Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
May 23, 2024

An investigation into the University's controversial real estate holdings

By CATHY WANG | April 19, 2024


Historically, Hopkins has maintained a complex relationship with owning land and property in Baltimore.

The University is the largest tax-exempt property owner in Baltimore and makes a significant economic contribution to the city. With $2.64 billion worth of properties, Johns Hopkins University & Medicine has an economic impact of more than $7.3 billion on the city, according to Assistant Vice President for Media Relations and News J.B. Bird in an email to The News-Letter. 

The City of Baltimore Real Property website lists 176 current properties owned by Johns Hopkins University, Johns Hopkins Hospital, Johns Hopkins Parking and Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center. The list of properties encompasses a wide range of neighborhoods, including Mount Vernon, Middle East, Charles Village, Waverly and Bayview.

Behind the University’s impressive track record of properties, however, are decades of redlining, gentrification and forced displacement. Baltimore has an enduring history of structural racism, uneven economic development, and displacement and disinvestment in Black neighborhoods — Hopkins has played a central role in all of the above practices.

These policies have resulted in widespread wealth disparities, health disparities and housing injustice.

The East Baltimore Development, Inc.

Perhaps the most well-known case of the University’s involvement with gentrification is the East Baltimore Development, Inc. (EBDI) that started in 2001, which the University helped found. EBDI is a $1.8 billion initiative that aims to “revitalize, re-energize and rebuild” 88 acres in the East Baltimore neighborhood near Hopkins Hospital, which has now been renamed “Eager Park.” EBDI is widely recognized as one of the most aggressive urban development projects in Maryland's history.

Hopkins President Ronald J. Daniels views EBDI as a central part of his presidency and considers the project a major contribution to Baltimore from the University.

“If EBDI fails, then my presidency at Hopkins fails,” he said to the board of the Baltimore Development Corporation in 2012.

After years of delay, EBDI finally began the project in 2013. To date, EBDI has demolished nearly a thousand properties in the area, which was replaced with mixed-income houses, a community learning campus with an early childhood center, life sciences research and office space, green spaces, retail stores and a public K-8 school. The area is now known as the Science and Technology Park, part of the revitalized Eager Park neighborhood.

However, Hopkins displaced approximately 900 Black homeowners, renters and businesses to make way for the University’s Science and Technology Park, according to Hopkins Teachers and Researchers United (TRU) — despite EBDI’s stated commitment to treat families affected by the redevelopment with fairness, support and respect.

In an interview with The News-Letter, Hopkins alumnus and long-time Baltimore activist Ralph E. Moore Jr. (‘74) recounted his own experience advocating for East Baltimore residents in 2001. Moore explained that he and his colleagues were fighting against the University, which was trying to buy East Baltimore houses for a very small amount of money. Moore explained that, through frequent organizing, they were able to help obtain better deals for families during their negotiations with Jack Shannon, then-president and CEO of EBDI who stepped down in 2009.

Considering the residents’ low wages and the University’s effort to lowball the housing prices, Moore contended that EBDI was making false guarantees that the residents would be able to return.

“As they were buying up these houses, they were essentially guaranteeing that when they built new houses, people were going to be guaranteed the right of return,” he said. “The problem is that they were moving people out of maybe a $70,000 valued house, and promising that they could return to a $250,000 house, and it just wasn't a real promise.”

According to EBDI, they have remained true to their promise of helping relocated residents return to Eager Park by defraying closing and moving costs, narrowing financing gaps and ensuring a supply of affordable houses. In a statement released in 2011, EBDI reported that 57 renters in the community have used the relocation benefits to become homeowners, while the rest received either a Section 8 voucher or five years of rent differential payments. Overall, homeowners (whose houses were worth, on average, $30,000 in Phase 1 and $50,000 in Phase 2) received replacement housing benefits averaging $153,000 and $175,000, respectively.

However, a Baltimore Sun article published in 2018 found that only one in 10 displaced residents have returned or plan to return to Eager Park, and fewer than a quarter have expressed interest in returning.

