The Ground Rent Machine

The Story of Race, Housing Inequality, and Dispossession in Baltimore, Maryland

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Jurjevich, Jason R., and Dillon Mahmoudi. 2024. “The Ground Rent Machine: The Story of Race, Housing Inequality, and Dispossession in Baltimore, Maryland.” Annals of the American Association of Geographers, May. doi:10.1080/24694452.2024.2353172. Annals of the AAG open access


Working with Jason Jurjevich, we found that in Baltimore, Maryland, more than 55,000 homes—roughly 30 percent of all residential plots—are subject to ground rent, a legacy of British feudal property law. Under this landlord–tenant system, the homeowner makes payments to the ground leaseholder, who maintains rights to the land. During the early 2000s, many Baltimoreans fell behind on their ground rent due to recessionary headwinds and were “ejected” from their homes as leaseholders took ownership (as collateral). Maryland lawmakers responded by passing housing protections in 2007, but several laws were overturned by the courts (Corma 2017). Using census and ground rent administrative data, we map the geography of ground rent in Baltimore. Our results reveal that originally a tool of class dispossession, ground rent became racialized in the 1950s and 1960s and today overwhelmingly affects Black communities and low-income households. Drawing on work by critical Marxist geographers, work on the production of decline, anti-Blackness, and property relations theory, we rely on a critical quantitative framework to illustrate how people, place, power structures, and relationality produce the pernicious and predatory “ground rent machine.” Telling the story of ground rent—a largely underexplored topic—illustrates how local racialized property regimes shape the geography of urban segregation and urban inequality. Key Words: ground rent, housing and property, race, segregation.

Telling the story of ground rent in a critical quantitative geography framework illustrates how data can be used to fight for emancipatory futures. Census and administrative data, situated in a relational and postpositivist approach, can empower individuals and community groups fighting for laws that address this sinister form of profit-making (Carter 2009; Wyly 2011). These lessons underscore the power of critical quantitative geographic research for advancing progressive human geography (Sheppard 2001). We see this as a fruitful avenue for future research and action. Building on the work of the Baltimore Sun, future research should advance the story of ground rent with oral histories of ground rent dispossession.

The below maps show the spatial overlap of percent black and percent of homes with ground rent.