Baltimore has a math problem. And it’s not just how much money it spends on its police budget. With more than 14,000 vacant homes — and that’s the official city count, housing advocates estimate the number of vacant houses at closer to 40,000 — investing in a home in the city can be a dicey proposition. Making matters worse, according to one city councilman, is a set of arcane zoning regulations that make it hard to convert a single-family house into multiple units to be rented out or sold. 

Ryan Dorsey, who represents the city’s third district, doesn’t believe the math behind Baltimore’s housing market works. What’s the point, Dorsey has argued, in buying a large rowhouse with more space than a small family needs to live in if the space requires thousands of dollars in repairs. 

“There are houses that have no economically feasible way to become habitable as single-family houses,” Dorsey told Baltimore Beat. “Allowing for the conversion from single-family into multifamily is a vital part of blight elimination that we are stifling at present by requiring the city council to pass an ordinance for each individual one.” 

In late September, Dorsey, whose City Council district is made up largely of single-family homes, pushed a plan to do away with single-family zoning in certain sections of the city and ease restrictions on homeowners wishing to convert their single-family homes to multi-unit dwellings. Dorsey is a consistent critic of car-focused development, and the bill, in some cases, eliminates off-street parking requirements tied to residential development.

Dorsey believes a denser, more compact city will attract homeowners and investors who will convert large homes, currently restricted to single-family occupancy, to apartments. This density will help revitalize neighborhoods, attract businesses looking for locations in walkable communities, and allow transit planners to accommodate a workforce living in more densely populated neighborhoods. 

“Businesses run on people, not cars. Building population within walking distance to businesses is good for those businesses,” Dorsey said, “and it doesn’t limit your business to the amount of support so they can be fit by how many cars you can park on the street in front of it.”

“The market will destroy black wealth.” — James Torrence, Baltimore City Councilperson.

This plan, called upzoning, isn’t new. New York City made a similar zoning change in the early 2000s. Upzoning has become a fashionable policy proposal in recent years. Minneapolis and Seattle have adopted the policy to combat high home prices and reverse the damage done by zoning regulations, most of which are rooted in historical and institutional racism. Dorsey knows this history well, and his plan to upzone large swaths of Baltimore are informed by his understanding of how market forces and race inform the price and availability of quality housing. 

But Dorsey’s sweeping policy fix has found opposition from the same folks he insists would stand to gain from upzoning. Councilperson James Torrence, whose district in West Baltimore could be ground zero for single family home conversions, has come out against Dorsey’s proposal. Torrence sees a different math problem — the way a free market solution like the one proposed by Dorsey can have unexpected consequences. 

“The market will destroy Black wealth,” Torrence said. 

He points to other cities which, through upzoning, unleashed market forces on neighborhoods, to devastating effect. Take New York City. When Johns Hopkins alumnus Michael Bloomberg became mayor in 2002, his administration began a massive zoning overhaul which led to 6,000 city blocks being upzoned in six years. This signaled to developers that blocks previously protected from large development were open for new construction of denser high-rise apartments. Capacity was added, with an additional 180,000 new units in those first six years. But rental prices didn’t fall. They went up. 

“Just because you create more housing doesn’t make it affordable,” Carol Ott, tenant advocacy director at Fair Housing Action Center of Maryland. “You have to be intentional and you have to make sure the housing stays affordable over time.” 

What appeared to be a major overhaul of the zoning regulations in New York City was actually quite small and targeted. Affluent neighborhoods were left alone, and in some cases zoning became even more restrictive, prohibiting the construction of anything but a single-family home. Upzoning was aimed mostly at low-income Black and Latino communities, and developers looking to get the most for their dollar constructed luxury apartments instead of affordable housing.

Dorsey’s plan doesn’t cover the entire city, and that’s what worries Torrence.

But Torrence also cautions it may not work at all. Developers could come in with an eye toward converting row homes into condominiums priced out of the range of the current residents. Or they might not, as was the case in Chicago from 2013 to 2015, when upzoning in Black neighborhoods did little to attract new development, according to MIT urban planning professor Yonah Freemark, who studied upzoning in the nation’s third largest city. 

“If we do this broadly,” Torrence said about upzoning across the city, “it may work.”

