What Happened in Sandtown-Winchester? Understanding the Impacts of a Comprehensive Community Initiative

By Peter Rosenblatt, Loyola University Chicago and Stefanie A. Deluca, Johns Hopkins University

The death of Freddie Gray in April 2015 sparked unrest in Baltimore and drew international attention to issues of race, police brutality and urban poverty. Efforts to understand what happened have led some to look at Sandtown-Winchester, the poor and segregated neighborhood where Freddie Gray lived.  Two decades ago, Sandtown was the site of one of the largest community development efforts in U.S. history. Our article examines the long-term impacts of the Sandtown-Winchester Neighborhood Transformation Initiative (NTI), which marshalled more than $130 million in public and private funding, and worked with residents to improve housing, employment, and educational opportunities in the neighborhood.

Nearly 20 years after the reforms began, we found that homeownership had increased significantly in Sandtown, from fewer than one-quarter to more than 40 percent of families in the neighborhood. Our analysis suggests that this increase is likely due to the NTI. Yet our findings also highlight the continued challenges facing the neighborhood: we found weak impacts of education reforms in the local schools, and no impact of the NTI on the long-term neighborhood poverty rate. The neighborhood unemployment rate, while a strikingly high 19.3% at the end of the 2000s, was lower than it might have otherwise been according to our analysis.

Our findings highlight the importance of rigorously evaluating community change initiatives. Programs like the NTI, which seek to improve the neighborhoods in which poor families live, are rarely evaluated in ways that allow us to separate their impacts from changes that might have occurred in the absence of the program. This contrasts with policies that provide low-income families with resources to live in more affluent neighborhoods, such as Moving to Opportunity, which receive greater research attention and scrutiny regarding their ability to affect changes in the lives of those they are meant to help. Our article uses statistical methods (propensity score matching) to carefully select a group of comparison neighborhoods that were similar to Sandtown before any of the reforms began, and looks at outcomes over time in both Sandtown and these comparison neighborhoods. This allows us to distinguish between changes in Sandtown that might be related to broader economic or political forces, and those that were likely brought about by the NTI.

Our article also underscores the potential pitfalls of redevelopment efforts that focus heavily on increasing homeownership in low-income communities. Homeownership potentially allows families to build wealth, and is especially significant in African-American neighborhoods like Sandtown that have been plagued by systematic disinvestment due to redlining and lending discrimination. Yet strategies to create homeownership opportunities in such neighborhoods can be problematic for individual families if the rest of the neighborhood does not experience sustained improvement, anchoring families to communities with below-average schools and leaving them vulnerable to foreclosure.

As we continue to look for answers for what happened in Baltimore, it is instructive to understand past attempts to ameliorate urban disadvantage.  Our article acknowledges the methodological challenges of evaluating community initiatives, and shows the difficulties of overcoming the many disadvantages that accrue in poor and racially segregated neighborhoods. Further research on community development programs can help us develop policies to preserve inner city communities and increase the scope of benefits to extend to families living in them.

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