Baltimore's population is shrinking for some entirely obvious reasons

The official census won’t take place until 2020, but all of the states and major municipalities have yearly population data which gives them a good idea which direction they are heading. Baltimore, Maryland is no exception and both Charm City and the Old Line State are preparing for another dip in their headcount as compared to other parts of the country. That’s bad news, both in terms of congressional representation and federal resource allocation. But why is it happening?

David Placher, writing at the Baltimore Sun, offers some of the obvious reasons for the decline and then goes one step further by suggesting some solutions. First we tackle the puzzle as to why people are leaving and others are less willing to move to Baltimore. The easiest answer is that one that’s in the news regularly. Baltimore is in the running for being the murder capital of the United States. This isn’t just draining their population via so many people being the guests of honor at funerals. It also makes others think more seriously about heading where there are fewer bullets flying around.

The city’s scary record of 343 homicides in 2017 affirms the city’s well-known reputation as a dangerous place to live. Even if 2018 has fewer homicides, it doesn’t take a fortune teller to predict that this year’s homicide rate will be high. Until the city substantially reduces its homicide and other crimes rates, people will continue to view the city as dangerous and be reluctant to stay or move here.

It might be tempting to mock David for stating the obvious, but seriously… somebody has to say it. And you won’t hear it from the Mayor or the City Council, who still insist their violence reduction plans are on track and things are going to start improving any day now. But even if Baltimore flipped a magic switch and became one of the lowest crime cities in the country overnight, there are still other basic factors driving or keeping people away. Placher lists these additional items which should have been obvious.

The city’s outrageous property tax of $2.248 per $100 of a property’s assessed value is more than double of its surrounding jurisdictions: Baltimore County, $1.10, and Anne Arundel 90.7 cents. The city’s burdensome property tax on homeowners explains why the city has more renters than homeowners. The city’s high income tax is 3.2 percent, the maximum allowed by law. Baltimore County’s is 2.83 and Anna Arundel’s is 2.56. The city’s tax message is clear: Move here and pay higher taxes. People have figured out how to avoid the city’s taxes and still enjoy the city. They live in surrounding counties and take reasonably priced ridesharing services into the city.

The city’s tax rates are, as Placher describes it, outrageous. And the amount of value the residents receive in the form of services, safety and quality of living doesn’t rise to anywhere near the level that would be justified at such a price. It’s easy enough to avoid paying all those taxes if you simply stop living in Baltimore or refuse to move there to begin with. Commuting is the far more attractive option if you must work there or seek out recreational activities in the city.

Beyond the taxes, David notes that the city’s public school system is “a disaster.” Some schools produced zero students who met the state minimum proficiency levels in math last year. Zero students. Further, the infrastructure is rotten, with regular water main breaks, potholes and sinkholes which make roads a nightmare and buildings untrustworthy. At the same time, residents watched the mayor and city council vote themselves pay raises last year.

Placher’s solutions are bold but will be unpopular with politicians. He suggests proposals such as turning the City Hall and Courthouse into museums to raise revenue, relocating the city officials to abandoned buildings in need of renovation. He also proposes tempting a college to move a campus into the city, refurbishing some of the abandoned industrial buildings for their use. Public housing near hospitals could be repurposed as retirement homes conveniently located near medical care and public transit. These are all big, bold plans which would require money and political willpower, but it could clean out some of the higher crime areas and restore them to normal order.

Sound crazy? No crazier than asking people to stay in or move to decrepit areas where the tax rates are only surpassed by the murder rate. Baltimore is floundering and someone needs to figure out a way to stamp out the gang activity and restore the city’s lost vitality. This could be a start.