After she relocated from Brooklyn in 2017, Dr. Daa’iyah Cooper made Baltimore her home.
But the emergency medicine physician wasn’t only thinking about her own house. She owns multiple properties and put down roots in her Southwest Baltimore neighborhood.
It shows how movement into the city can build wealth.
Dr. Cooper also moved to the city at a time when there was a trend toward moving out. According to U.S. Census data released this summer, Baltimore’s population in 2020 was 585,708, as compared to 611,576 in 2010. It’s the only city in the Northeast corridor to lose people over the last decade.
That doesn’t tell the whole story.
Over that decade, a Technical.ly data analysis shows that Baltimore gained wealth among its majority-Black population. There was an increase in the percentage of Black people making $200,000 — the income needed to become an accredited angel investor — in Baltimore, from .1% to .37%. In real numbers, that means, in 2009, there were 412 Black people fitting the definition of high-earner. In 2019, that number was 1,399 people.
It comes against a backdrop of growth in high-earners across demographic groups in Baltimore over a decade, according to the Technical.ly data. In 2009, the city had 4,497 people making over $200,000. In 2019, that number was 7,967 people. (Check out the methodology via GitHub.)
In Baltimore, the juxtaposition of trends poses a question: If the population in general is leaving Baltimore, what’s bringing high earners to the city?
The population losses suggests a story of people exiting the city. After all, leaders calling for action in response to the Census data in recent weeks are pointing to falling population in Black neighborhoods as a prime reason behind the population drop. But even as many have left, high-earners are entering the city and seeing opportunity. Like so much in this city, it’s one of haves and have nots, running along the lines of racial and socioeconomic divisions in the city that have become entrenched over decades.
“There has been some literature about the idea that US cities are increasingly becoming places where only the wealthiest or the poorest can live, essentially no longer places for the middle class,” said Seema Iyer, associate director of the Jacob France Institute and head of Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance (BNIA) at the University of Baltimore. “So these findings would support that overall trend.”
To be sure, the data on wealth doesn’t only tell one story. Rather than solely residents who moved in, the new group of high earners are likely to be a mix of current residents and others who relocated. After all, the promise of economic mobility offers room for multiple paths.
But talk to some of the people behind the data, and it points to a new generation of Black residents that are building wealth while championing community ownership, even as Baltimore is not seeing the hypergrowth of other nearby cities posting big population gains.
Lessons from neighboring cities
Venroy July is building a network for social capital. A corporate attorney, he cofounded Baltimore Young Professionals (BYP), an organization focused on curating social, philanthropic and financial opportunities that spotlights the work of Black professionals.
BYP has grown by word of mouth. When it started in 2013, the group’s leaders were asking attendees to bring a friend to events. Now, it’s a professional organization that brings together folks from across industries, including technologists and entrepreneurs.
July falls in the over-$200,000 annual income category, and is an accredited investor. For July and many of the people he knows personally and through BYP, what makes Baltimore attractive is an American classic: The city’s land offers a literal opportunity to build wealth. Baltimore’s low cost of living when compared to the mid-Atlantic cities in close proximity has long been one of its selling points, and the rising cost of living in those centers are only driving that home.
“When you talk about Black people, it’s sad to say, but unfortunately we’ve been locked out of opportunities in other major cities,” July said. “Our price point, our entry point is so high. It’s so hard for us to be able to buy a house in New York, DC or some of these other places.”
In New York City’s Harlem neighborhood, which has long drawn Black residents seeking opportunity from around the country, $350,000 will get you an 834-square-foot, two bedroom, one-bath apartment, according to Zillow. By contrast, in West Baltimore, $300,000 will get you five bedrooms, five baths in Harlem Park.
“They see Baltimore and the price point as a place they can come and invest in, and get some of the economic upside that they’ve been locked out of historically while also cultivating a social scene with groups like BYP,” July said of professionals moving in.
This group has also learned lessons from looking at gentrification in other cities like DC, Philly and New York, where the Black communities that have lived in disinvested neighborhoods for decades got pushed out when universities, land developers and the city suddenly saw a value in their area.
One takeaway? It’s not your block if you don’t own the deed.
“You can always be gentrified out of areas if you don’t have ownership,” said July. “What we have now is a unique opportunity because we’re seeing this influx of Black professionals that are moving into the city, who have seen what has happened in other cities and don’t want that to happen again.”
‘Buy Back The Block’
Dr. Cooper is currently serving as a clinical simulation fellowship director and associate professor at downtown Baltimore’s University of Maryland School of Medicine. Per Technical.ly analysis, the medical industry, of which she’s a part, accounts for the highest number of high earners in Baltimore. Based off her annual income, she also qualifies as an accredited investor.
Dr. Cooper owns multiple properties in Baltimore and recognizes that she herself is a signifier of gentrification because of her profession and income.
She recalls moving into Prospect Park in Brooklyn back in her earlier days as an emergency trauma physician in 2015, where the median income for her role in New York is now around $500,000 according to Salary.com. Five years before she moved there, she remembers it was considered a slum. She even at one point ran into someone who grew up with his whole family in the spacious-for-New-York one bedroom she was walking out of.
