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Why Baltimore Is Primed for Growth

July 16th, 2015 by

Until 1960, Baltimore was the sixth largest city in the nation, with a population reaching close to 1 million people. The population declined inexorably over the next 40 years, ultimately shrinking by nearly a third.

Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings Blake has made it her goal to turn that trend around, in part by attracting 10,000 new families to the city over the course of a decade. And for a time, it seemed her mission was on track: About 2,500 new people joined the city’s ranks between 2011 and 2013. But that growth slowed in 2014, with the population dipping a tenth of one percent. Though 2,360 people newly arrived from overseas (including immigrants, students, and overseas military), their addition was more than offset by the departure of more than 5,000 people who moved out of the city.

Since then, the turmoil following the tragic death of Freddie Gray has put Baltimore in the national headlines for all the wrong reasons — potentially threatening to derail efforts to attract new residents and retain existing ones. This begs the question: Is there hope for population growth in Baltimore?

National demographics — a crystal ball?
While much has been written about today’s millennials flocking to urban locales, less attention has been paid to the residential trends of the pre-senior age group, those ages 55-64, who represent the peak of the baby boom generation. This group of pre-seniors has seen 50 percent growth in recent years, according an analysis of U.S. census data conducted by the Brookings Institution.

These boomers, the first “suburban generation,” are aging in place: Some 40 percent of suburban residents today are age 45 or older, according to U.S. census figures. Luring these pre-seniors out of suburbia, where the upkeep of homes and yards can grow taxing, and the distance between amenities requires a car to get around, and into a vibrant urban center with cultural attractions and nearby amenities could hold one key to pumping up population growth in U.S. city centers.

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And of course, the importance of the millennials, ages 18-34, cannot be overstated. More than 1 in 3 American workers today fall into this age group, making them the largest share of the workforce, according to the Pew Research Center. Since jobs remain central to urban areas, it seems only logical that many millennials would want to live near where they work.

Their choice of housing makes them ideal candidates for urban living: Millennials prefer to rent rather than buy homes (the current age for first-time homeowners has jumped to 35-39), and the diverse array of rental housing options in most cities holds broad potential appeal for this group.

The bigger picture
The effort to beef up Baltimore’s population is not bucking a trend.

Across the U.S., growth in the nation’s urban population is outpacing growth in non-urban areas. Today, some four-fifths of the U.S. population (80.7 percent) resides in an urban area, according to figures compiled by the U.S. Census Bureau in 2012.

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This growth comes at a time when Americans are buying fewer single-family homes. During the five years since the recession, though the nation’s financial picture has brightened considerably, “single-family homebuilding has remained lower than it has been for decades,” according to an April report in TIME. In March, the rate of single-family home sales was 13.3 percent lower than the previous year, TIME reports.

In contrast, construction of residences with five or more units (such as condominiums and high rises) has soared, reaching their highest share of overall construction since 1973 (aside from one outlier year), according to TIME. “These days the market is driven much more by people who are either choosing to live in the city or in the near-in suburbs, particularly people who are just getting their first job or don’t have confidence that their job is going to last long enough to warrant buying a home,” notes Ken Simonson, chief economist for the Associated General Contractors of America.

Why choose Baltimore?
So, at a time when more people than ever are looking to live the urban life, what makes Baltimore an attractive choice?

First off, the city is home to some of the country’s premiere higher education institutions and professional schools. The Johns Hopkins University and School of Medicine; University of Maryland’s schools of law, medicine, dentistry, and social work; and University of Baltimore’s law school are just some of the top-ranked graduate institutions that make their home here. These centers draw well-educated adult students and researchers who are passionate about what they do — and often eager to be active members of their communities.

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There’s an added bonus to having such a bountiful array of colleges and universities: Baltimore’s higher education institutions offer a rich array of concerts, lectures, and courses that appeal widely to today’s lifelong learners, of any age. Renowned cultural institutions — such as the Walters Art Museum, Peabody Conservatory, Center Stage, and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra — are also civic mainstays that delight visitors and audience goers with their rich programming.

For many people, access to good health care is a prime consideration when deciding on a place to settle. Here again, Baltimore shines. The Johns Hopkins Hospital has ranked among the very top hospitals in the nation for more than two decades, and the University of Maryland Medical Center is widely regarded for its state-of-the-art cancer care, among other specialties. Doctors and scientists come from all over the world to work at these healthcare centers, further bolstering the city’s cultural capital.

And those who are socially conscious can feel good about making their home in Baltimore, where a wide variety of non-profit organizations — including Lutheran Center, Catholic Charities, and Associated Jewish Charities — have their headquarters. These groups not only provide jobs, they are dedicated to building affordable housing in disadvantaged neighborhoods and to improving the lives of the poor.

Compared to Washington, D.C., Baltimore’s housing options are much more affordable. That’s why many young professionals who work in D.C. opt to live here and commute to work. Baltimore’s proximity to Philadelphia (90 minutes by train) and New York City (three hours) offers further advantages.

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When searching around the city for a place to settle, new transplants can’t help but be impressed by the attractive housing options — such as the Ritz Carlton Condominium Residences and Pier Homes at Harborview — that ring the Inner Harbor, a popular recreational hub.

Baltimore: a hopeful future
From Baltimore’s vibrant cultural institutions to its affordable housing options and top-ranked hospitals and universities, there are many factors that make the city a great place to live — particularly for millennials and those moving to the U.S. from international locales.

I have confidence that Baltimore will emerge from its recent challenges and setbacks with fresh solutions — and the resolve to make the city a place where everyone can thrive. As that happens, I’m confident that the city will once again begin to see steady growth in its population.

During my years at Mark, Thomas Architects, we’ve designed a number of sustainable, environmentally sound communities in Baltimore. Browse some of our projects, or contact us to start a conversation.