But considering how closely wealthy neighborhoods border impoverished communities throughout the city, Torrence worries that this piecemeal approach from City Hall could wreak havoc on the market. Neighborhoods spared from upzoning could retain and even gain in value, while those where single-family zoning is banned could be subject to increased density that makes them less attractive to homebuyers. 

“It may create a void where wealth is diminished along neighborhoods on the border,” Torrence added.

Many of the homes that would be eligible for conversion under Dorsey’s plans are owned by older Baltimoreans on fixed incomes. To housing advocates like Ott, allowing for conversion  from single-family to multi-unit housing would enable extended families to live in different apartments but in the same house. 

“It would allow for multigenerational households to have a place for grandma,” Ott said. “When I hear people talk about generational wealth, what I think about isn’t just money, it’s a stable place for a family to live in for generations.” 

Torrence agrees with that sentiment, but says a sweeping policy is not what’s needed to help the elderly age in place. What is needed is more direct resources for older people to fix their homes, and request the conversions when needed. 

“Just because you create more housing doesn’t make it affordable. You have to be intentional and you have to make sure the housing stays affordable over time,” —  Carol Ott, tenant advocacy director at Fair Housing Action Center of Maryland 

However, those conversions have been few and far between. In the last decade, the city has only converted a few dozen single-family residences to multi-unit dwellings. And, due to a loophole in Baltimore’s zoning regulations — one that failed to garner enough support to fix in October — when a previously single-family unit which has been converted to multi-family has sat idle for more than a year, the property reverts back to its original zoning designation. They can’t be used for anything but a single-family dwelling, but are too large to efficiently house a typical family unit. This practice cuts off people in part of the city from neighborhoods with full-service grocery stores and easy access to transit.

“Some of the folks who are struggling to find affordable, quality housing are resorting to the only places that they can afford, which are in the farthest out regions of East Baltimore and the most concentrated blight of West Baltimore,” Dorsey said.  

This most recent zoning fight underscores a battle over place and property deeply rooted in Baltimore history. While the first zoning maps were drawn in New York City in 2016 in a not-so-perfect attempt to separate industrial properties from residential, Baltimore and other cities in the mid-Atlantic and upper South used zoning to segregate Black and white residents. 

When Baltimore politicians talk about Baltimore being the birthplace of redlining, they are talking about zoning regulations. In 1917, the Supreme Court deemed the practice of using zoning regulations to prohibit people from certain races from living on certain blocks unconstitutional. Cities began using density regulations to keep multi-unit dwellings separate from single-family homes. This, in turn, kept lower-income folks from mixing with more affluent residents, which had a disproportionate impact on Black families, whose incomes were and still are typically lower than white families. 

“Explicitly racist practices in zoning or in mortgage lending were deemed unconstitutional,” Dorsey said, “so we transitioned from those devices to measured, constitutionally acceptable, race-neutral language being written into zoning codes.” 

Although Dorsey’s plan attempts to dismantle this system, the very neighborhoods which are living testament to exclusionary zoning won’t be included in his proposal. 

Roland Park and Guilford won’t be upzoned under Dorsey’s proposal. The deeds to the homes in those neighborhoods are tied up in covenant restrictions that don’t allow them to be rented or, in some cases, divided into multiple units. Torrence is open to the idea of challenging these restrictions in court. 

“We have to really look at what we can do that may infringe on the covenants that are legal,” he said. 

And while he is not completely opposed to the idea of changing zoning regulations to combat blight and create more dense and walkable communities, Torrence would like that process brought down to the neighborhood level where residents can decide whether their block or community should or shouldn’t be upzoned. He has also been a supporter of City Councilperson Odette Ramos’ inclusionary housing bill. This legislation would extend the already sunsetted inclusionary housing law from 2007, which created a meager 37 affordable housing units in 15 years. Ramos wants to make it harder for developers to get waivers relieving them of their obligation to build affordable housing.  

The fight over zoning is only beginning, and it’s not clear whether Dorsey’s bill has enough support to pass the council. But political leaders and housing advocates are desperate to do something to make more affordable housing in Baltimore and address blight. But, as Ott told Baltimore Beat, something needs to be done to “make the math work.”  

J. Brian Charles was Deputy Editor of Baltimore Beat. Previously, he was a staffer at The Trace, The Hill, Chalkbeat, Governing, and Orange County Register. His work has appeared in Slate, Vox, Wired,...