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African-American History

Baltimore Neighborhoods, Inc.: Maryland’s Fair Housing Pioneer

Cover of one of the first brochures published by Baltimore Neighborhoods, Inc., ca 1959 A City is a Group of Neighborhoods, Brochure, Baltimore Neighborhoods, Inc. Collection, University of Baltimore, Langsdale Library.

Cover of one of the first brochures published by Baltimore Neighborhoods, Inc., ca 1959. “A City is a Group of Neighborhoods,” Brochure, Baltimore Neighborhoods, Inc. Collection, University of Baltimore, Langsdale Library.

Baltimore was a deeply troubled city after World War II. Greedy real estate agents created fear and panic among white homeowners by persuading them that their houses were about to lose their value, and that they would be ruined financially.  White families evacuated their urban neighborhoods, to be replaced by black residents. Blockbusting and racial steering became so common that city leaders feared for the future of their changing neighborhoods.

There were no fair housing laws to turn to at that time, so neighborhood associations banded together to persuade the city’s civic and business leaders that the real estate industry was jeopardizing the city’s future. The Maryland Commission on Interracial Problems and Relations, and the Citizens Planning and Housing Association joined together with several neighborhood associations to persuade the business community that it must confront blockbusting to help restore peace of mind to the city’s residents. The coalition focused on the primary organization that represented the leadership of the business community—the Greater Baltimore Committee, from which Baltimore Neighborhoods, Inc. (BNI) emerged in March, 1959 to help influence the city’s cultural, educational, and economic future as white flight to the suburbs threatened to reach alarming proportions. The organization was incorporated by Ellsworth Rosen, director of Maryland’s Commission on Interracial Problems, developer James Rouse, and businessman, philanthropist and social activist Sidney Hollander Jr., who also served as a member of the Board of Directors.

Sidney Hollander, Jr. not dated, PP256-01, MdHS.

Sidney Hollander, Jr. not dated, PP256-01, MdHS.

A community leader wrote, “We are determined to prove that Baltimore need not, and will not change from segregated white to segregated Negro housing occupancy. The only alternative to this is to accept integration. The only way to have integration is to bring white people into these areas once again.” And so BNI began working with the real estate industry to persuade lenders, real estate professionals, and politicians to influence real estate laws.

Fortunately, at about the same time, the Supreme Court passed a landmark decision that profoundly affected BNI: Title VII of the Civil Rights Law of 1968, known as the Fair Housing Act.  It was this law that guaranteed protection in matters of housing, and which gave BNI a tool to protect the rights of all people.  The law covered color, religion, and national origin. It was no longer legal to discriminate in housing matters on the basis of race, religion, and national origin. The Baltimore City Department of Housing and Community Development published a guide for the real estate industry which later evolved into BNI’s manual, published annually. It summarized all of the new state laws each year that affected real estate matters. That manual is still used by realtors, lawyers, judges, sheriffs, and police.

When the Supreme Court confirmed the right of fair housing organizations to sue for housing discrimination in 1982, BNI became actively involved in testing for racial discrimination. It created test teams consisting of black and white volunteers who were assigned fictitious comparable incomes and personal stories.  These pairs were sent to real estate rental and sales offices suspected of favorable treatment of white applicants. BNI began its legal action program in 1983 and filed its 25th law suit only four years later.

By 1990, more than 90 suits had either been won or settled. The first 25 suits included 16 against apartment complexes, two against real estate companies, and three against mobile home parks. Four involved public accommodations issues. Thirteen were settled by 1987. BNI became one of the strongest of the country’s 75 fair housings organizations because of its successful legal actions.

Baltimore Neighborhoods, Inc., brochure, ca 1960, Sydney Hollander Collection, MS 2044, MdHS.

Baltimore Neighborhoods, Inc., brochure, ca 1960, Sydney Hollander Collection, MS 2044, MdHS.

Apartment Discrimination in Baltimore County and City, 1977-1978, Report. Baltimore Neighborhoods, Inc. Collection, University Of Baltimore Langsdale Library.

Apartment Discrimination in Baltimore County and City, 1977-1978, Report. Baltimore Neighborhoods, Inc. Collection, University Of Baltimore Langsdale Library.

BNI’s work in the area of tenant-landlord matters flourished – in 1984, its well-trained staff took 9,119 information and advice telephone calls and 539 complaints that required extended counseling. The staff calculated its monetary savings to tenants to be $23,895 in return of security deposits. By the early 1990s, the program reported monetary recovery of $62,000 from more than 20,000 calls from both tenants and landlords. It also published a summary of the fair housing provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1968. This has become one of the fundamental guides for fair housing, clearly describing the rights of both landlords and tenants. This guide has been updated in most years to the present, and is used extensively by police, sheriffs, judges, and lawyers.

Baltimore Neighborhoods, Inc. has grown and matured over the years. It has been the recipient of numerous grants, and has won support from or settled many suits. The number of discrimination suits has been gradually reduced as landlords and tenants have learned their rights, often with BNI’s assistance. Looking to the future, BNI will continue to fund itself with grants from private agencies and HUD as it gradually expands its services to cover the entire state. (Michael Mark)

Michael Mark is retired Professor Emeritus of Music at Towson University and a volunteer in the Special Collections Department of the Maryland Historical Society. He is a past president of Baltimore Neighborhoods, Inc. and is the author of  a 2002 history  of the organization, “But Not Next Door: Baltimore Neighborhoods, Inc., the first forty years.”

The archives of  Baltimore Neighborhoods, Inc. including correspondence, reports, organization and financial records, meeting minutes, and publications are housed at the University of Baltimore’s Langsdale Library. The collection has been digitized and is available through the Baltimore Neighborhoods, Inc. Collection page.

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