TRU described the impact of EBDI on the Baltimore community in an email to The News-Letter.

“Hopkins razed the neighborhood to the ground, sitting on empty lots for years, before gentrifying the area for predominantly wealthy, white residents,” TRU wrote. “Hopkins continues to ignore the voices of those it has forcibly displaced in its expansion, at the expense of the most vulnerable communities of Baltimore.”

The state of University-owned properties around Charles Village

EBDI is not a singular incident. The University has a long history of pursuing expansion through purchasing properties, at the expense of displacing Baltimore residents from their neighborhoods. And in some instances, the University did nothing with the properties after the purchase.

One such example is the Dell House, a 16-story apartment building in Charles Village. Purchased by Hopkins in 2003, the Dell House remained an apartment space until 2008, when the residents were vacated mid-school year at short notice so that the building could be turned into an alternative space during Gilman Hall’s two-year renovation. 

From 2008 to 2010, the building served as a temporary replacement for Gilman Hall, offering office space and faculty housing for the humanities departments. Since then, the Dell House has been sitting vacant for many years. Bird indicated that the demolition of the Dell House is anticipated in the near term, but there is no set date.

East of the Dell House are seven Hopkins-owned rowhouses that have suffered a similar fate. Located along West 29th Street, the rowhouses were purchased by Hopkins between the years of 2000 and 2019 for a total of $2,265,500. However, over the years, the University did little to preserve or redevelop the buildings aside from boarding up the properties. The houses were left to slowly deteriorate.

In 2022 — over 20 years after the first purchase — the University decided that the houses were unstable and needed to be demolished. Many local community members fought to preserve the 111-year-old houses designed by Baltimore architect John Forsythe, arguing that they were a prime example of Edwardian architecture.

However, Bird explained that, after a thorough review and community discussions, the University saw no other option but to tear down the houses.

“Based on review and discussions with the community, the university determined that the size and condition of the structures made rehabilitation infeasible,” he wrote. “The urgency of demolition was underscored by recent concern in Baltimore about fire risks in uninhabited rowhomes.”

After the demolition in 2022, the land currently serves no purpose other than as a green open space, while the long-term use of the property has not yet been decided. This newly developed patch of green space sits steps away from the Wyman Park Dell playground, another green space that has served as a landmark since 2013.

While Moore was not aware of the University’s involvement in these particular properties, he viewed such purchases as representative of the University’s overall ambition to gain control.

“Thinking from a housing perspective, when you own, you control. And so you have the ability to do something or do nothing,” he said. “I think it was all about control for them, and that makes sense, but I'm not saying I agree with it.”

In addition to these properties spread across Baltimore, the University has played a major role in shaping the blocks around Homewood Campus, between St. Paul’s Street and Charles Street. Over the past two decades, the University has led a number of projects that transformed the surrounding blocks from a residential area of rowhouses to a commercial district filled with restaurants, supermarkets and apartments.

Moore reminisced about the erasure of past Charles Village staples like the Eddie’s Market, which was replaced by the Streets Market in 2021. 

“Eddie's was owned by a nice couple, who did everything they could to be supportive of the neighborhood. That's the kind of kindness you want from businesses,” he said. “I remember standing in front of Eddie's to get people to sign petitions. Eddie’s was a supermarket that anyone from poor to working class to middle class could shop. It seemed to me that Hopkins was looking to reshape the north of Homewood as a much more expensive, predominantly white neighborhood.”

In recent years, the University engaged in a series of community-based efforts in Charles Village around Homewood Campus, including purchasing the Alpha Delta Phi (WAWA) house and The Academy on Charles, as well as facilitating the development of Nine East 33rd and The Study Hotel at Johns Hopkins University. Bird explained that these decisions are an integral part of the University’s commitment to improve student housing under the Ten for One framework.

