’s organizing, resident homeowners received as much as a threefold increase in the relocation benefit, up to $70,000 plus the fair market value of their homes; renters also got a better resettlement package. Geographical restrictions were lifted, so residents could move anywhere and still receive the benefit. EBDI agreed to an increase in the number of low-income housing units in the redevelopment plan. They also halted the demolition of more than 900 houses in the first phase until it could be done more safely and agreed to demands for an objective panel of experts on housing demolition. In addition, a resident-selected representative will now sit on the EBDI board. SMEAC continues to monitor whether EBDI, its developer, city council officials and private entities funding the redevelopment are delivering on these changes.
New Plan, New Strategy
Organizing residents to engage in a process driven by them has assured their voice and vote in major decision making, informed them of their rights, increased their involvement in the neighborhood and ensured that they are perceived as the primary stakeholder.
These have been the accomplishments of the first four years, addressing only the first phase of redevelopment (a third of the targeted 90 acres). The community now faces the challenge of the next two phases. Recently, EBDI announced that due to insufficient funding, the plan for demolition and redevelopment of the remaining 60 acres would be different, but it did not elaborate. So residents whose homes are located in this area remain unaware of how the new plan will affect them. Will they definitely be relocated within the next 10 years (which EBDI says is the project’s duration), or will their homes remain threatened by eminent domain, at the whim of EBDI and future redevelopment plans? Will currently unoccupied houses be rehabbed or demolished?
“When I first heard they were going to take our homes I was upset – for my father, who purchased this house in 1948 and for my in-laws, who moved to [Middle East] in the early 1940s,” says Leslie Lewis, who lives in the area of the second redevelopment phase. “Now I’m angry. After all we have been put through, EBDI is telling us that there isn’t enough money to proceed further. So where does that leave us? Should we stay and wait with this sword over our heads, or just board up the house and leave…with no concern for those left behind?” Through SMEAC, Lewis became involved in organizing members on her block, became a board member and continues to engage residents.
SMEAC’s organizing strategy remains the same but its goals have changed to meet this new twist in the redevelopment plan. Information gathered from recent door-knocking shows that residents want the option to move or stay with the same benefit afforded residents in the first phase. If they stay, they feel that grants should be provided for them to improve their homes, similar to the new houses being built adjacent to theirs. SMEAC is calling for a community benefits agreement that holds EBDI, the city and private agencies accountable for the promises they have made throughout the project regarding relocation.
While it spent the past four years reacting to a plan imposed by EBDI on residents, SMEAC can have a proactive influence on the plan’s later phases. SMEAC will maintain community organizing as its basis, with resident participation at all levels of decision making, to ensure residents have a primary role in the neighborhood’s redevelopment.
Hopefully EBDI and the other major decision makers driving this project have learned from the struggles of the first phase that an organized community can inform community development from within, and that an effective redevelopment process is easier when plans are transparent and initiated in true collaboration with the community. Middle East residents know that “power concedes nothing without demand.” They continue to organize.