“We always talk about gentrification, and it feels like a dirty word,” said Dr. Cooper. “But I think it is important for people who look like the people that are traditionally living in those areas to come and actually be the ones to help rebuild those areas and invest. I’m definitely down with the ‘Buy Back the Block’ philosophy.”
The “Buy Black the Block” philosophy, championed by late rapper Nipsey Hustle, is simple. It calls for owning the businesses, houses and services in your community. If you own the properties, someone can’t sell it out from under you. In the United States, 44% of Black families own homes, as opposed to 73% of white families, according to a 2019 report by real estate brokerage Redfin, which analyzed U.S. Census data. “Buy Back the Block” is an effort to raise that home ownership percentage.
So the question becomes: If Black people who are not necessarily born and raised in a given community own 80% of a block in West Baltimore’s Harlem Park, when the growth of Midtown bleeds over and when the houses sell, do renters who have been there for decades still have to find a new home? Will someone who’s lived in a neighborhood for 20 years feel more out of place than someone that’s been there for one?
Is displacement synonymous with gentrification, regardless of who does it?
Bree Jones’ work gets at some of these questions. She’s the founder of Parity, a company that gives legacy residents in disenfranchised communities a seat at the table in their own community’s redevelopment by buying abandoned buildings, renovating them, and then creating affordable homeownership opportunities for residents of the neighborhood. The way she sees it, there’s no positive form of gentrification.
“Gentrification is based off of low land values and when you understand how Black neighborhoods and low land values came to be because of redlining, contract lending and urban renewal, then you have to tie low land values to a racial injustice,” said Jones. “So, to capitalize on [low land values] and create spaces for higher income people without actually reconciling the original harm by default is always going to be a violent and extractive practice.”
That’s why Jones is partial to terms like redevelopment, revitalization or reinvestment.
“If you have a bunch of 200-thousand-something income earners coming into a poor neighborhood to buy homes affordably, well, there’s not anything inherently wrong with that,” said Jones. “But if they’re doing it with a disregard for and maybe even a disdain for lower-income Black folks that have been stewards of those neighborhoods for decades, then yeah, they’re committing a harm and I can’t cosign that.”
That’s why Parity buys properties with the goal of making them affordable for legacy residents. In the end, no single person or organization gets the property. Rather, it goes to the legacy residents who are the backbone of the community.
A collective effort
Dr. Cooper is intentional about her real estate investments and tenants so that she isn’t exploiting a community she loves. That can mean being open to cash-only tenants and creating a mixture of short-term and long-term leases. She also makes a point to live in the Southwest Baltimore neighborhood where she owns her property. She sees Ms. Debbie across the street everyday and is reminded to stay grounded and do right by her neighbors.
“You have to be intentional about not falling into that trap,” said Dr. Cooper. “Once you start and are successful, it’s inevitable that things are going to continue to grow for you. I definitely wouldn’t want to get lost in the idea of only making money and forgetting that I made a point to move to this area of town.”
These are lessons Dr.Cooper learned from her real estate mentors Kyara Gray and her husband, Khalil Uqdah, founders of Charm City Buyers, who preach “gentrification without displacement.”
“It’s up to us to build it up,” said Dr. Cooper. “I have the ability to make a difference here. Obviously I’m putting a small dent, but I’m one of several. You surround yourself with likeminded people like Venroy, BYP, my mentors and the other young Black investors coming into the city. You see the ability to work together towards a common goal and that you actually can make a difference and make a dent in all the vacants and the bandos in the city.”
It’s the potential for collective effort and the love of chocolate cities that keeps Dr. Cooper in Baltimore. For July, it’s the opportunity to break generational patterns while establishing that community with BYP. Before founding Parity, Jones was a financial analyst on Wall Street. Follow that career path along its natural progression with her talents and a $200,000 annual salary is very achievable. Instead, she chose to found a real estate startup dedicated to empowering legacy residents.
When it comes to equity, the conversations for this story each showed that wealth isn’t the only sign of progress. As the saying goes, “For those who hunt monsters, be careful not to become them.” Ask yourself, is what you’re doing solving the problem, or just placing yourself at the top of the food chain? There’s nothing wrong with making the money, just don’t let the money make you.
“The reality is, you can be a Black man in a Benz and still get pulled over by the cops and you can be a Black woman corporate lawyer and still die during childbirth because the doctors don’t think you’re feeling pain,” said Jones. “Making money doesn’t actually free us in every sense of the word. I think what frees us is collective power and collective health and collective wealth.
“I see my personal survival linked to being able to create healthy living environments for other people because I don’t exist in a bubble.”
This is the first in a series on how tech economies are growing wealth in U.S. cities, and we need you to be part of it. What do you know that we don’t, or what do you think we need to come to understand about the topic? Email Technical.ly CEO Chris Wink at email@example.com or Technical.ly Managing Editor Julie Zeglen at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any questions, additions or thoughts.
Donte Kirby is a 2020-2022 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Robert W. Deutsch Foundation.