“Under the Ten for One strategic framework, the University set a goal of developing a comprehensive plan to reconfigure our residential [and] social workspaces to strengthen the on-campus experience,” he wrote. “Enhancing student housing and dining will be an important part of that planning process, to ensure that students have safe and affordable options.”

Bird shared more information regarding the recent purchase of The Academy on Charles.

“When the property went on the market, we felt it made sense for Hopkins to acquire it. As we communicated to the current tenants, during the 2024-25 academic year, The Academy will remain [as] off-campus housing, and nothing will change for them,” he wrote. “We have not yet made decisions about the property’s long-term status.”

Similarly, the University has not made long-term plans for the WAWA house located at 3209 N. Charles Street.

The University’s tax-exemption status under PILOT

As an educational institution with nonprofit status, Hopkins is exempt from paying property taxes according to Maryland State law. Instead, it pays an annual voluntary contribution to Baltimore known as the Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILOT).

Signed in 2016, PILOT is a 10-year deal between the city and 15 anchor institutions, including Johns Hopkins University, Johns Hopkins Hospital and Bayview Medical Center and 13 other tax-exempt universities and hospitals. Under PILOT, these institutions are required to make a collective annual contribution of $6 million, which is approximately 5% of the $119.8 million total that they would otherwise pay in property tax on a combined total of $5.3 billion worth of property holdings.

Of that $6 million, Johns Hopkins University, Johns Hopkins Hospital and Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center represent 54.3% of the contribution, according to a report titled “Burdening Baltimore” published by National Nurses United.

In an interview with The News-Letter, Maryland State Senator Mary Washington, who moved to Baltimore to obtain her M.A. and PhD from Hopkins in 1992, clarified the relationship between an institution’s tax-exempt status and its purchases. 

“Given that Baltimore has a lot of demands on its tax base, if entities that do not pay property taxes are acquiring more land, then that land no longer has the ability to become part of the tax base,” she said.

Bird pointed out that in addition to the payments under PILOT, Hopkins pays $20 million annually in taxes and fees to Baltimore. Bird added that the University contributes to the city in various ways other than direct financial payments, such as employment and investments.

According to Bird, as the largest employer in the city, Hopkins employs more than 41,000 people in Baltimore, more than 16,500 of whom live in the city. Annually, the University provides around $420 million in community health services and close to $500 million to local vendors and suppliers, among other initiatives.

“The presence of Baltimore’s hospitals and universities as major anchor institutions is a cornerstone of the city’s economic stability and growth, as noted by Moody’s in its regular credit assessments of Baltimore,” he wrote. “We are a crucial driver of Baltimore’s innovation economy through initiatives like Johns Hopkins Technology Ventures and our new Data Science and Translation Institute.”

Senator Washington commented on the University’s responsibility to give back to Baltimore.

“When it comes to the good and the bad, Hopkins is the largest employer in the state: it contributes to knowledge and policy, it has the best hospital systems — all that is good,” she said. “But if we're talking about expansion and the idea that institutions not paying taxes should be providing direct service to the communities — I just don't know how that's being measured.”

Moore highlighted two successful community initiatives the University has taken on, Turnaround Tuesday and the Cummings Scholars program

Moore explained that the Cummings Scholars program provides substantial financial support for prospective students from Baltimore public high schools, which he believes to be one of the best things the University has created. Turnaround Tuesday is a weekly program that runs in the Oliver neighborhood of East Baltimore, where the University works with BUILD Baltimore to train unemployed or underemployed residents for jobs within Hopkins establishments.

“Hopkins is the 800 pound gorilla here in Baltimore. They have a lot of power and influence, and they have a lot of money,” he said. “When they reach in and do positive things for the community, that ought to be noted, and that ought to be encouraged, and we ought to insist that they do more and more. There’s an old saying at my church: To whom much is given, much is expected.”

Moore believes the University has the potential to do more good in Baltimore, which the tax-exemption status can help facilitate. As a member of the Catholic Church, Moore sees the Church as a model for the University. He highlighted that the Church is also tax-exempt and owns numerous properties around the city — primarily housing developments, schools and feeding centers, which they use to house, feed and educate those in need. In this way, Moore finds the Church’s tax-exemption status justified.

“[Hopkins] has this seemingly free ride in terms of not having to pay taxes. It seems to me that their level of charity should be far more,” he said. “They should do more to minimize the income and wealth disparity in this town in every conceivable way they can. They should make sure they hire more people, pay people better and invest more in businesses and banks with people of color.”

Push for amendment

Recently, a coalition named With Us for Us (WUFU) has sought to reconfigure the PILOT program, finding the anchor institutions’ financial contributions insufficient. WUFU is made up of representatives from a number of labor unions and community organizations, including CASA, Organizing Black, TRU, 1199SEIU, SHARE Baltimore and Community Wealth Builders.

In an email to The News-Letter, Communications Coordinator of WUFU Leyla Adali explained that the primary purpose of the initiative is to address the wealth disparity in Baltimore.

“The general purpose of this initiative is to address the massive wealth disparity in Baltimore,” she wrote. “Anchor institutions have a role to play in this, not just because of their wealth and their relatively low tax contributions, but also because they're part of the Baltimore community — and some of the city's most financially disadvantaged residents live very close to these institutions.”

To that purpose, WUFU has drafted a ballot question that will amend the Charter of Baltimore City to create a Community Wealth Building Fund. In the ballot question, which has already been approved by the Maryland Board of Elections, WUFU explained the purpose of the Fund.

“[The Fund will] be used exclusively to provide broadly defined projects and programs related to expanding community ownership such as worker-owned cooperative businesses, community-owned land trusts, agriculture, investment funds, financial institutions and utilities,” it wrote.

In terms of the source revenue, the Fund will either be drawn from existing property tax revenues at a rate of $0.06 per $100 of all assessable property (amounting to approximately $26 million), or an equivalent amount in contributions from the 15 nonprofit anchor institutions that are part of PILOT. Adali indicated that WUFU prefers the latter option, which will require a renegotiation of PILOT.

This is not the first time that the PILOT deal has come under scrutiny. In 2019, the Coalition for a Humane Hopkins rallied outside Baltimore City Hall to demand a renegotiation of the deal. Motivated by a dire need for additional revenue sources, the City Council held a Committee of the Whole Informational Hearing to investigate the possible renegotiation of the PILOT agreement. However, the 2019 push for renegotiation was ultimately unsuccessful.

Adali expressed that the current moment is an important time to advocate for change.

“One reason why coalition members are interested in spearheading this initiative right now is that the PILOT agreement with 15 institutions in Baltimore is up in 2026,” she said. “Getting this on the ballot in 2024 will allow the city to negotiate a better deal with these anchor institutions.”

In order for the proposed ballot question to be included on the voting ballot in November, WUFU will need to collect over 10,000 petition signatures from Baltimoreans by July.

TRU emphasized that the purpose of the amendment is to create community wealth, power and agency, particularly in historically Black neighborhoods in Baltimore that have suffered from decades of disinvestment.

“The amendment is crucial to create pressure on Hopkins and other anchor institutions that have relied on this city in building their wealth and power, to begin to meaningfully contribute to a community wealth building initiative,” TRU wrote. “This is a step in beginning to address the consequences of a long history of disinvestment and rebuild wealth in our communities.”

TRU added that the mission of this coalition aligns with its core pillar, which is a commitment to the city of Baltimore.

“Our membership, the graduate workers of Hopkins, are members of the Baltimore community, and our wellbeing is deeply intertwined with that of our city and communities,” TRU wrote. “We believe it's imperative for us to work toward building community power and wealth in solidarity. Our role in WUFU is a direct embodiment of these values.”

To ensure community power and agency, the amendment will authorize the creation of a 15-member commission to oversee the community wealth building fund. The members will be appointed by the mayor and represent a diverse constituency with relevant expertise.

“Crucially, there is room for citizens to be on this commission so that everyday Baltimoreans get a seat at the table,” Adali said.

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